Plant life: Deserving of a garden spot

Chusquea culeou is a perfect clump-forming bamboo. Photo by Gerard O'Brien
Chusquea culeou is a perfect clump-forming bamboo. Photo by Gerard O'Brien
Bamboos have been given a bad reputation over the years because of the invasive nature of some of the species, but many have a tight-clumping habit and deserve a place in our gardens.

Geographical range

With about 1400 species of bamboo in the world, Chusquea species make up about 10 % of this total.

Chusquea predominantly come from the mountain ranges of South America from Mexico to Argentina, Chile and across to Brazil.

Some are tropical but many are completely hardy, with Chusquea culeou probably the hardiest and most tolerant of different climates and soil conditions.

Well-behaved

Chusquea culeou is a perfect clump-forming bamboo, never sending out rhizome runners more than a few centimetres.

It has the common name of foxtail bamboo because of the way vegetation whorls in multiple branches around each node of the cane.

This feature, along with the fact the canes are solid, is unique among the bamboos.

The canes emerge and grow upwards, arching at the top to form a graceful fountain effect.

Varied uses

The Chusquea cane was used by the indigenous Mapuches people to make musical instruments and to fend off the Incas with lance-shaped canes.

They made such a successful weapon that when the Spaniards tried to take over the Incas' land in the war of Arauco they held them off for 300 years.

I want one

Seed is rarely available; plants of Chusquea culeou are reported to flower only once in their lifetime and to subsequently die.

When this does happen, seed is easily collected and grows quickly into reasonable plants.

Propagation is normally carried out by division, which is easy when plants are small but can become difficult with large plants.

Division is normally done in September before the new canes emerge but when the roots are active.

Each division needs to have a good proportion of foliage-to-root growth.

Two mature specimens of Chusquea culeou can be seen in the South American Border in the upper botanic garden.

Dylan Norfield is the Geographic and Arboretum Collection Curator at Dunedin Botanic Garden.