Last month our Communications and Social Media Coordinator, John, kicked off our invasive species blog series with Japanese barberry; and this month, we continue with a bamboozling invasive that isn’t limited to one single species.

When you think of bamboo you may think of giant pandas or red pandas and that makes perfect sense as the word ‘panda’ is thought to have come from the Nepalese words ‘nigalaya ponya’ translating to ‘bamboo eater’. Although you can find both beloved creatures in zoos or research institutions, like the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, there are no wild North American species that consume the invasive bamboo species.

Giant pandas and red pandas amongst bamboo

Left, giant pandas, photo credit: Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, right, red panda, photo credit: Jessica Kordell, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute

According to the Mid-Atlantic Invaders Tool, there are nine species of bamboo currently invasive or at risk for becoming invasive in the Mid-Atlantic; but, the two main species causing problems in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed are golden bamboo (Phyllostachys aurea) and yellow groove bamboo (Phyllostachys aureosulcata). Both are native to China and are believed to have been introduced to the United States in the late 19th century for ornamental purposes.

Multiple bamboo plants with the sunlight in the background

Photo Credit: Dean Mahlstedt 2020, Patuxent River State Park

It is common for invasive plant species to have originally been brought to a new environment for their aesthetics – other examples include, but aren’t limited to common daylily (Hemerocallis fulva), Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica), autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata), and multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora). However, as John previously warned, non-native plants can thrive in new environments and utilize space, nutrients, and other resources that natives depend on to flourish without local predation. The pandas in the zoos aren’t going to help keep the bamboo in your neighborhood in check!

The Problem with Bamboo

In my November 2022 blog post, I highlighted an educational opportunity that arose during a riparian buffer field day tour. A neighboring property was working to remove bamboo but, unfortunately, it was being shredded into chips and disposed of into the nearby Alger Park riparian buffer. Thankfully, we were able to teach all involved parties about the issue of disposing of landscaping waste in the local park, including the ramifications of discarding invasives near a water source where it can further spread downstream.

Photo Credit: Beverly Stevens, EDDMapS

Due to their vigorous rhizomes (root systems) and fast-growing tendencies, bamboo is able to quickly take over an area. If left to their own devices, they will form monocultures and once established can be incredibly difficult to exterminate. Bamboo can easily spread from well-intended plantings installed with root barriers, but it can also emerge from pieces of bamboo that land in unintended places, such as the remnants of discarded bamboo that ended up in Alger Park. Simply cutting back exposed bamboo isn’t effective to get rid of bamboo since this will trigger the underground system to accelerate growth outward from the location that was trimmed and result in a resurgence. These factors make bamboo a major issue for property owners. If any amount of bamboo is introduced nearby or on-site, there is a strong likelihood that a lot, yard, or garden could be overridden by this unyielding, woody perennial.

Some folks consider installing bamboo on the edges of their property for privacy as the large mass of tall stems can create a barrier; however, local jurisdictions require property owners to control and maintain bamboo including neighboring properties if it spreads (which it often does due to the previously mentioned considerations). In Fairfax County, Virginia property owners can be fined $50 a day for “running bamboo” that grows beyond their property line as well as penalties for each additional property the bamboo invades.

When trying to get bamboo (or any invasive species) under control, property owners should determine which species they are dealing with and research what methods are best for that specific bamboo. Also, if property owners hire a third party to facilitate the bamboo removal, they should be sure the company has experience with best management practices.

Native Plant Alternatives

Rather than plant highly invasive bamboo, property owners should consider grasses (like switchgrass, Panicum virgatum), shrubs (perhaps winterberry, Ilex verticillata), and trees (such as cockspur thorn, Crataegus crus-galli, or American wild plum, Prunus americana) native to their environment for creating ‘natural fencing’. Check out the Alliance’s Native Plant Center for more ideas! Utilizing native alternatives will help avoid having to tackle the resiliently stubborn bamboo and the potential resulting conflict with frustrated neighbors or officials!

Native plants are superior to non-natives for numerous reasons. Native plants have co-evolved and adapted to the soils, climates, and other local conditions. They will thrive in the soils, moisture and weather of your region, so they require less maintenance (saving property owners money on mowing, fertilizing, and watering!) Wildlife, pollinators, and other fauna depend on the species of plants that are indigenous to your region. Native plants strengthen the overall biodiversity of an ecosystem resulting in a more resilient environment and their deeper, more extensive root systems prevent erosion and provide filtration which is great for your watershed!

A bumblebee sitting on a purple flower

Photo Credit: Alberti 2022

It’s not just bamboo that is difficult to eradicate. Most invasive species aren’t easy to remove from their introduced habitats – that is definitely the case for the next invasive species in this blog series! Stay tuned next month to learn more. (Hint: you can see it in the last photo on this blog!)

thick vegetation

Photo Credit: Parsons 2023