24 July 2017

Caring for Kew’s bamboos

Kew Diploma student Sophie Walwin reveals the challenges and delights of looking after Kew’s Bamboo Garden.

By Sophie Walwin

Bamboo garden, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Where can I find the Bamboo Garden? 

Tucked away in a hollow between the Lake and the Rhododendron Dell, in what is often a relatively quiet part of the Gardens. Early morning is a magical and tranquil time to visit, when you can enjoy the sound of the wind gently rustling the leaves. 

What plants should I look out for? 

The striking, yellow-caned Chusquea (from southern South America) is the only bamboo in the collection that has solid canes (they are usually hollow). 

Phyllostachys nigra (black bamboo) produces shiny black canes if grown in full sunlight. 

Nandinas are flowering shrubs that are often planted around sacred sites – although in the UK they may be more well-known as amenity shrubs spotted in car parks! These shrubs have the advantage of being tough whilst also providing a beautiful display of flowers in summer, followed by attractive red berries in autumn and winter. Although known as sacred bamboo, Nandina is actually a member of a different plant family – the Berberidaceae. 

Gingkos can be seen growing around the Minka House, and look particularly stunning in autumn when the leaves turn bright yellow. Several ginkgo cultivars with different shapes and forms can be seen. 

Is the Bamboo Garden home to other wildlife? 

Dragonflies and damselflies can be seen dancing around the foliage. There is also much birdlife – making the most of the shelter provided by the undergrowth. 

Also worth looking out for is the striking squid fungus (Clathrus archeri), which has previously been spotted in the mulch around bamboos at Kew. Also known as devil’s fingers, this cage fungus starts off resembling an egg, which then opens to reveal tentacle-like structures. 

Are bamboos difficult to grow? 

One of the hardest parts of looking after Kew’s Bamboo Garden is keeping it all watered. Most plants are kept in individual polypropylene containers (as bamboos can be invasive) and hence hoses have to be moved from one to the next – of the many specimens currently grown there! It is important to keep a humid environment for optimal growth. 

Bamboos use a lot of energy when they flower and may die back after flowering. Depending on the species and their energy reserves they may continue growing again – so don’t rush to dig up your bamboo if it goes brown after flowering. 

Bamboos are generally tough plants, and pests and diseases are not a major problem. There is one key exception to this though - squirrels can cause a lot of damage, and may take hundreds of new shoots, chew them out and then walk off! Mites can also infect foliage, for example that of Phyllostachys species.

What is the best thing about being a Kew Diploma student? 

One of the best things about being a Kew Diploma student is getting to work in lots of different parts of the Gardens – students move to a new area every few months to gain new experiences. 

A career in horticulture can bring great opportunities for travelling – there are lots of travel funds – and you may find yourself able to explore the world through plants, to experience different climates and learn new horticultural techniques. 

What advice would you give a budding horticulturist? 

Visit lots of gardens and meet lots of people in the horticultural industry – networking can be helpful. And take the time to study plants in as much detail as possible.