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Drought Tolerant Bamboo. Best Species and Care Tips

Drought is a normal, recurring feature of the climate in most parts of the world.

However, some regions get droughts on a regular basis and it is important to understand which plants can survive these extremely dry periods.

I have mentioned in other posts that bamboo grows in almost all climates. But is it drought tolerant?

Let`s find out!

Is bamboo drought tolerant

Yes, some species of bamboo are drought tolerant – but it really depends.

There are many different kinds of bamboos and they have different growing requirements, so there is no answer that fits all bamboo species.

It is a myth that bamboo likes soggy, wet soils.

Some bamboo can tolerate soggy soils, but the vast majority do not. In fact, soggy soils over an extended period of time lead to root rot, which can eventually kill the bamboo plant.

Both clumping and running bamboos have drought tolerant species among them.

When we compare bamboos, runners have a higher tolerance of dry, hot air.

But in general, clumping bamboos tend to be more drought tolerant than running bamboos because they root fairly deep. Growing deeper means they can get more water supply.

However, it requires the bamboo to have a mature, established root mass to be considered drought tolerant. A new bamboo plant, like most plants, requires regular water in the first full season (some species up to 3-4 years) for the roots to grow and become well established.

After that, most bamboo will require no additional watering in most climates.

However, in case of an extremely dry season the growth of the bamboo plant will slow down and it won’t be as lush as it would with consistently moist soil.  

What if the drought is too long?

Drought tolerant bamboo species will do OK in case of prolonged periods of no water, however, there are limits. When the drought exceeds the time and level of dryness your bamboo can tolerate, the plant will show it with yellowing and curling leaves.

As the last warning that bamboo desperately needs water, it will start dropping its leaves.

At that point, you definitely need to take action to save it. The good news is – water it well at that point, and it will re-foliate pretty quickly.

Drought tolerant bamboo species

Clumping bamboo species

Otatea acuminata aztecorum – Mexican Weeping Bamboo

  • Clumping bamboo
  • Drought tolerant
  • Hardy down to USDA Zone 9A (Minimum temperature 22 F)
  • Maximum height – 20 feet (6 meters)
  • Diameter – 1.5 inches (3.8 cm) when mature
  • Full sun bamboo

Mexican Weeping Bamboo is a gracefully arching clumping bamboo. It can form a dense screen as it is generously clothed with very thin, narrow and long (6 inches by 1/8 inch or 15 cm by 0.3 cm) light green leaves giving the plant a soft appearance.

Protect it from hard frosts. Cold winters can temporarily damage the leaves if unprotected.

Bambusa malingensis – Seabreeze

  • Clumping bamboo
  • Drought tolerant
  • Salt tolerant
  • Hardy down to USDA Zone 9A (Minimum temperature 20 F)
  • Height – 35 to 40 feet (10 to 12 m)
  • Diameter – 2.5 inches (6.35 cm)
  • Full sun to partial shade

Seabreeze bamboo is salt tolerant, drought-tolerant, and is especially great to grow in areas exposed to coastal winds.

The canes have a distinctive bluish-white blush in each section and make the recognizable creaking bamboo sounds in the breeze.

When mature, it forms a graceful umbrella-shaped arch and is ideal for hedges and windbreaks.

Chusquea culeou – Chilean bamboo

  • Clumping bamboo (open clumper)
  • Drought tolerant (but prefers moderate water)
  • Hardy down to USDA Zone 7 or 8, depending on the clone
  • Height – 15 feet (4.5 m)
  • Diameter – 1.5 inches (3.8 cm)
  • Full sun
  • Not recommended for containers

Chilean bamboo forms a dense clump of arching canes. Numerous short branches give the culms the appearance of a bottle brush.

It often shows a beautiful red blush to the canes, at sheath fall.

Phyllostachys aurea – Golden bamboo

  • Clumping bamboo
  • Drought tolerant
  • Hardy down to USDA Zone 6
  • Maximum height – 30 feet (9 m)
  • Diameter – 1.5 inches (3.8 cm)
  • Full sun to partial shade

Golden Bamboo is a small to medium fast-growing bamboo that features beautiful golden stems and thick growth, making it an attractive option for a privacy hedge.

The golden shoots contrast beautifully with the dark green evergreen foliage.

Golden Bamboo is cold hardy, heat tolerant, and adapts well to sun and partial shade environments. It does well in USDA Zones 6 to 10.

Running bamboo species

Phyllostachys aurea  – Koi

  • Running bamboo
  • Drought tolerant
  • Hardy down to USDA Zone 7
  • Maximum height – 27 feet (8m); West Coast Estimate – 15 feet (4.5m)
  • Diameter –  1.75 inches (4.5 cm)
  • Sun and shade

Koi is a drought-tolerant and dense bamboo which makes an excellent thick screen.

The culms are yellowish-orange with green stripes and some red on sun-exposed and new culms.

Phyllostachys nigra  – Black Bamboo

  • Running bamboo
  • Drought tolerant
  • Hardy down to USDA Zone 6
  • Maximum height – 40 feet (12m); West Coast Estimate  – 30 feet (9m)
  • Diameter – 2.25 inches (5.7 cm)
  • Sun and shade

The culms of Black bamboo come up green and slowly turn a shiny black after about 18 months to two years.

Like many subspecies of nigra, it grows well indoors.

Phyllostachys nigra – Daikokuchiku

  • Running bamboo
  • Drought tolerant
  • Hardy down to USDA Zone 6
  • Maximum height – 57 Feet (17 m); West Coast Estimate – 30 Feet (9 m)
  • Diameter – 3.3 inches (8.3 cm)
  • Sun and shade

Daikokuchiku bamboo grows larger and turns black quicker than regular nigra bamboo. It loves full sun and is more drought tolerant than many other bamboos.

Phyllostachys nigra  – Megurochiku

  • Running bamboo
  • Drought tolerant
  • Hardy down to USDA Zone 7
  • Maximum height – 50 Feet (15 m); West Coast Estimate – 30 Feet (9 m)
  • Diameter – 3 inches (7.6 cm)
  • Sun and shade

Phyllostachys nigra Megurochiku like many nigras is drought resistant. Megurochiku develops black stripes on its culms.

How to care for drought-tolerant bamboo species

Bamboos are grown for food, lumber, landscape screens, and garden specimens. There is a lot of variation as there are more than 1400 species in 91 genera of bamboo that grow in all parts of the world.

This means that care tips for bamboos vary a lot and any generalizations are just broad tips that may not always apply directly to your specific bamboo.

Find out the optimal growing conditions for any bamboo you grow

When you are looking for the bamboo species to grow it is not enough to know if it is drought tolerant.

You should also make sure you are informed about other things such as:

  • Amount of sunlight it needs
  • Optimal soil
  • Recommended nutrients
  • Hardiness
  • Watering needs

The first season after transplanting

Transplant shock

Let`s imagine you have bought a new bamboo plant, planted it in your garden but it looks like it`s on the verge of dying – looking sad and shedding leaves.

Should you be upset with the seller for giving you a bad specimen? Probably not!

It is completely normal for bamboo plants to go through a short period of transplant shock, where they lose some, or even most, leaves after being planted in a new place.

However, with good care, they should re-grow leaves in a few weeks’ time, and be fully leafed out in 6-8 weeks.

First-year tips

So, what are the main things to keep in mind for the first year?

Caring for the plants starts even before you plant the bamboo.

If you don`t have time to transplant them the same day, make sure to water every 1-3 days while they are still in the plastic pots you get them from the nursery.

When you plant the bamboo, dig a hole at least twice as big as the pot you got it in and fill below and around the roots with good quality soil. It`s a good idea to add fertilizer around the roots when planting.

Watering thoroughly through the first summer is crucial for all bamboo species to become well established. For drought-tolerant species watering around once a week is optimal, more if the weather is hot and windy.

If you live in a dry and hot climate, apply a mulch layer around the bamboo to help conserve moisture.

After the first year, the water and sun requirements will vary a lot by species.

In general, more drought-tolerant species will need a lot of watering only for the first year, but other less drought-tolerant bamboo will need watering for as long as 3 to 5 years.

Mature bamboo – protection during drought

Even the most drought-tolerant bamboos will feel better if you help them out during the drought.

Here are some easy strategies to keep your bamboo happy while using water wisely.

When water is scarce, one of the most important things is to make slow down the evaporation of the little water the plants have.

Water your bamboo plant in the early morning before air temperatures rise to minimize evaporation and allow the plant to maximize the intake of the water provided.

Mulching is a great way to help the soil retain moisture around the plant. It not only slows the evaporation but offers fertilizing benefits to the bamboo.

Even if you have a drought-tolerant bamboo, it can`t live without water forever. Some periods of dryness are OK – but don’t push it.

Pay attention to your bamboo plant – if you get leaf curling, it’s a signal that your bamboo needs to be watered.  If the dryness is severe enough,  it will begin to drop its leaves – that is the last warning that you should give it water now before it`s too late.

Keep in mind that bamboo grown in pots and containers do not retain moisture as well as bamboo grown in the ground. During summertime, potted bamboo should be watered roughly every other day.

Can you revive bamboo that has suffered during the drought

You can revive bamboo that has suffered during drought, all you really need is water and patience. But a slow-release fertilizer and trimming off some of the branches of bamboo will also help.

As I already mentioned before, the most visible sign of water stress on bamboo is leaves curling or even dropping if severe enough.

However, if you see those signs it does not mean that your bamboo is dying. For many bamboos that is a way to reduce transpiration. In this case, watering the plants will usually save them and the leaves will flatten again soon after.

In addition to watering, trimming and fertilizing will help the bamboo survive more successfully.

Trimming several branches with pruners does help because the fewer branches and leaves it has, the less energy and water it needs to stay alive during drought.

Do not fertilize your bamboo during drought, it is not going to help. Applying a slow-release fertilizer will be beneficial after the drought has passed and there is enough moisture in the soil.

The worst time for bamboos to be in drought is during the shooting season. Even very mature and healthy bamboo groves can react to lack of water during that time and stop growing new shoots.

While it may look dramatic above the ground, it is a survival strategy that will help the bamboo grove to survive until the next shooting season when hopefully there will be enough water.

The bamboo rhizomes and roots, as well as the mature bamboo stalks, will stay alive. This is where the patience comes in – you must trust the bamboo to produce new shoots the next season.

Signs that can be mistaken for lack of water

Sometimes bamboo can mislead you to think it lacks water.

Shade-loving species in hot sun

Some shade-loving bamboo species curl up their leaves when exposed to direct, hot sunlight despite being well watered. This is why it is important to know whether your bamboo is a sun or shade-loving one.

Most of the time, the leaves of these bamboos will uncurl once the hot sunlight disappears.

Dropping leaves in the Spring

A very unique characteristic of bamboo is that it renews it’s leaves in the Spring and not Fall, like most plants.

In the Spring the leaves will wither, drop and grow new foliage. If you are not aware of this trait of bamboo you could mistake normal Spring behavior for underwatered plants.

If you are not in drought and the bamboo drops leaves in the Spring – keep calm and wait for the new foliage. The bamboo is fine.