Bamboo plants turning yellow


Why Is My Bamboo Plant Turning Yellow?

If you are wondering why your bamboo leaves or culms are turning yellow, don’t panic!

Watching your bamboo plant leaves turn yellow can be alarming, but most of the time, it’s actually a normal occurrence. The same goes for bamboo culms that become yellow. However, it could be that you don’t give your bamboo the required conditions it needs.


I want to clarify: In this post, we’re talking about real bamboo plants, but we have written about lucky bamboo as well and you can read about that here!

First, let’s have a look at what’s normal bamboo yellowing. Maybe this will already give you peace of mind.

Do you want to jump ahead?

What’s considered normal yellowing of bamboo

Although bamboo is an evergreen plant, it can still get a few yellow leaves and culms. That’s totally common.

Normal bamboo leaf yellowing

Like many other plants, bamboo sheds its leaves and grows new ones. What happens is that the bamboo will cut off the nutrients in the leaves to use it in other places. Due to this lack of nutrients, some of the leaves turn yellow and fall off.

Because bamboo is evergreen, most species lose their leaves very gradually and replace those leaves with new ones. In this respect, bamboo plants have a mixture of green and yellow leaves most of the time. In spring, you may experience a larger yellowing than in other seasons. Spring is basically the fall for bamboo when it comes to its leaves.

With this being said, there are a few species that drop large amounts of leaves at one time, and this can be concerning… Typically a little research into your specific variety will give you peace of mind!

If, however, all of the leaves turn yellow and fall out without any green leaves following, you may have a bigger problem.

Another indicator of an existing problem is when the leaf tips turn brown. This discoloration on the leaves can be caused by a lack of water or wind damage.

Golden Bamboo

Normal bamboo culm yellowing

Ok, this may sound super ridiculous but do you have a yellow bamboo variety. Some bamboo species start with green culms and turn yellow as they mature. I know most people pick their bamboo variety but maybe you couldn’t.

If it’s not a yellow bamboo, it may be still normal. Sometimes bamboo plants shoot just before the colder season. Depending on your area and the hardiness, those fresh shoots may die off when the temperature drops.

So, don’t panic if you have younger culms that turn yellow and maybe even brown. It’s kinda normal. Just clear them out by trimming them. This way they don’t “ruin the view”.

What species have more yellow leaves or culms than others?

As mentioned above, some species develop more yellow leaves than others. This goes for Phyllostachys Aurea (also known as Fish Pole Bamboo or Golden Bamboo) and Phyllostachys Edulis Moso (commonly used for bamboo fabrics). Both will lose a larger amount of leaves in spring.

Golden Bamboo is one of the most common bamboos in the United States. It grows upright and is very strong, as well as useful. Phyllostachys Edulis Moso is not as common in the United States but its characteristics are perfect to create bamboo threads from it.

Fargesia Murielae, also known as Umbrella Bamboo, will drop more leaves in fall. So it’s behaving like trees.


Still Concerned? Let’s do troubleshooting!

If you still believe that the yellowing is a problem and not just a natural part of your plant’s lifecycle, it’s time to start troubleshooting.

1. Fresh bamboo leaves are yellow

First, take a good look at the newest leaves (if you can distinguish them). If these leaves are turning yellow, it may indicate that the plant is lacking in iron. That’s a common problem in soil that is too alkaline.

Although most species can do all pH levels, they mostly prefer slightly acidic soil, though.

If you’re concerned about the pH level of your soil, you can purchase a pH testing kit. We would recommend getting one like this. Then you can test the soil around the base of the plant.

Learn more about pH Testers here!

If your soil turns out to be alkaline, you should feed your plant something more acidic:

  1. This can be an ericaceous compost made with coffee grounds, oak leaves, or pine needles. You can add a layer or mix it into the existing soil. This way you can change the overall soil condition.
  2. Another way would be adding an acidic plant food. You can purchase a fertilizer with Chelate Iron or this organic iron-tone fertilizer. and add this to the soil around your plant. Be careful to not use too much fertilizer, though. Bamboo does not like over-fertilizing.
  3. Instead of iron, you can also add sulfur to make the soil more acidic. You can get a 5 lbs bag on Amazon and add a bit every once in a while if you have too alkaline soil in your garden.

2. Older bamboo leaves are yellowing

If older leaves are primarily the ones that turn yellow (and you don’t believe it to be natural leaf drop), then you may want to apply a fertilizer with nitrogen.

So, the soil doesn’t provide enough nutrients to the bamboo. That’s why you need to fertilize.

There are times when fertilizers should be applied. Although it can be confusing as to when exactly they need food, watching for the first signs of yellowing can be a good indicator – especially for the nitrogen.

You can add commercial fertilizer or make your own bamboo plant food.

Learn everything you need to know about Bamboo Fertilizers here!

3. Bamboo leaves turn yellow with brown tips

If you spot a lot of yellow-brown leaves and the soil is dry, you are not keeping up the irrigation game. Bamboo plants need a lot of water, so you may need to increase your watering frequency.

If you are too busy to water manually, you should seriously consider a drip irrigation system in order to give your plants what they need.

You also should stop yourself from raking up the leaves on the ground, because they keep the soil moist.

Infested bamboo

4. Bamboo leaves have yellow-pale spots

Maybe your problem actually is pest-related. If you see yellowish-pale spots on the bamboo leaves, it is very likely a mites infestation.

They are hard to see because they are very tiny. However, they suck the life out of the leaf. So, you can easily spot those areas.

There are many ways to get rid of them. You can pressure wash the plants with water or insecticidal soap or you can use neem oil.

Learn more about bamboo pests here!

5. Yellow bamboo leaves and culms

If you water regularly and the soil seems too moist or becomes water-logged, you need to do something with the soil again. Bamboo needs well-draining aerated soil.

You should apply organic compost every now and then. It will help to open up heavy clay soil so that it drains better. In addition, it provides more nutrients to the bamboo.

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Other reasons why your bamboo plants are turning yellow

There still could be more reasons why your bamboo is turning yellow. Because there are so many little factors that could influence your bamboo’s health, we have to let you determine if one of these could be an issue.

It might be that your bamboo is just planted at the wrong spot. Maybe it is too sunny or the contrary. It could also be too windy for the stems or other chemicals used in the surrounding environment.

Obviously, soggy soil can be amended, but some things like too much sun or not enough can be difficult to remedy.

Again, it always depends on the bamboo species you have in your backyard. The trick with the acidic soil may not apply to you because you have Shibatea bamboo. Your Chimonobambusa bamboo may turn yellow because you placed it in direct sunlight, which on the other hand, Phyllostachys bamboo would love.

We hope this will help you to take care of your yellowing bamboo plants!

Let us know in the comments if you could handle the situation or share your trick for dealing with this issue!

Few years back I was really searching everywhere the reason why my bamboo tree leaves were turning yellow and eventually the whole plant will turn yellow. I have tried many ways out and purchased that green liquid(fertilizer) in small bottles which was suppose to nourish my bamboo tree but nothing was of any use. So below are my findings that I would love to share with you.

So why bamboo plant turning yellow?

Bamboo plants need clean air and surroundings , adequate water and light(not direct sun light) and the most important thing I found was that the leaves start turning yellow if we fill too much water in the flask in which bamboo plant is kept. Try filling the water only up till the roots of the plant even little less is better so that the roots can get fresh air as well. Generally I fill water which is covering 95% of the roots and this helps a lot. Also you can try changing the position/location of plant and keep plant in room which is well ventilated.

Sorry my jar is not much clean , but i intentionally kept it so that you can clearly view the previous line where i used to fill the water earlier and my new water line which is lower and roots getting fresh air from top.

Bamboo plants or Lucky Bamboo as they are also known, are beautiful green plants that can easily decorate any indoor space. They can also be placed outdoors if the weather and environmental conditions are favorable for this plant. As requirements, the Bamboo plants don’t have too many. Thus, it is not difficult to take good care of it and enjoy its gorgeous and lively green color. It likes natural light, but not being exposed to direct sunlight, as it may get burned during hot summer days. It also appreciates water as soon as the soil in its pot appears to be dry. It is good to know that you can also grow a Bamboo plant in a container with stones, as long as you make sure to give the plant sufficient water at all times. Using adequate fertilizer for green plants can also help your Bamboo plant grow healthy.

But, even if it easy to look after a Bamboo plant, there are cases in which the plant will not look so happy. Such a situation would be when its leaves are turning yellow. Most certainly you are wondering why this is happening and what can you do to restore the plant’s beautiful green color. In the following lines, you will learn all about the causes that can trigger the appearance of yellow leaves in a Lucky Bamboo plant and what to do to stop the phenomenon and improve the aspect of your plant.

Why are Lucky Bamboo plant leaves turning yellow?

If you notice that your Lucky Bamboo plant is growing yellow leaves or some of the plant’s existent leaves start to get yellow, you should know that there is a problem with your plant. Some of its requirements may not be met or there are issues with some factors of its environment. So, the leaves can turn yellow due to several causes.

First, you need to know that the bamboo plant grows in lush rainforests in Africa and southeast Asia, where it can easily thrive in conditions of low light and rather high humidity. When the environment of the plant, when it is grown indoors, get too far from its basic needs, the plant may show its unhappiness through yellow leaves. But, in order to find the cause that is making your Bamboo plant go yellow, you need to know all the causes that can trigger this aspect and see which one fits best in your case.

Yellow leaves with brown tips may indicate the fact that the Bamboo plant is not getting sufficient water. The brow tips may appear on green leaves as well, so you should pay more attention to water your plant adequately. Check the soil in the plant’s pot and water the plant when the surface of the soil gets dry. If you are keeping your Bamboo plant in a container with stones, the container should be transparent, so you can see the level of the water inside the container. Ideally, the roots of the plants should be submerged in water. If they stand out of water for too long, the plant will grow thirsty and will start to whiter. Also, in this case, you should change the water in the container every two weeks, in order to avoid fungus and mold to grow inside the container.

This problem can also appear when the plant is not getting sufficient nutrients from its environment. Considering that the Bamboo plant is grown in a container, the amount of nutrients available in the container is limited. In order to give your plant the chance to grow healthy leaves and stems, you should feed it periodically. If you don’t find special fertilizers for Lucky Bamboo, you can use a fertilizer adequate for all green plants. You can find this type of products in garden stores and they should be used as indicated on the package, by the product’s manufacturer.

Like any other plant, the Bamboo plant will also need sunlight to grow and unroll its natural processes. But, both insufficient light and overexposure to sunlight can lead to leaves turning yellow. When light is not enough, the plant can’t feed and grow right, so besides yellow leaves, it may also have rare leaves and a thin stem. When the plant gets too much direct sunlight, it can easily get burned, so the leaves will easily turn yellow. The plant can stand direct sunlight, but only early in the morning or late in the afternoon, when the sun’s rays are not that strong. Also, make sure you don’t place your plant in a cold area or under an AC system, as Bamboos love a warm environment.

How do you get rid of yellow bamboo leaves?

When your Lucky Bamboo plant gets yellow leaves, there is only one solution that will help you get rid of them. Unfortunately, you will have to cut them down with a pair of scissors. Once a leaf turned yellow or brown, there’s nothing you can do about it, as it is already dead. So, the only solution, in this case, is to completely remove it from the plant. Make sure that the pair of scissors you are about to use is sharp enough and sterilized. Sterilization is necessary in order to avoid infections or giving the plant any diseases.

It’s worse when the stems of the plant turn yellow. When only the leaves are yellow and the stem remains green, your plant has good chances of being saved. But when there are stems going yellow, the problem is severe and you risk losing the entire plant. Yellow stems are already dying, so you can’t save those. What you can do is to try and save the rest of the plant, if there are still green stems available. If possible, try to remove the yellow stems from the Bamboo arrangement you have. If not, cut the yellow stems, with a sharp knife or pair of scissors as much as needed in order to make sure that the disease will not spread to the rest of the plant.

Can yellow bamboo leaves turn green again?

Unfortunately, as you just found out, yellow leaves cannot be restored to a green color ever again. This is because yellow leaves are already dead and it is impossible to revive them. In order to restore the plant’s healthy look, yellow leaves must be cut. But, at the same time, you need to find the cause that made the leaves to turn yellow in the first place. If you don’t do this and you just remove the yellow leaves, other leaves will continue turning yellow and the whole plant can get sick and die.

Check the possible causes that are responsible for leaves turning yellow and see which one is causing your plant so much trouble. Make sure your Lucky Bamboo plant gets sufficient water and nutrients in a periodic manner. It should also enjoy a sufficient amount of natural light, but not direct sunlight. The plant should also enjoy a safe and rather warm area, and not be exposed to cold temperatures. During the summer, you can place the plant on the patio or terrace, as long as you don’t place it under direct sunlight. Just make sure to bring the plant inside once temperatures get rather cold, especially during the night, if you live in an area with cold winters.

How do I care for my indoor bamboo plant and prevent the appearance of yellow leaves for Bamboo plants ?

Taking proper care of your Bamboo plant will keep you and the plant away from unwanted and unaesthetic yellow leaves. If you just acquired a Lucky Bamboo plant and you want to make sure it thrives, there are some simple rules you need to follow. Keep these rules in mind and you’ll have a gorgeous plant that will create a beautiful indoor space.

1. Choose an adequate container for your Lucky Bamboo

Even if you keep it in the container you bought it with, your Bamboo plant will start to develop and will need more space for its roots. You can choose between placing it in a container with pebbles or plant it in a pot with soil. A universal type of soil for potted plants will do, as long as it is soft enough to allow the roots to expand properly. It may be a good choice to opt for a wider pot, instead of a deeper one.

2. Water it right

Bamboo plants love damp soil, especially when temperatures outside are high. Once you notice that the soil at the surface is dry, give your plant water. During hot summer days, you can spray the leaves with water, helping them plant to cool down a little. Bamboo plants placed in containers with pebbles should have their water replaced every two weeks.

3. Give the plant proper nutrients

A plant can’t grow without nutrients, so you should make sure your Bamboo plant receives nutrients on a periodic basis. Just follow the recommendations on the fertilizer’s label for correct use. Before purchasing the fertilizer, make sure it is adequate for being used on Bamboo plants.

4. Place it in an area where it can get sufficient light

Find a location for your bamboo plant where it can enjoy a sufficient amount of light, without being exposed to direct sunlight. You can even place it on the terrace, in a shaded corner, when temperatures during the night are sufficiently warm.

Why Are Your Bamboo (or Pine Trees) Turning Yellow in the Fall?

Why are my bamboo’s leaves turning yellow in the fall?

Bamboo plants are evergreen, which means they keep their leaves throughout the entire year. Coupled with their fast growth and beautiful habit this is what makes bamboo so popular for privacy hedges and screens, but being evergreen doesn’t mean they keep the same leaves forever. As leaves age they become less efficient and they also tend to be outcompeted for light as new leaves and stems develop higher up the plant, so plants shed their oldest leaves throughout the year. At any point during the growing season you can find a few yellowing leaves here and there but suddenly in October and November there are so many that the plant starts to look yellow as a whole.
There are so many yellow leaves in the fall because a high proportion of the total leaves are roughly the same age and turning yellow together – these are the leaves that emerged following high amounts of new growth in the spring. As these leaves all age together they start to yellow and drop together in the fall. Many other evergreen species have similar cycles with pines, firs, and hemlocks dropping up to a third of their needles around October while showing the same yellowing patterns. Evergreen plants can drop their leaves in other times of the year instead, such as the Pacific Madrone which drops up to half of its leaves in June and July.

Does this leaf drop make my bamboo plants less dense?

Although having many leaves drop off your bamboo at once does leave your grove slightly less dense, most species of bamboo are actually busy growing new leaves at the same time so there usually isn’t a noticeable difference. This is not true for many other evergreen species, especially pines, where new leaves do not emerge until the following spring – leaving the plant noticeably thinner than before.

How do I tell if the yellowing leaves is normal or a sign of poor health?

You can easily determine whether yellowing leaves on your bamboo plants is normal of a symptom of a problem by looking at which leaves are yellow. A healthy plant will drop about one third of its total leaves, potentially up to half, but the leaves that drop are on the base of each leaf clump. On bamboo plants you will see that the leaves are arranged in clumps around an individual twig – usually with five to eight leaves per twig. The leaves closest to the tip of the twig are the youngest and they should remain green while the leaves at the back will turn yellow and drop off. If you see a lot of yellow leaves on the tips of branches or most or all of the leaves are turning yellow then that might be a sign of poor health.
The oldest leaf is turning yellow but the newer leaves towards the tip are still green.
The oldest leaf has dried out and is about to fall off.

If most of the leaves are yellow, what do I do?

If most of the leaves are yellow then there can be several causes. Poor soil conditions generally cause poor root development which makes it difficult for plants to absorb the proper nutrients. This can be fixed by applying a thick mulch in the fall or spring and fertilizing with a slow release pellet like Osmocote in April.
Poor watering will also leave a plant in overall poor health with yellow leaves. Too little water or frequently drying out over the summer leads to disrupted cellular processes which can yellow the leaves. Be sure the plant is well watered from here on out if this is the case. Remember: most bamboo species will curl their leaves when they are dehydrated so if you see this during the growing season water your plants more. Overwatering your plants can have the same effect of yellowing leaves, if the soil has been consistently soggy over the summer this is probably the case. Try to water your plants for long periods of time but less frequently for optimum root growth, we water plants in the ground for two hours twice a week with a good soaking sprinkler throughout the summer and this tends to get the best results (we are in a very arid, low-humidity environment where summers are often over 100 degrees, watering less often may be necessary in wetter/cooler/humid environments).

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Read One of These Plant Care Articles

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Installing bamboo rhizome barrier requires that a trench can be dug at least 24 inches deep. When the soil is very rocky, has large roots, or has possible burried utility lines it becomes very expensive and labor intensive to get the barrier installed to the necessary depth. In these situations, one of the best options is to install bamboo barrier which is partially above ground, similar to a rais… read more.

Yellowing Bamboo Leaves: Help For Yellow Bamboo Leaves

There are over one thousand species of bamboo. Some are majestic giants soaring to over one-hundred feet in the air. Others are shrub-like, growing only three feet tall. Bamboo plants belong to the grass family. They are more closely related to turf grass than they are to a tree. Most bamboos hail from the tropics, but there are also many temperate bamboos. A few can even survive freezing mountain temperatures. While these plants are generally hardy, when bamboo leaves are yellow, this could signal an issue. Read on to learn more.

Yellowing Bamboo Leaves

Bamboo is a popular ornamental and edible plant. Many homeowners and gardeners plant bamboo because it can screen out unwanted views or create a private space. Bamboo is fast growing and spreads quickly. Like all ornamental plants, bamboo has certain requirements to stay healthy. True bamboo has hollow stems and bright green leaves. If your bamboo leaves are yellow, this could be a sign that your plant is failing.

How to Treat Yellow Bamboo Leaves

Bamboo is an evergreen plant. All evergreen plants lose their leaves, but they don’t lose them all at once like their deciduous friends. Some yellowing bamboo leaves and dropping bamboo leaves are normal processes throughout the year. There will be a bit more leaf loss in the spring. So if just a few of your bamboo stems and leaves are turning yellow, this is probably normal attrition. If large parts or all of your bamboo is turning yellow, however, then you most likely have a problem.

Problematic yellowing bamboo leaves can be due to low soil nutrients, boggy soil or overwatering, lack of water, or stressful growing situations. If you want help for yellow bamboo leaves, check the soil regularly. Bamboo needs good drainage. If the soil is mucky and boggy, then you are overwatering or the bamboo is planted in the wrong spot. Reduce irrigation.

If your soil is really dry, then you need to increase your irrigation run time and/or frequency. Bamboo likes a lot of water and is not a drought tolerant plant. Remember that bamboo plants spread wider and wider each year. You will need to adapt your irrigation set-up as the bamboo grows. Allow the bamboo leaf litter to stay on the ground rather than rake it up. This helps hold moisture in the soil.

Bamboo plants like acidic, rich, loamy soil. Bamboo will benefit from regular, yearly applications of organic compost. Organic compost provides a variety of soil nutrients at a modest rate. It also helps hold soil nutrients for your bamboo plants to use and opens up heavy clay soil that doesn’t drain well.

Stressful growing situations for your bamboo plants could mean the site is too windy, too hot, too dry, or too polluted. If you have one of these situations, you may need to mitigate it by growing a windbreak, adding more irrigation water or reducing nearby applications of chemical pesticides, herbicides or synthetic fertilizers.

Growing bamboo is fun and easy. One of the most exciting aspects of growing bamboo is to witness how quickly it grows. If your bamboo stems and leaves are turning yellow, try some of these suggestions to get your bamboo back on track.

Revealed: Why Do Lucky Bamboo Plants Turn Yellow?

There are a number of reasons for a yellowing bamboo plant. Read on to know how to avoid this condition.

Bamboo houseplant, popularly known as the lucky bamboo, is actually not a bamboo at all. It is, in fact, a resilient member of the lily family, which is capable of growing in dark or low-lit environment. Due this ability, it is found in the tropical rainforests of Southeast Asia and Africa. The botanical name for it is Dracaena. It makes a perfect houseplant or office plant due to its low maintenance. However, improper care can lead to some problems; one of them is the yellowing of the plant. Mostly, you can see the leaves turning yellow. However, in some worse cases, the bamboo plant stalk also can be observed to be getting in the same condition. Let us look at the causes behind this, and the solutions to recover the plant’s health.

Yellowing Leaves
Here are the causes behind the leaves of the feng shui bamboo turning yellow. Also find the measures you can take in such a situation.

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Environment Problem: Sometimes, the leaves of the plant will turn yellow if the proper environmental factors like light, heat, humidity are not maintained. In such a case, you observe the tips of the leaves lightening in color. You will have to cut the leaves, using a sharp, clean pair of scissors.

Water-related Problems: This is a common problem. In case you observe brown tips, it means that the plant has not been provided water for a long duration. Another problem could be occurring due to the use of tap water contaminated with chemicals like fluoride or chlorine. In this case you can use spring water which is at room temperature.

Lack of Nutrients: In such a situation, try adding a little mild fertilizer to fortify the leaves and stems of the plant. This will retain its nutritional balance to the optimum level.

Sunlight: Inadequate or over-exposure can lead to yellowing and falling of the leaves. Make sure that the plant is not kept in very cold temperatures, or that you haven’t placed the plant under an AC vent. While container gardening lucky bamboo, make sure it is not placed at a location where it gets sunlight for prolonged hours, as this gives it a sunburn.

Yellowing Stalk
Here are the reasons which could result in the stalk or stem of the plant turning yellow, as well as the measures you can take to rescue it from this condition.

Water Problems: Yellowing bamboo stalk is caused commonly due to inadequate watering. Chemically polluted, toxic water or chemical fertilizers can also lead to yellow stalks. Therefore, make sure you use gentle fertilizer and bottled spring water.

Cold Weather: During winter, if you observe the stalk turning yellow, it is due to extremely low temperatures. For indoor gardening during winters, make sure you provide lukewarm water, and keep it in a warm place.

Mites: If you observe webbing, brown, sticky material on the leaves or stalk, it could be a sign pointing to mites. In such a case you can use a mild pesticide. Replace the plant if it shows no progress even after using the pesticide.

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Fungus: This is a very common problem in cheaply produced lucky bamboo plants. This causes premature death of the plant, which means you should always buy it from high quality suppliers. If you experience yellowing of stalk due to a fungal infection, it is better to get rid of the plant.

Even after following the solutions, if the plant is not showing any progress, it is better to get rid of it. Sometimes, if your plant is over 4-6 years of age, then the stalk will turn yellow with age. That is, it is an indication that it is coming close to its natural death.

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Arundo donax towers over the tallest man’s head. It’s thick, bamboo-like, and three-stories tall. It can withstand cold, and it can withstand drought. Give it water, and a little nitrogen, and it grows. Fast.

Killing it can be difficult. In California, where it was introduced in the 1800s, Arundo has gotten so out of control that in some places it seems to be the only plant growing on the riverbanks. It doesn’t have seeds, but it doesn’t need them: it has other methods of multiplying. A fierce rainstorm can tear up its shallow roots and spread them far downstream. There, they start growing all over again.

Mow it down, spray it with pesticides-it’s all futile. If any of the monstrous reeds are left upstream, they’ll grow back. Arundo doesn’t need to be near water to thrive, though. It grows pretty much anywhere. It grows in Oregon, Arizona, Texas, Missouri, Georgia, Florida, Maryland, Virginia-down the West Coast and across the broad swath of the southwest and southeast, up into the mid-Atlantic. Often it remains in small stands, growing tall, but staying in one place. But sometimes, it takes over and becomes an invasive species-an expensive problem for humans and a mortal threat for plants and animals.

Energy companies, however, are set to make Arundo one of the stars of the biofuels industry. They think they can control it. They’re willing to take the risk. But not everyone is so sure it’s worth it. If the companies fail-if Arundo does get out-it could have irreparable consequences.

In Mills River, North Carolina, up in the mountains and not far from Asheville, a small plot of Arundo has been growing since 2008, alongside switchgrass and another unusually tall plant called giant miscanthus. This patchwork of grasses was planted as part of a study on crops that could feed a next-generation biofuel plant. The qualities that make Arundo frightening to people who’ve dealt with it as an invasive-its size, sturdiness, and quick growth-make it attractive to the biofuel industry. Although it’s not the only biofuel crop North Carolina is looking to grow (or the only one that’s considered invasive elsewhere in the country), it does have the potential to yield the most biomass per acre-a key metric to making next-generation biofuels financially feasible.

“It’s the difference between having this industry work or not work,” says Matt Harrod, a director at Chemtex International. An Italian-owned polyester fiber, plastics, and design technology company, Chemtex has dipped into the biofuels market, and worked with liquefied natural gas, as well. Last year, in Crescentino, Italy, the company started up the world’s first commercial-scale plant to make ethanol from plants like Arundo instead of corn or sugar cane. The company’s also part of a joint venture that invested $200 million in developing a process to make this sort of cellulosic matter a cost-effective source for biofuel. Now, Chemtex wants to bring that same process to America, and has spent almost a million dollars lobbying the federal government over the past two years.

Over the summer, the company announced it would receive federal-loan guarantees worth $99 million to build the United States’s first commercial-scale cellulosic biofuel plant in eastern North Carolina. Not long before, in spite of the objections of national and state environmental groups, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) added fuel made from Arundo to the Renewable Fuel Standard. (This is the policy that incentivizes the creation of biofuels and requires their use in the country’s cars and trucks.)

Environmental advocates and scientists who have been dealing with Arundo as an invasive species think that the biofuels industry’s bet that this plant can be controlled is a bad one. More than 100 groups wrote to the EPA arguing against approving Arundo as a biofuel crop. “The last thing we need are government-sanctioned economic protections for an industry reliant on pests as their raw product,” Mark Newhouser, of the Sonoma Ecology Center, wrote me. “This is just common sense.”

For years, the biofuel industry has been chasing the advantages of developing plants like Arundo as biofuel crops. And while there’s reams of research on different sources and strategies for creating cellulosic biofuel, the industry has had little success scaling that research up into a commercial enterprise. If “energy grasses” are proven a financially viable feedstock, the crops that feed ethanol plants could be grown on marginal land, with less chemical fertilizer than corn. The amount of land needed to meet the government’s renewable-fuel goals could shrink, too. But growing a crop like Arundo on an agricultural scale is the botanical equivalent of adopting a wolf. Most agricultural crops are like dogs: we’ve spent thousands of years domesticating them; we know, more or less, how they behave; we can control them. Like a tame wolf, Arundo might seem like it’s behaving well now, but there’s an inherent danger in having it around.

“We haven’t talked about doing something on this scale in this time period since the invention of agriculture,” says Jacob Barney, a professor of invasive-plant ecology at Virginia Tech University, who’s studied these grasses. Corn has been bred for 10,000 years to grow only where humans plant it. Arundo’s been bred for only a fraction of that time. “It’s a wild thing,” Barney says.

To the industry, ultimately, planting Arundo is about saving money. Higher yields per acre mean they have to spend less on land. Chemtex plans to contract with farmers to grow 18-19,000 acres of biofuel crops, according to Harrod, the Chemtex director. So far, he has about half of that accounted for, with switchgrass and biomass sorghum. Adding Arundo to the mix could help keep Chemtex’s costs down.

“Biomass sorghum is a quick growth annual. You can plant it in late March or early April and have it ready in July. Switchgrass can come online in September and works well through the fall,” says Harrod. It costs less for a company like Chemtex to run a biofuel plant if it can take crops directly from nearby fields, year-round, without having to bale and store them. “Arundo-they store themselves well in the field. They stand very well. They don’t fall, and they maintain a lot of their leaves,” Harrod explains. “So it fills those winter months from December to February that other crops can’t do.”

In southeastern North Carolina, the land that’s most likely to be converted to fields of energy grasses is currently growing bright green, knee-high Bermuda grass for cow forage. But one day soon, you could driving down the same country road by these same fields and all of a sudden start feeling a little like Rick Moranis in Honey I Shrunk the Kids, with fields of grass stretching far above your head.

It’s difficult to predict if a species will become invasive in any particular place. But once it does it’s almost impossible to stop its spread. California has spent tens of millions of dollars trying to get rid of Arundo, and across the country, invasive species cost the economy a total of $7.7 billion in eradication costs and lost agricultural productivity. Many of these plants were planted by well-intentioned people for good reasons.1 1. Kudzu, the most commonly cited scare story, was originally intended to provide shade and prevent soil erosion; it has taken over millions of acres of land. (There’s been some interest in using kudzu as a biofuel stock, as well.).

Arundo hasn’t been a problem in many of the states where it’s been planted as an ornamental, or as a building material. “We don’t really have good data on why Arundo is not invasive in areas like Florida and South Carolina,” says Adam Lambert, a research biologist at University of California-Santa Barbara. But that doesn’t mean it never will be. Many weeds have a “lag phase” where, for a long time, they’re not a problem, until they reach some unknown, critical. Then, says Lambert, “they just start taking off.”

At that point, the plants become much, much more expensive to deal with. There is a federal state-by-state noxious-weed directory, which could, in theory, help prevent invasive species from being planted or from spreading: no one is allowed to grow or transport the plants on these lists. But they are created according to political, rather than scientific, logic. “Governments are not basing decisions about “noxious” weeds on what the science is-what weed ecologists think of as noxious or invasive,” says Bryan Endres, a law professor who’s studied the regulation of invasive species. He, along with Jacob Barney, the Virginia Tech scientist, worked on a study that showed that there was little correlation between plants that scientists would classify as “invasive” and plants that are regulated. “The question is why?” says Endres. “The power in the legislature traditionally is in the agricultural community. Plants that have been a problem for agriculture have been classified as noxious weeds. If it’s not a problem to agriculture, then the state doesn’t see any reason to regulate.”

The little regulation that does exist is inconsistent. Maryland has six plants on its noxious-weed list. None of those plants are on Virginia’s list. California has listed Arundo as a noxious weed. So have Texas, Hawaii, and Tennessee. Fourteen states consider it invasive. Environmental groups pushed for North Carolina to add Arundo to the state’s noxious weed list, but earlier this year, the state’s Board of Agriculture denied their petition. The state government has long been promoting the biofuel industry; the board said that Arundo could be grown “responsibly,” as long as proper management practices were in place.

Right now, the federal government is paying scientists to figure out how make Arundo grow even bigger and faster while simultaneously paying other scientists to figure out how to eliminate it. Lambert’s lab is collaborating with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service to find a biocontrol agent for Arundo-a bug or a fungus that naturally keeps it in check. In the long run, using biocontrol is cheaper than continuing to plow money into chopping Arundo down and spraying it with pesticides.

Like Arundo, though, these “agents” are wild things. “Once you release them, you can’t get them back,” says Lambert. If these scientists find the right insect and release it in California, there’s no guarantee it won’t make its way across the country, to fields where Arundo’s being grown as a biofuel, and decimate those crops. Scientists who do this work worry that the biofuel industry’s interest in Arundo will create political heft that weighs against their own work. Given the money Chemtex has already spent on lobbyists, it’s not an unjustified fear.

If farmers do plant Arundo in large quantities, they’ll need to follow a protocol that minimizes the risk of the plant spreading-plant only in certain places, leave a border around the field, cover trucks transporting plant material, destroy any plants left if the project fails. “There’s no such thing as a risk-free anything,” says Jacob Barney, who helped develop this regime. “It’s all about understanding what the risk is and mitigate that risk to the greatest degree possible.”

This is the story of every form of energy-new or old-that the country is pursuing right now. Fracking horizontal wells is riskier than drilling vertical ones. Deepwater oil drilling has dangers that traditional techniques did not. But within these regimes, some energy sources are riskier than others: tall turbines might kill birds and bats, but they’re not going to spill wind all over the countryside. If the country is going to stop using cheap, polluting fuels like coal and oil, energy suppliers need to choose the least bad option; the alternative is relying on even riskier and more destructive strategies, like mining tar sands, to produce traditional fuels. Biofuels are clearly on the less-bad side, and there’s a need for them to fuel vehicles, like planes, that can’t easily run on electricity. And everyone agrees that it’s important for the industry to figure out how to use less-resource intensive cellulosic feedstocks instead of corn or sugar cane. Environmental groups that worry about invasives argue, simply, that there are plenty of energy grasses to choose from: biofuels companies should limit themselves to crops that don’t have a history as problem children.

No matter what precautions the industry takes, it’s impossible, in the short term, to eliminate the risk of invasiveness for a crop like Arundo . Controlling wild things, even plants, is an unpredictable business. If this were a horror movie-Invasion of the 30-Foot-Tall Monster Grass!!-where Arundo moved in and took over, only to be killed off, cut to the ground, and sprayed with heavy-duty pesticides, it would end with a shot of a single sprout of the plant, making its way out of the soil. In the sequel, the plant will have learned to grow seeds.

Plants Mistaken For Bamboo

Many plants are mistaken for bamboo, some look similar to bamboo but others don’t look anything like bamboo. Here are some of the most common plants mistakenly identified as bamboo.

Lucky Bamboo – Dracaena sanderiana
I’m sorry this plant was ever introduced to this country. I have received many emails asking about how to care for this plant. I used to answer but it has become such a burden that I’m sorry to say I usually just delete them now. This plant has some resemblance to bamboo with a jointed stem but is not a bamboo. It is usually grown in a container of water with pebbles. It is often seen in Asian restaurants. It is now available in Wal-Mart, Lowe’s, Home Depot, flea markets – you name it. If you do a search for Lucky Bamboo you will be overwhelmed with the number of results.

Japanese Knotweed – Polygonum cuspidatum (sometimes known as Mexican Bamboo)
Japanese Knotweed is a perennial that spreads by rhizomes. It has stems that are jointed somewhat like bamboo. This, along with it’s rapid spread is probably why it is sometimes mistaken for bamboo. However, it has heart shaped leaves and creamy white flowers. It can reach 5 to 10 feet in heigth and produces new canes each spring forming a dense thicket. The dead stems and leaves decompose slowly and form a thick mulch which, along with the dense growth, prevent other plant seeds from germinating. The rhizomes can spread up to 20 feet from the parent plant and as deep as 8 feet. It forms a rapidly spreading mono-culture and is considered an invasive pest. It can reproduce from very small pieces of the rhizome or fresh stems. You can find lots of information about this plant by doing a search for Japanese Knotweed.

Heavenly Bamboo – Nandina domestica
I’m not sure why this plant is sometimes mistaken for bamboo. It has woody stems, white flowers, and red berries in the fall. I suppose the very erect, straight stems are the reason but they are not jointed and are usually brown and woody looking. A nice shrub but not realated to bamboo.

Giant Reed – Arundo donax
This plant has canes much like bamboo but the leaves are long and tapered and attach directly to the canes(not to limbs that attach to cane). The canes will easily sprout new plants from the nodes and the rhizomes are easily divided to produce new plants. I’ve had this growing beside a pond and canes that fall over into the water routinely sprout new plants at each node on the cane. It has become a pest in many areas and has invaded many rivers in California. It has a large seed head at the end of each growing season. The canes are used to make reeds for musical instruments and the variegated form makes a pretty landscape plant.

Horsetail – Equisetum hyemale
The stems of this plant superficially resemble bamboo due to colored bands that appear to be nodes, much like a bamboo cane. It grows in wet areas and makes a pretty addition to a water garden or bog. It is often called the Scouring Rush as it’s high silica content make it ideal for scrubbing pans and polishing metal. This plant has also become an invasive pest in many parts of California. It is sold in most nurseries in the water garden section. I have both a dwarf form and a very large form growing beside my pond.

Bamboo Palm
The Bamboo Palm (Chamaedorea seifritzii or C. erumpens) is sometimes mistaken for bamboo. Probably because the stems have white stripes that resemble bamboo’s nodes.

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