24 July 2018

Bamboos – from Victorian curiosity to elephant food

Ray Townsend, Manager of Kew’s Arboretum, shares the story of Kew’s bamboo collection, which he has been working with for nearly 40 years.

By Ray Townsend

Bamboo garden, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

The first bamboos at Kew 

Kew’s first bamboo plant arrived in 1826 – a Phyllostachys nigra (black bamboo) – at the start of what was to become a national obsession with plant-hunting, including voyages to bring specimens back from China and Japan. At that time people had no idea whether the bamboos they had collected would be hardy enough to grow in Britain, so they sent them to different locations, including Kew, to test their hardiness. 

Creation of the Bamboo Garden 

The rate of collection increased and in 1891 it was decided that a new location was needed to house the bamboo collection – which had grown to include about 40 species. The site chosen was a disused gravel pit, where gravel had been dug up to create paths in the Gardens. This turned out to be a rather poor location – as it is the warmest, driest and hottest place in the Arboretum during the summer, and the opposite in the winter.  

Panda frenzy 

In the late 1970s the general public started to get interested in the plight of pandas. Visitors came to Kew to see the famous food-plant of these lovable mammals – and hoping to see bamboo flowers (perhaps expecting them to be something like exotic and showy orchids!) 

Bamboos from around the world 

The majority of the bamboos in the collection are from China, there are also many from Japan, and the following areas are also represented in the collection: USA, Chile, South Africa, the Himalayas, Northern India, Taiwan and Korea. 

In order to fill the gaps in the collection I was fortunate to have the opportunity to travel around Europe visiting private gardens to view specimens. Then, in 1996 I led the first of three bamboo-collecting expeditions to Japan, allowing us to obtain both living and preserved specimens for Kew's collections. 


How to grow bamboo – top tips 

Bamboos prefer well-drained soil and are likely to rot if they are waterlogged. They grow well in moist, humid air, and in the wild are often found hanging over rivers and streams. Standard grass fertiliser can be used. 

Some species do best in full sun (for example full sun is needed for Phyllostachys nigra to produce black canes), whilst others need semi-shade (for example some species from the Himalayas have leaves that will curl up in full sun). 

Bamboo should be planted in the spring; April is a good time in the UK. Propagation is by division, and should be carried out during spring. It is rare to get seed, but if you do then it should be planted as soon as possible as it will not remain viable for long. 

New shoots, formed when propagating by division, can be delicate and may need protecting – at Kew wooden support frames are sometimes used during the early stages, when divisions are in establishment.

Uses of Kew’s bamboo 

Kew has supplied bamboo canes to London Zoo – in the late 1970s and 1980s when pandas were housed there. I have also been called upon to advise zoo staff on the correct bamboos to use within panda enclosures. More recently I was invited to Whipsnade Zoo to supply bamboo to the elephants there! 

Bamboo canes were cut for use as plant supports in the past – but they only tend to last about six months before going brittle, and are rarely used in the Arboretum now. If you do want to harvest your own bamboo for canes then select dead ones (these will usually be about 10 years old) – as these will be stronger as they have naturally seasoned. 

The Minka House at Kew 

The Minka House (a traditional Japanese farmhouse), which originally stood in Okazaki City, was donated to Kew by the Japan Minka Reuse and Recycle Association. 

In November 2000 the house was put into a container and shipped to Kew – taking six weeks to get here. When it arrived it was laid out on the ground like a giant Meccano set – with a number on each part – ready for assembly. 

Carpenters came over from Japan and spent just over a week assembling the main structure – a frame of pine logs. British builders who worked on the Globe Theatre in London built the mud wall panels. The full construction, including wattle and daub walls and a lime-washed exterior, took four months. 

The Minka House is almost exactly as it would have originally been in Japan (complete with original woodworm holes!) – but – the upper floor was not put in, as it would have obstructed the view of the intricate roof.