Invasive Plants: Bamboo a Boon or Bust?

I gasped and recoiled in horror as I read the article a friend had shared on Facebook. No, it wasn’t related to the election, or even to politics. It was an article about a man in Putnam County advocating we start bamboo farms in West Virginia.

“What’s so wrong with bamboo?” you may ask.

There is, after all, a lot of good bamboo can do. It is a great substitute for wood for everything from paper to furniture.

People are interested in using bamboo, which is fast growing, to replace the use of slow growing, sometimes irreplaceable trees.

What’s not to love, right?

My horror comes from the fact that several species of bamboo are considered aggressive at best, horrifically invasive at worst.

Two species of bamboo, commonly grown in gardens, are found on the official WV Invasive Species List: Golden Bamboo (Phyllostachys aureosulcata) and Black Bamboo (p. nigra).

But these bamboo species are not the only invasive species you can buy at the local garden center. Unfortunately, there are several species people plant on purpose that are actually invasive.

So what makes a plant invasive?

First, an invasive is usually a non-native plant. Because it is introduced to an area and didn’t evolve in that area (climate, soil, predators, etc.), it has a greater ability to grow unimpeded.

Secondly, invasive species have an ability to reproduce or spread quickly, either through seeds or through vegetative means, such as sending up new shoots or even reproducing from small segments of damaged plants.

Third, rapid spread will lead to a disruption of the local ecosystem or a drastic alteration of the local plant community — out-competing one or more native plants.

State and federal goverments spend millions, if not billions, of taxpayer dollars annually to control invasive species like bamboo.  This control is necessary in minimally maintaned areas like parks and roadways, since regular control isn’t there to keep the growth in check.  See: Bamboo removal in National Parks in Virginia

Bamboo would fall in the latter category. It doesn’t typically produce seeds in our climate, but it sends prodigious amounts of shoots up and can reproduce from small segments of stem that fall to the ground. Anyone who has grown or seen bamboo grow knows it can quickly form dense colonies that rapidly spread and kill all other plants.

Now, there are some bamboos that behave, such as clumping varieties that do not spread. But many people plant the spreading kinds without knowing it.

While I know the bamboo will not spread far by seed (since it doesn’t produce seed here), I could imagine a truckload of bamboo stalks dropping fresh pieces on the road as it goes. The wet conditions of ditches would make perfect propagation areas for bamboo, spreading it along our highway system. It wouldn’t be too out of reach for this to happen.

Without a homeowner or a farmer to control the bamboo spread, it can easily spread, outcompete other plants, and destroy the local ecosystem.  Just look at plants like kudzu and Japanese knotweed – they aren’t hard to control on a small scale, but they run amok on public and open lands such as roadways, railroad right-of-ways, and forests.

One invasive species, Japanese Stiltgrass, spreads very easily on the tires of trucks and heavy equipment and has especially proven problematic in areas that are being logged, along electric line and pipeline right of ways, and other areas where equipment may go through the woods. This grass can form dense mats on the forest floor, killing any undergrowth.

It seems public lands are especially useful in harboring and spreading invasive species, since they often aren’t maintained on a regular schedule. Ditches, unmowed fields, stream banks and railways become breeding grounds for invasive species.

The truth of the matter is, there are several invasive species people plant in their gardens all the time. And garden centers just keep selling them.

Some plants on this list may surprise you. They include barberry (those reddish colored shrubs people love to use for foundation plants), privet, princess tree (or empress tree), vinca, Bradford pear, winter creeper, Miscanthus grass and many honeysuckles.

And while they aren’t listed on the official invasive list, here are a few more many consider invasive: sweet autumn clematis, Nandina, wisteria, burning bush, English ivy, Spirea and butterfly bush.

I would definitely think twice about planting any of these plants.

Find out more about invasives, including a list of plants considered invasive in West Virginia from the WV DNR at

While we’re at it, here’s the list of the 12 most invasive plants in West Virginia:

1. Kudzu

2. Water Shield

3. Crown Vetch

4. Japanese Knotweed

5. Japanese Stiltgrass

6. Garlic Mustard

7. Tree of Heaven

8. Reed Canary Grass

9. Mile-a-Minute

10. Purple Loosestrife

11. Multiflora Rose

12. Yellow Iris

Believe it or not, there is research going into controlling some of these plants. I recently listened to an episode of the “In Defense of Plants” podcast that featured Kristen Wickert, a Ph.D. student at West Virginia University.

She investigated the use of a plant root pathogen to control Tree of Heaven (No. 7 on the list). This may prove to be a successful means to control this horribly aggressive tree that is negatively affecting our forests.

It was quite an interesting listen. You can find it at (Episode 81), or find it on your favorite podcast platform.

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