Is there a trickster creeping through the neighborhood?
A soothing sigh lulls us to sleep, then a swish overhead, a rustle at ground level, the hiss of long branches swaying in the night wind. Moon shadows flicker across the ground.
A clack, a clatter, a creak, a scratch. A groan. Silkily slipping past with a dry touch, the bamboo makes a break for freedom. Grab your torches and pitchforks! Stop the monster!
Americans have always sought the new, the different. But not satisfied to experience it there, we want it shipped here. We cage it like the cockatoo, or the red-tipped shark, but we always let it loose eventually.
When the kids quit taking care of the aquarium, the water and aquatic plants go in the storm sewer or the roadside ditch. Whoops, the lake is choked with milfoil.
We also introduce invaders intentionally. The garden center has lovely new plants — English ivy anyone? It’s now listed as a noxious weed here and in Oregon and considered invasive in many states. How about some bamboo? Golden bamboo and other running types are beginning to show up alongside ivy on those invasive species lists. Is bamboo, our beloved background for zen-like sanctuaries, about to throw aside its saintly costume and morph into a nightmare, a demonic horror terrorizing the neighborhood?
Travelers to Asia often come back with an abiding love of this wondrous plant. New uses for bamboo are discovered almost daily. Perhaps it’s the best of all sustainable resources.
But foresters are beginning to notice that here in the Northwest, bamboo that has escaped captivity is doing damage in the landscape. The characteristics that make it so useful and plentiful are exactly those that define an invasive species.
Whoever coined that cold-war term Bamboo Curtain grasped an apt metaphor. The bamboo version lasted longer than the iron one. The plant is strong, dense, ruthless, impenetrable and fast growing. China, blamed for all manner of nefarious doings, from lead in toys to toppling buildings, to buying up U.S. currency and perhaps the insidious importation of bamboo, is poised to fill the role of movie villain for the next few years.
At my house, bamboo is still a good thing; our issues with it are slight. The neighbors have a lovely stand, 30 feet tall. Lucky for us they installed a barrier when they planted. We love it, except during snowstorms when the laden canes lean over against our house and drop their snow loads down our necks and over our deck.
Our own stand of knee-high bamboo is more troublesome. It took forever to establish from a small sprig, but lately it has leapt forth. Now we must diligently lop off its thick, ropy tentacles to keep it in its place.
In Japan bamboo, with its interlocking network of rhizomes, is used for stabilizing steep slopes. Logic would seem to suggest it as a solution to bluff sloughing here. Local slope management experts discourage the idea. There’s just too much risk involved in using any introduced species to solve a problem. Think kudzu in the south, rabbits on San Juan Island, toads, and snakes, and … the list of quick-fix ideas that brought unintended consequences is endless.
Planting running bamboo without protection is asking for trouble. One moment the stuff is behaving demurely, the next it’s going postal.
Our small monster, contained on one side by the aforementioned barrier and on the other by our driveway is, at the moment, manageable. We only need to control the ferocity at the upper and lower edges. But if we didn’t, what might happen?
A writer in British Columbia tells of her battle with the neighbor’s stand of timber bamboo.
“They tell you bamboo roots won’t go down more than 18-24 inches (roots do prefer to go sideways rather than down) BUT IT IS NOT TRUE. Not true of giant bamboos, anyway. To get around barriers, bamboo roots in my little grove have spread down almost three feet. Don’t underestimate its ability to do whatever it wants. It will get into the foundation of your house, and after spending a day tracking its roots with a shovel, you’ll dream about it at night. SEND PANDAS!”
Ah yes, we need cute, fluffy pandas here. What could go wrong?
For more information:
Washington State invasive species list: click here.
Invasive species are a contentious issue. View a pro-Spartina video: click here
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