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Dragon’s Head Bamboo: Fargesia dracocephala

It would appear that the bamboo widely cultivated as F. dracocephala for about 15 years has been misidentified. That species has now been named F. apicirubens, and it is time for the real F. dracocephala to stand up. It is cultivated in western gardens as well, but has also been grown under an incorrect name, F. rufa, partly because the correct name, F. dracocephala was already in use, being misapplied to F. apicirubens.


see new species page for dracocephala





Illustrations of Fargesia dracocephala in the Chinese literature, which may be somewhat stylised and drawn without magnification, make it quite clear that the real species has very prominent and distinctive leaf sheath auricles, see below.  It

oblong leaf sheath auricles

would seem most likely that oblong auricles such as these with wavy oral setae were the inspiration for the epithet dracocephala, meaning Dragon’s Head. The oral setae are reminiscent of the flames seen in traditional Chinese depictions of dragons, and the orange colour of the sheaths and auricles enhance the fiery theme.

From the description of Fargesia dracocephala in the new Flora of China bamboo account, and the illustrations in the Chinese version and elsewhere, there can be no doubt that the bamboo cultivated as Fargesia dracocephala in western horticulture for about 15 years cannot actually be F. dracocephala at all. It was collected from Daba Shan in Shaanxi Province in 1987 by Jiong Lin Lu for cultivation in Germany by Max Riedelsheimer. Max saw a similarity to the description of F. dracocephala, and sent specimens to China, where it was agreed that it should be identified as F. dracocephala. It flowered and seedlings were widely distributed in the early 1990s, but this species has no auricles or setae at all on its leaf sheaths, so F. dracocephala cannot be the correct name.

However, we do have a bamboo in cultivation with just such oblong leaf sheath auricles, introduced from Gansu in 1995, and grown under the names Gansu 95-1, Fargesia rufa, and Fargesia sp. ‘Rufa’.

From the text of the Flora of China there would appear to be only 2 species of Fargesia with oblong leaf sheath auricles, and only one from Gansu: Fargesia dracocephala. The other characteristics given in the description match Fargesia sp. ‘Rufa’ fairly well, given that the culm sheaths from which the description was drawn up might have been rather old. It would be necessary to see the actual holotype of this species, collected by T. P. Yi in 1975 in Nanjiang Xian, N Sichuan see origin in Google Earth, and to undertake fieldwork in S Gansu, but there would now seem to be sufficient grounds for identifying Fargesia sp. ‘Rufa’ as Fargesia dracocephala.


Why was it called rufa and not dracocephala?

Jos van der Palen has documented the introduction of this bamboo. It would seem that he actually wanted to identify it as F. dracocephala but felt that he could not do so, as that name was already being applied to a different, previously introduced bamboo, grown under that name. From the description of Fargesia rufa, in which it is stated that it has no leaf sheath auricles at all, it would not appear that identification of this species as F. rufa is strongly supported.


 The name 'Fargesia rufa'


    The Chinese collectors named this bamboo Fargesia spathacea, a name once wrongly assigned to Fargesia murieliae and later to Fargesia nitida, and this time too that name was wrong.

    South Gansu produces just a few bamboo species. Yushania confusa was quickly ruled out and we already knew Fargesia dracocephala. Then the name Fargesia rufa came up. The visual resemblance to the two photos in the foremost Chinese work of reference 'A Compendium of Chinese Bamboo', the place of origin and the height of the plant seem to support this name. From this time on this well sounding name became generally accepted among growers and bamboo-lovers as Fargesia rufa was multiplied in large numbers, even by meristem tissue culture.

     Meanwhile new doubts have arisen about the name. At closer examination this bamboo combines properties of Fargesia dracocephala as well as Fargesia rufa, both native to the same area. Bamboos growing wild do not readily fit the man-made frames of the species.

    With the name Fargesia rufa commonly used, I suggest to call this bamboo Fargesia 'Rufa' for the present. Should there be more clarity and conformity about the name, then the name of the species can easily be put in between Fargesia and 'Rufa'.



The time has now come to identify this bamboo as F. dracocephala ‘Rufa’, and that is how it will appear in the ABS Species & Sources List from 2007. Because of the deliberate use of the name Fargesia sp. ‘Rufa’ without assuming the species in the horticultural trade, and continuing the connection to the name rufa under which it was first grown, this is less of a change than it could otherwise have been.

Unfortunately we are still left with a major change for the bamboo which had been inaccurately identified as Fargesia dracocephala for so long. That bamboo has now been described as a new species, Fargesia apicirubens, because of the reddening (rubens) of the tops (apici) of the new shoots, the leaf sheaths, the culm sheaths, and the culm internodes.





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