Sussman has labeled some of his plants but admits with a grin that he's not 100% sure what's what. The nomenclature is often questionable, the taxonomy ill-defined, even to fanatical collectors like his visitors, members of the American Bamboo Society gathered for a tour. After all, the plant comes in more than 1,200 forms, excluding the mutations and as-yet-unidentified subspecies.
More than its usefulness as a privacy screen or the instant tranquillity its arched branches and fluttering leaves can impart on even the smallest urban garden, it is this ancient grass' astounding diversity that inspires the cult of bamboo. Exotic varieties are graced with stalks -- culms is the technical term -- in black, brown, purple or orange. They can be striped, mottled or tortoiseshell, as thin as a pencil or as fat as a telephone pole. On some species, leaves are feathered like fine lace. On others, they are 2 feet long and as wide as a hand.
The number of possibilities seem astronomical -- and at times, so do the prices.
"There was a tortoiseshell bamboo that sold for $9,000 -- a 5-gallon pot," says Bob Dimattia, better known as Bamboo Bob, a collector, propagator and seller of the plant in Vista, Calif., and a director of the American Bamboo Society. "I got a black bamboo on my property that was basically two twigs in a pot -- $1,200," he says, referring to the price he paid. "The passion of the collectors is the drive."
That passion will be on full display Sept. 16, when the American Bamboo Society holds its next sale at Quail Botanical Gardens in Encinitas. The twice-yearly event draws nearly 1,000 collectors from all over the country in search of the most exotic specimens. Frequenters of past sales say the event has, at times, been marked by frenzied buying, with some collectors going so far as to work in teams -- one as a blocker and the other as a grabber.
The things people will do for great bamboo.
GIVEN the abundant varieties available in nurseries and online, it's no wonder some gardeners go a little crazy. Bamboo can grow straight or curved, in clumps that are round or square. Nodes, the joint-like divisions of the culm, can be smooth, knobby, even diamond-shaped.
But any complete discussion of bamboo has to start with the one constant: the plant's infamous reputation. Bamboo can be invasive, and it's easy to lose a garden to a little plant bought in a 5-gallon tub. Three years after it lands in the ground, it may rule your garden -- and your neighbor's.
Perhaps the two most popular bamboos that have contributed to this reputation are golden bamboo (Phyllostachys aurea) and black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra). Both are runners, the type of temperate bamboo that collectors say has a three-year growth cycle: The first year it sleeps, the second year it creeps and the third year it leaps. Rhizomes, the food-storing stems that grow underground, can spread rapidly, undetected, before sending up shoots.
Not so with the prized subtropical and tropical clumping bamboos. Clumpers are well-mannered by comparison. Their rhizomes grow short distances before sending out shoots in an expanding circle, as the name implies. They propagate fast, some rising 100 feet with culms that are 10 inches in diameter.
"When someone walks into my yard, the first thing I tell them is that everything I talk about is a clumper," says Jim Rehor, a retired electrician who fell in love with bamboo 10 years ago and became a dealer.
He has more than 200 species sprouting in hundreds of 5- and 25-gallon tubs covering his Chino Hills garden. Among his donations to the Los Angeles County Arboretum is a rare and expensive Indian bamboo that has grown into a graceful 30-foot black clump arcing down the path from the park's bamboo tunnel.
"I started out as a collector like most of us but then realized you could divide them and make more, and people buy them and even fight over them," Rehor says. "People go crazy."
Rehor supplied most of the bamboo that An Do planted at his home in Garden Grove, a corner lot close to Little Saigon. His tidy frontyard is just like his neighbors': neat lawn, cinder-block wall, a few short palms. It won't be that way for long. Do planted six giant clumpers including one of the most popular tropicals, Bambusa beecheyana, and one of the most prized, Dendrocalamus asper, a speedy grower whose black culm can rise to 100 feet.
"I know one man who had one of these. It was a little stalk in a pot -- just like a No. 2 pencil," Do says. "After two years he had about 30 huge bamboos. Unbelievable."
He points to a month-old planting with a 12-foot shoot. The secret, he says, is daily watering, loose soil and leaf mulch that provides enough silica to keep the plant happy.
He's most proud of his Dendrocalamus giganteus, a species with leaves up to 20 inches long and a native to his home country, Vietnam. For Do, bamboo is a deep part of his identity. Bamboo grew everywhere in the Mekong Delta, he says, where his family fled after the fall of Saigon.
"If you went into my house in Vietnam you could not find a nail." Do says. "It was 100% bamboo -- the rafters, the posts, twine, tools. I loved it. You come home and just look at it, and it relieves all your stress."