Invasive bamboo: bugaboo, boon or blight?

08/14/2011 9:10 AM |

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Garrick Lynch, 14, helps his dad Ray maintain the bamboo stand on the side of their property in Aquebogue. Some shoots are 40 feet high.

Bamboo was once found only in the jungles of Southeast Asia, but the hollow-tubed exotic plant has begun a suburban creep out to eastern Long Island.

There are hundreds of varieties of bamboo, some more invasive than others, and several towns on Long Island, including Smithtown and Babylon, are considering restricting whether property owners can plant bamboo.

Here on the North Fork, land managers are strongly urging residents to keep bamboo off their property, though no legislation outlawing bamboo has been proposed.

“It’s a horrible problem,” said Laura Klahre, who worked in invasive species management for The Nature Conservancy before she began drafting Southold Town’s management plans for preserved land this year. “On Long Island, there is not a native bamboo. The ones I know act invasively.”

Ms. Klahre said many Southold residents confuse Japanese knotweed, which has hollow stalks but does not grow as straight or tall as bamboo, with bamboo. Though the plants are not related, both grow through underground shoots.

“They’re both really invasive and hard to get rid of when they get established,” she said. “Knotweed shows up at disturbed sites. Say you rototill an area. That’s when invasives can come in. Then you have deer, which preferentially eat native plants. If they eat all the natives, invasives have more of an opportunity to flourish. Even the globalization of the world compounds the problem. There are more plants coming in to us every day from overseas.”

Cornell Cooperative Extension invasive species expert Tamson Yeh didn’t mince words when asked if homeowners could manage to keep bamboo confined to a small area. Her answer was no.

“Don’t buy it. Don’t try it,” she said in an email last week. “Once it’s there, you’ll never get rid of it. It spreads like crazy. It’s tall and it shades out everything else.”

Ms. Yeh said that bamboo likes rich, moist soil and its roots are hardy to -20 degrees Fahrenheit. She said Golden Bamboo is the most invasive of the ornamental bamboos.

“If you don’t mulch them in the winter, maybe they’ll die,” she said.

Despite all the worries, some people enjoy the aesthetics of bamboo, said Ray Lynch of Aquebogue, who has had a grove of bamboo at the edge of his property for about 12 years.

“It has multiplied thousand-fold since then,” he said. “It grew geometrically for the first five years. Now it’s gotten to the point where it strangely goes where I don’t want it. It does tend to go toward the road, but I keep it 12 feet back.”

Mr. Lynch and his 14-year-old son Garrick spend a lot of time keeping the bamboo from spreading. But it has provided a great buffer against the noise of Peconic Bay Boulevard, and makes its own rustling sound that is soothing to his ear, Mr. Lynch said.

“It’s kind of nice. It did way more than I thought it would. My wife hates it but I love it. She’s afraid the town will get upset, but I keep it under control,” he said.

“When my son was younger, it was a great play area, almost jungle-like,” he added. “He built forts in the woods with the bamboo.”

Mr. Lynch said he finds people cutting bamboo in his grove several times each year. Sometimes they’re polite enough to ask if they can take some first. He always cautions them that it’s important to keep the plants under control if they replant them on their own property.

“One time, someone asked if they could use it to make a bamboo hut on the beach for a wedding ceremony. People want to make fishing poles or fences. One lady took some and in the fall she dropped off a homemade pie and a thank you note,” he said.

Mr. Lynch is lucky not to have any neighbors on the side with the bamboo other than the town highway department, which maintains the road.

“There are times the town has been nice about it and times they haven’t been nice about it,” he said. “I try to keep it under control.”

Riverhead Town environmental planner Joe Hall said that, while it’s not within the town’s purview to harass homeowners who plant bamboo, he’s not aware of any variety of bamboo that is safe to plant.

“There are hundreds of species of bamboo. Some are very aggressive,” he said. “They appear on the county’s ‘Do Not Sell List’ but we can’t prohibit anything on [that] list from being planted if it was purchased elsewhere.”

Mr. Hall added that bamboo, and other plants, often end up spreading their roots into the sanitary systems of homes, creating major problems with home septic systems.

Ms. Yeh said that homeowners should remove all parts of the plant by cutting them to the ground in the spring and treating them with an herbicide called glyphosate three weeks later.

“Mowing shoots with a lawn mower will not keep them from spreading,” she said. “If you already have it, dig a trench and put in a metal, concrete, fiberglass or heavy plastic curb 18 to 24 inches deep.”

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