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Origins of bamboos cultivated in western gardens

Bamboos were brought into cultivation in western gardens only from the early 19th Century or possibly the late 18th Century. Tropical species such as Bambusa vulgaris and B. bambos from India were the first to be introduced to Europe, but they were only suitable for hothouses. Temperate bamboos are from more distant shores, and inaccessible mountains. Some from China, especially those already grown in other countries such as India, arrived first while those from Japan were only to arrive a little later, in the mid 19th Century.

Phyllostachys nigra, P. aurea, P. viridis, P. viridiglaucescens and Pseudosasa japonica were probably the first temperate bamboos to be introduced, followed by P. edulis and P. bambusoides, variegated cultivars of 3 dwarf species of Pleioblastus: P. fortunei, P. argenteostriatus and P. viridistriatus, as well as Indocalamus tessellatus. The Himalayas of British India provided other 19th Century introductions: Himalayacalamus falconeri, H. hookerianus, Thamnocalamus spathiflorus, and Yushania anceps, none particularly hardy, and the tender Drepanostachyum falcatum, which could only survive in S Europe. S America provided only one hardy species, Chusquea culeou.

Plant species of the planet Earth were once considered global public goods, to be shared and utilised freely around the world, allowing economic development, escape from poverty, and global food security. Following the introduction of the Convention on Biological Diversity and now also the Nagoya Protocol plants are becoming jealously guarded national property. Collection or profiting in any way by a foreigner without consent and benefit-sharing agreements, even from a derivative product such as a research article or a photograph, is now to be considered infringement of sovereign rights and punishable by law...

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Introductions in the 20th Century

Japan had a wider range of truly hardy bamboos than India, but in the 19th century, it was a closed society, reluctant to allow foreigners in, let alone allow them to explore or collect plants, and by the end of the 19th Century only a handful of Japanese species were in cultivation in Europe. The bamboos that had been introduced to the UK by 1896 were documented (Mitford 1896) by a colourful British diplomat, Baron Redesdale, Algernon Bertram ‘Barty’ Freeman-Mitford, who worked in Japan in the 1860s & & 70s. Pseudosasa japonica had become quite common by then, and is now considered part of the naturalized flora of many countries, including the UK. By that time a few missionaries and plant collectors had also started to explore the vast range of Chinese bamboos. Russian botanists from St Petersburg collected seed of the first species to come from the mountains of W China, Fargesia nitida, in 1886. The first decades of the 20th Century saw only a slight increase in collecting in China, but on the other hand most of the more attractive species and cultivars from Japan had soon been added to western gardens.

China was to close itself off from the west, but not before an American botanist and missionary, F. A. McClure, had studied and collected many tropical species from S China, which were then grown in the S USA, mainly Georgia. Introductions of bamboos were to slow down for several decades after that, not only because little exploration was possible, but also because Japanese gardening suddenly went out of fashion after Pearl Harbor.

The last 3 decades of the 20th Century saw a much revived interest in Oriental gardening. The slow opening of China, Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet, and maybe also some rare positive experiences from Vietnam, brought increased interest in the sadly neglected study and collection of bamboos. The bamboo garden at Kew was bulldozed in 1981 to carefully separate and replant the interwoven tangle of species, and new bamboo collections were started all around the world. Collaborative botanical fieldwork was stepped up, supported by development of exciting new technologies in plant classification. Developed countries supported institutional capacity development in less developed countries. Botanical institutions thrived and new knowledge blossomed concerning the amazing diversity of the world’s bamboo flora, helping sustainable utilisation, rural development and conservation of genetic diversity for future generations.

Meanwhile, a brave new world was developing in the field of intellectual property rights regarding biological diversity...

While collecting plants had previously been undertaken without much consideration for national ownership of genetic material (sovereign rights), with food crops such as rice from Asia, potatoes, tomatoes and maize from S American, fruits from Europe, medicinal plants and ornamentals etc. being freely shared and widely used all around the world as global public goods, a Convention on Biological Diversity was conceived and sprung into force in 1992. It has been progressively ratified, strengthened and implemented ever since. Concerns about the patenting of plants, plant products, and processing technologies were the trigger for the CBD. Under this initiative, it was agreed that foreigners would only collect plants from another country with prior informed consent from national governments through competent authorities, with fair and equitable sharing with the country of origin of any benefits arising from their collection and exploitation elsewhere. Countries would no longer have their biodiversity exploited by multinational companies, especially those in the pharmaceutical industry. Ratification and incorporation into statutory instruments and national legislation would ensure enforcement and punishment (unless you are a rich pharmaceutical company with expensive lawyers who could drive a coach and horses through the loopholes anyway). Biopiracy would be stamped out once and for all. The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which aimed to reduce negative impacts on heavily utilised plants, has not met with universal acclaim, and does not include bamboos.

In return biodiversity-rich countries would take steps to conserve their own biodiversity for future generations. International funding would be provided for local institutions to undertake biodiversity assessment and conservation measures (which would make up for the sudden scaling down of most collaborative international botanical fieldwork).

To those who had worked on collaborative international botanical research for decades following unwritten principles of respecting foreign jurisdiction, sharing benefits, developing local capacity and working towards conservation anyway, this appeared to be an alarming development. At best it added an unnecessary extra layer of time-consuming bureaucracy. At worst it could drastically reduce botanical research, harming conservation efforts, and throwing experienced taxonomists out of work, and it did.


My horticultural introductions  




Google Earth links

Locality Image

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Borinda frigidorum

& Borinda frigidorum aff.

Stapleton* 1047

& 1048

Zhi Beng Shan, Caojian, Yunnan, China 2544.8'N, 993.5'E c. 3200m. 1995

in small plateau and pony pasture (now with lake) before mining area

maps, weather 1



Borinda frigidorum

Stapleton* 1056

Cang Shan, Dali, Yunnan, China: ca. 2544'N, 100 5'E,  c. 3600m. 1995

between pagoda and summit radio station under Abies and Ribes

bamboo habitat  1

Dali scenery  1 

Bai people 1 2 


Borinda papyrifera

Stapleton* 1046

Zhi Beng Shan, Caojian, Yunnan, China. 2544.5'N, 994.8'E c. 3130m. 1995

in area of culm harvesting

see above


Borinda perlonga

Stapleton* 1054

Cang Shan, Dali, Yunnan, China: ca. 2544' 30"N, 100 6' 2"E,  2600m. 1995

by quarry road

see above

(Cang Shan)

Thamnocalamus nepalensis 


Nyalam (Tsongdu), Tibet: 28 7' 40"N  8559 '7"E, 3630m. 1985

sth of Nyalam town, by hairpins on road to Nepal border

road 1

people 1 2 


Thamnocalamus spathiflorus aff.


Shivapuri, Kathmandu Valley, Nepal 2748' 43"N  8523' 2"E  2700m. 1985

near summit of Shivapuri mountain

people 2 3 








* Collected by Dr De-Zhu Li (then at Cambridge Botanic Gardens UK & now Director of Kunming Botanical Institute), Jia-Rong Xue (South-West Foresty University, Kunming), and Chris Stapleton (then at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew), exported from China with necessary permits and phytosanitary certificates.


Introduction and conservation for the 21st Century

After 20 years, it is now clear that the CBD stopped international collaborative taxonomy in its tracks, failed to prevent illicit exploitation, and doesn’t seem to have had any beneficial effect on conservation. The CBD target set in 2002 was a substantial reduction in the rate of biodiversity loss (extinctions) by 2010, but in fact no reduction at all was achieved. Targets duly set in 2010 for 2020 apparently are not going to be met either according to the IUCN. Those who want foreign plants or animals enough find ways to get them anyway. Any legal barriers can be ignored by criminals, or overcome in the business world by employing clever lawyers. In the worst instances it has simply led to the collection in the wild of ornamental plants such as bamboos by (or for) foreigners becoming clandestine and market-oriented. Honest collectors of rare plants who abide by the rules are likely to be raided by a SWAT team and have their livelihoods destroyed. According to the FAO, even global food security is threatened.

The only ones who really benefit from this brave new world are bureaucrats and lawyers. Real pirates are rarely affected to any substantial degree. Discovery in Jan 2015 of 2 million European Eels (a protected species) in a consignment being sent from Spain to Asia for consumption there merely indicates the current scale of such smuggling. Meanwhile, the aspirational biodiversity conservation quid pro quo has essentially come to nought. Local communities, plant taxonomists, conservation efforts and future generations may well suffer rather than benefit from the CBD. They are caught in the crossfire between big business and big government (which is often just big business in disguise, manipulating nationalism for commercial gain). Bureaucrats and lawyers now want to spin ever more complex webs of legal obstacles. An informal global alliance valuing, sharing, studying and protecting biodiversity has been replaced by a formal CBD, which is a divisive, partisan and ineffective framework that merely produces talk and texts rather than constructive actions, and if anything, appears to be accelerating biodiversity loss in the bamboos, by obstructing the discovery of endangered species.

When managed well, straightforward traditional collaborative international botanical fieldwork can still work well, for example see the excellent collaboration arranged through Bamboo of the Americas (BOTA) between US scientists and horticulturalists and those in C & S America (although not Venezuela). No pharmaceutical company bogeyman has been lurking in the shadows. No indigenous tribes have been deprived of their livelihoods or evicted from their homelands. Note that this program is only possible because the USA has not ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity (although this may only because of lobbying pressure from big business).

The CBD was opened in 1992 and gradually adopted, being fully implemented to the letter at Kew Gardens from Jan 1st 1996. Like many western botanical institutions Kew scaled down the collaborative study and collection of plants in the wild drastically. The numbers of taxonomists employed were reduced as a consequence of this, the dwindling budgets, and an alteration in perceived botanical priorities. Meanwhile private collection of rare plants has continued, either by foreigners or nationals, usually working independently of any scientific institutions and without local botanical collaboration, and needless to say with scant regard to the CBD. This can make information on real sources of new introductions much harder to find. Where available, the information is often of little use for identification, because in the absence of local botanical collaboration and fieldwork, identification of the introduced plants is often much more difficult. This in turn makes it harder still to conserve plants in their natural environment, as conservation is impossible without good knowledge of the species and their distribution. While this may not be too bad for most groups of plants, knowledge of which had become fairly comprehensive by the end of the 20th Century, for the most taxonomically neglected groups, notably the bamboos, many of which had only started to be investigated in the 1980s, this was frankly disastrous.

Worse still, the plants brought back in a clandestine manner have often not been through a local phytosanitary inspection or a quarantine procedure on arrival. They have often not been thoroughly checked and monitored for pests and diseases.
Bamboo mites on Fargesia murieliae in British Columbia, credit John W eagle
Cultivated bamboos could be considered practically free of any pests and diseases about 20 years ago. Now a substantial proportion of plants purchased from nurseries in the west carry pests that can seriously disfigure or even kill bamboos, see example of extreme infestation of bamboo mites on Fargesia murielae, right. Many collections have been devastated. I would now never obtain a bamboo from any nursery in the US or mainland Europe without removing and burning all above ground growth, leaf litter and the top layer of soil. UK-sourced bamboos are cleaner, but still require very careful scrutiny and monitoring. Bamboo mites Schizotetranychus celarius and S. longus are the worst problem, particularly as there is no publicly available miticide that will kill them. Asian bamboos have literally thousands of other pests and diseases, see the ABS website for a comprehensive and frightening overview of all these. With bamboos being collected in the wild and brought into Europe without due regard for either the law or the phytosanitary quarantine system, we can safely expect many of these pests and diseases to be common in cultivated bamboos in the west before too long.

Unprofessional collectors may also bring back bamboo plants with soil still attached to the rhizomes and roots, in which pests and diseases that affect other groups of plants may be found. Hopefully it is only a coincidence that bamboos from Tibet and Yunnan were introduced illegally and clandestinely to Europe and the US at exactly the same time in the 1990s that Sudden Oak Death (SOD) was introduced from that area, with devastating effect on many forest tree and shrub species on both sides of the Atlantic.

In consequence we have a plethora of recent introductions of Asian bamboos, with little accurate idea of what species many of them are, and very few professional (employed) bamboo taxonomists to identify them. Any employed taxonomists are understandably too scared of legal implications to touch newer clandestine introductions with a bargepole.


Recent introductions

Nevertheless, on the bright side, introductions of bamboos from the 1970s onwards are fascinating and show great promise for horticulture, after any hitch-hiking passengers are eliminated. Nepal has been the source of three hardy species so far, Thamnocalamus crassinodus, T. nepalensis and the less interesting deciduous Borinda emeryi, as well as several that are less hardy, although still suitable for milder regions, such as Himalayacalamus planatus and H. porcatus. These were introduced by Merlyn Edwards in the 1970s and 1980s, and studied in the field collaboratively before the CBD.

Eastern China was meanwhile visited by Peter Addington and others, who brought back many new introductions. Those of Peter Addington, which included several new Phyllostachys species and cultivars, as well as the famous walking stick bamboo, Chimonobambusa tumidissinoda, were planted in his famous Stream Cottage garden in W Sussex, an area that probably has the best climate for bamboos in the UK. The combination of high summer temperatures with reasonable rainfall and good soils, often with ground water as well, is appreciated by many bamboos, especially species of Phyllostachys, which struggle elsewhere in the UK.

Moving west from the Himalayas and east from Central China, botanical exploration of Bhutan, Tibet and W China has been the key to discovery of a very substantial range of interesting hardy bamboos. The western Chinese Provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan, along with the Tibet Autonomous Region, hold not only a wealth of hardy Fargesia species, but also a very large genus, not discovered until 1994, Borinda, which has already yielded several large and dramatic clump-forming bamboo species. Noticed in Bhutan in the 1980s, and first introduced from W Yunnan in the early to mid 1990s through collaboration with botanists from the Kunming Institute of Botany and South-West Forestry University, these vigorous, elegant, large but non-spreading bamboos have great potential for temperate horticulture. Many, many more have also been introduced privately from Tibet and other countries by Keith Rushforth in recent years. Borinda papyrifera from Yunnan attains 8m in height in temperate climates. Borinda grossa from Bhutan & Tibet can attain even greater size, possibly to 14m, and in a compact clump without the need for rhizome barriers. Borinda macclureana may be a little more modest in size but makes up for this by being considerably hardier.

For warmer, subtropical or tropical gardens of the USA and Australia, the islands of Indonesia have provided many new bamboos, particularly Gigantochloa species, often with coloured culms, while from Thailand & Malaysia the elegant monastery bamboo, Thyrsostachys siamensis, and the yellow-culmed cultivar of Schizostachyum brachycladum are very worthwhile additions.

Interest has also grown in C & S American species, and several have been introduced to the US, including the weeping Otatea acuminata from Mexico, which could have great potential in drier S Europe, and the beautiful Chusquea coronalis, but no S American bamboos so far have proven quite as hardy as Chusquea culeou from Argentina and Chile, except the slightly larger and more spreading, but allegedly closely related Chusquea gigantea.



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