Mike Brennan emerges from a forest of gigantic bamboo and looks up at the gently swaying green poles. He’s a little sweaty after cutting down one of the 50-foot long trunks.
Brennan has a love for bamboo that only a panda can rival. His 1.25 acre of land looks like a typhoon ripped it right out of an Asian jungle and set it down in this quiet Lacey neighborhood.
Scattered around the green oasis are patches of different varieties of bamboo. Some, like the patch of vivax he’s standing next to, tower in height. Others are dwarves. Some are green, some yellow and some black.
Brennan was a one-time nursery owner but now works for the Washington State Department of Health. He’s been growing bamboo since 1989.
The undisputed king of Brennan’s jungle is the vivax. In late May or early June, it sends up new shoots that grow at an alarming rate of four inches a day. At the end of the growing season the stems, or culms, can be five inches in diameter — which is the same size they were when they emerged from the ground. You’ll know right away if you have to relocate the patio furniture.
Brennan gets the occasional visitor to his home who has seen bamboo in passing but hasn’t taken the time to study it.
“The bamboo leaves blow (in the breeze) and the shadows play and they say, ‘Oh, I understand now,’” Brennan said. “And then they find an acre and a quarter and plant bamboo.”
He is, of course, being self-referential. The plant, which its aficionados like to point out is botanically a grass, can easily take root in the imagination.
“I’ve known people who have changed their lives to grow bamboo,” Brennan said.
Grass it might be but it also is one of the strongest plants, inch per inch, in the world. It’s used for flooring, furniture and in parts of Asia as scaffolding on skyscrapers under construction. It also is a delicious addition to many Asian dishes.
Brennan makes trays, deer chasers, tea cups, napkin rings, fences and trellises out of his bamboo. An overhead bamboo rack holds up beans, cucumbers and tomatoes in his green house or “plastic man cave” as he calls it.
When Brennan’s bamboo accessories wear out, “I throw it back in the woods with no qualms about polluting.”
On this spring day, Brennan cuts the vivax culm he felled into sections and hands one to a visitor. The hefty, foot-long section is 4 inches wide but, like almost all bamboo, hollow inside.
There is something alluring about bamboo. The culms are smooth and give off a subtle but unmistakable fragrance. They have rhythmically spaced nodes that mark where internal diaphragms are. The leaves toggle in the slightest breeze. It evokes Asia like few other plants can.
One variety, commonly known as Chinese walking stick, has extra wide nodes that make it look as if it had been turned on a wood lathe. And bamboo is always unwaveringly, consistently ramrod straight.
Except when it’s not.
A bamboo specimen growing in a demonstration garden at Jade Mountain Nursery makes more 90 degree turns than a New York City cab driver. It’s called, appropriately, crookstem bamboo.
It’s one of dozens of varieties growing and for sale at Jade Mountain. The nursery was started in 1998 by Dale Chesnut and Phil Davidson. It now is owned and operated by Davidson’s son, Chris.
Ninety percent of Jade Mountain’s customers come to the park-like nursery looking for something to provide privacy screening. Bamboo can put up a thick stand of poles but its true visual density comes with its cloud of leaves. It’s a hardy perennial that does well in the Northwest.
And, because it’s a grass, it thrives on lawn fertilizer and stays green year-round. The dense growth shades out weeds.
Chris Davidson sells five gallon containers of Vivax for $73. A five gallon container of Fargesia Jiuzhaigou, a red stemmed bamboo, goes for $85. Golden bamboo runs $50-60 in five gallon containers. One gallon containers of dwarf bamboo sells for $16. Bamboo falls roughly into four size classes: timber, large, medium and ground-cover. And there are two growing types: clumping and running. Clumping enlarges slowly — perhaps a few inches a year. Once pricey, clumpers are now more affordable.
The Davidsons are fond of Fargesia, a genus of clumping bamboo, which are very well behaved, father and son said.
“It’s not going to mug you at night,” Phil Davidson said.
The Fargesias do well in containers but like partial shade. Side by side specimens of black and golden bamboo can make a striking combination.
Running bamboo, by contrast, can grow outward by several feet a year. It’s the running bamboo that sends its owners running — for shovels, herbicides and apology gifts for the next door neighbors. But it doesn’t have to be that way, say bamboo growers.
At Jade Mountain Davidson sells two types of high impact polyurethane liners to contain the spread of bamboo. The first, 24 inches wide, is enough to contain all types of bamboo. But he offers another, a stronger, 30-inch wide style, for the extra cautious — or paranoid. Bamboo spreads by underground rhizomes that are typically no deeper than 18 inches.
Brennan had a stand of running bamboo growing along a property line. He eventually removed it but not before it had invaded the neighbor’s yard. Being a good neighbor and responsible bamboo grower, he offered to remove it for them. “They said no. They liked it.”
Now, it’s re-invading Brennan’s yard.
Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541
Selected common hardy bamboo species
• Golden bamboo, fish pole bamboo (Phyllostachys aurea); reaches 15 feet.
• Yellow groove bamboo (Phyllostachys aureosulcata): Has several color variations; grows to 20 feet.
• Timber bamboo (Phyllostachys vivax): Reaches 50 feet tall and 6 inches in diameter; makes a bold landscape addition.
• Phyllostachys bissetii: A fast-growing dark-green bamboo useful for privacy screens; grows to 20 feet.
• Black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra): Culms turn jet black in two years; grows to 20-25 feet.
• Dwarf greenstripe (Pleioblastus viridistriatus): A ground-cover bamboo; new leaves in spring are yellow with green stripes; grows to 3 feet.
• Dwarf whitestripe (Pleioblastus fortunei): Another popular ground-cover; leaves have green and white stripes year-round; grows to 2 feet.
• Fargesia robusta, rufa, scabrida, nitida, Jiuzhaigou: The Fargesias are clumping bamboos. Robusta has white and green striped culms and grows to 15 feet; rufa and scabrida grow to 10 feet tall; nitida has purple stems and reaches 10 feet; Jiuzhaigou has red stems in full sun and reaches 12 feet.
Jade Mountain Nursery
5020 116th Street E., Tacoma