Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Pandas rejoice: bamboo abounds in New Brunswick

We didn't see any pandas on our last trip to New Brunswick, but I honestly wouldn't have been shocked if we had, based on what we found.

Toward the end of our recent visit to Rutgers Gardens, we found ourselves in a less showy part of the property. A greenhouse, service buildings and a tractor or two got me thinking that we might have inadvertently walked into an area where visitors weren't encouraged to go. No signs were warning us away, so we figured we'd keep going until they did.

Then, at a point, the usual New Jersey-type overgrowth of shrubs, grass and vines evolved into a monoculture of bamboo. I mean, a LOT of bamboo. "This can't be a coincidence" quantities of bamboo. A break in the exotic wall of greenery drew us onto a footpath arched by distinctly Asian overgrowth. We'd stumbled upon Rutgers Gardens' real secret: its one acre bamboo forest.

Neither Ivan nor I had ever seen a grove of bamboo so expansive, except maybe at a zoo somewhere. As we continued our exploration, a winding path brought us to a rocky brook crossed by a simple wooden footbridge. I half expected to find a Zen sand garden, or perhaps a statue of a sitting Buddha nestled somewhere, but all we found was green foliage and the gentle babble of water streaming by.

The grove's species, Phyllostachys nuda, is known as running bamboo for its tendency of spreading aggressively if it's not hemmed in by concrete or water barriers. While that creates challenges for gardeners, it's a boon to the environment: the faster a plant grows, the more carbon dioxide it removes from the atmosphere. Native to China's Zhejiang province, this evergreen plant can withstand temperatures as low as -15 degrees Fahrenheit, making it more than suitable to New Jersey's climate. Growers in Idaho have seen the species do well in areas where temperatures dip into the -30 degree Fahrenheit range.

How did bamboo get to Rutgers, and why? According to the Gardens' website, a small grove was originally planted on site in the 1940s as a winter home for honeybee colonies. Maybe it wasn't intended to become the forest it's grown to be, but Rutgers is making the best of it: once a culm (as the stalks are called by botanists) reaches the end of its five to seven year lifespan, it's removed in order to let a newer, healthier one take its place. The cuttings are sold during the Gardens' annual spring flower fair in May. Considering that a new culm can grow to a height of 30 feet in just a few weeks, any bare patches in the grove are filled pretty quickly.

Every culm around us looked healthy and about two inches around at most; a good knock on a few revealed a very solid report, similar to what you'd hear from a good quality tree wood. Rutgers might be missing out on an opportunity here: combine rampant bamboo with the seemingly ubiquitous Phragmites growing in marshes and on roadsides, and you've got building and roofing material in abundance.

In any case, we're getting ahead of ourselves. The Rutgers bamboo grove is beautiful just as it is: a quiet, out of the way place to relax and contemplate life, and an authentic Zen-type experience. Save the plane fare to the Far East: bamboo heaven is just a few miles from Turnpike interchange 9.

Oh, and here's a bonus haiku:

Rutgers bamboo grove
Bliss hidden in New Brunswick
Peaceful, calm and green

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