In the foothills of Mount Fuji, there is a fascinating botanical garden devoted to the cultivation and display of bamboo plants and products. Unique in this country, the Fuji Bamboo Garden, which opened on its 4-hectare site in 1951, cultivates more than 500 species and cultivars of bamboo from around the world. The garden has also organized the Nihon Take Sasa no Kai (Japan Bamboo and Sasa Group) to promote the study of both tall bamboos and the lower-growing forms called sasa.

A mature stand of towering tortoiseshell bamboo (above) at the Fuji Bamboo Garden (below), from where this fine view of Mount Fuji may be had while also seeing more than 500 different types of bamboo

The natural distribution of bamboo is mainly in tropical and temperate Asia, with a small number of species coming from Central and South America. Though not native to the United States or the British Isles, bamboo is also very popular with gardeners there.

From a gardening point of view, they have a number of qualities. First, they are evergreen, while some have variegated foliage and others have colored stems. Low-growing types have attractive foliage and can be planted in large numbers to give a carpetlike effect. Then, once established, maintenance is easy as long as the plants get lots of sun and are in humus-rich soil with good drainage. In addition, the amenity value of bamboo is also very important, and ornamental species are widely used as hedges, ground cover, specimen plants and even for bonsai.

At Fuji Bamboo Garden, the soil is deep and fertile with almost no stones. The bamboos there are grown in specially built beds, with concrete walls 1-meter deep sunk into the soil. This is to prevent the species and cultivars from becoming a tangled mess.

Until quite recently, bamboo played a very important role in the daily lives of ordinary Japanese people, as a food source, in construction and for making paper, baskets, arrows and a host of other things. At the Visitor Center you can see these bamboo products on display, as well as a bamboo palanquin which was used to carry travelers up and down the Hakone-area roads and tracks before the advent of cars. That must have been back-breaking work.

Though bamboo is firmly rooted in Japan’s history, in recent years there have been signs of a revival of interest in it, and you don’t have to look very far to see either bamboo plants or things made from bamboo.

One hardy annual, as it were, is the kadomatsu, a traditional New Year’s decoration which uses a pine branch and a freshly cut, stout bamboo. The tea whisks (chasen), used for mixing powdered green tea in traditional tea ceremonies, are also made from bamboo, as they have been since the Muromachi Period (1338-1573). Although the bamboo used for these is known as ha-chiku in Japanese, or botanically as Phyllostachys nigra var. henonis, which would suggest it is black, when in fact it is a normal green bamboo that dries to a yellow color. For tea whisks, though, its great feature is that its stem is easy to crack vertically.

Oddly enough, the new shoots of black bamboo, or kuro-chiku (Phyllostachys nigra), are green, though they begin turning black in the autumn of their first year. Fully grown, this species only stands 2-4 meters high, with stems 1-2 cm across, making it ideal for a small garden or balcony, where it will tolerate some shade. Aside from also being used for tea whisks, this black bamboo is utilized to make walking sticks, umbrella handles, furniture and musical instruments like flutes.

Meanwhile, those very tall bamboo that can be found growing all over the countryside, even in southern Hokkaido, are two other species in the genus Phyllostachys, which are members of the grass family, Gramineae.

The most commonly seen tall bamboo is the giant timber bamboo, or ma-dake (P. bambusoides). This is native to China but has long been cultivated in Japan, with its stems (correctly known as culms) reaching 8-15 meters high with a diameter of 7-15 cm. Take-no-ko, spring shoots of this bamboo, are a popular seasonal food both in Japan and China. When used for pulp, this bamboo can produce twice as much per ton as pine trees can. Amazingly, the flowering cycle of this bamboo is once every 120 years! Newly emerged shoots are covered with a hairless brown sheath, which is commonly used to wrap food and traditional sweets.

Moso bamboo, or mosochiku (P. edulis), which is also widely cultivated, was imported from the Jiangnan region of China around 250 years ago, and the first place it was grown was in the Iso Tei-en garden in Kagoshima. The newly emerged shoots are covered with hairy black sheaths, and the fastest recorded growth on new stems is an incredible 88 cm in one day. In mature clumps, they race toward their maximum height of 10-20 meters within one month.

One quick way to tell the giant timber bamboo and the moso bamboo apart is to look at the joints on their stems, with the former having two rings there while the latter has only one.

From ancient times, bamboo has been used for making fences in Japan. For this purpose, the thin and straight stem of the giant timber bamboo, ma-dake, has always been preferred over moso bamboo, although another species, the Simon bamboo, or medake (Pleioblastus simonii), is also popular as fencing. The Simon bamboo, whose stems are 3-4 meters high and 2-3 cm across, grows naturally in Japan and is especially abundant on the Izu Peninsula, while to see beautiful bamboo fences, the old daimyo gardens in Tokyo and temple gardens in Kyoto are good places to visit.

Aside from the “wild” bamboos, there are also many popular cultivars, including the tortoiseshell bamboo, or kikkochiku (Phyllostachys edulis var. hetercycla), which is a mutation of the moso bamboo. The distance between each ring on this bamboo is very short, and only the lower portion of the stem has the characteristic zigzag appearance. Good quality tortoiseshell bamboo is prized for use as tokobashira (alcove posts) in Japanese tearooms.

Another practical use of bamboo is in fishing, and the fish-pole bamboo, also known as golden bamboo, or hotei-chiku (Phyllostachys aurea), has yellow-green stems that in open ground can reach 5-12 meters high and 3-5 cm across. Native to southeast China and now naturalized in Japan, this is a particularly nice bamboo to grow in containers.

However, if it’s ground cover you’re after, the dwarf fern-leaf bamboo, or oroshima-chiku (Pleioblastus pygmaeus var. distichus), is probably for you. This grows to a maximum height of 20-50 cm. In front of the Visitor Center, there is an excellent example of how effective it is as ground cover, although it, too, can also be grown in pots on a balcony. Either way, a twice-a-year trimming with shears will help keep this plant and its leaves small. The first cut should be in March, along with an application of fertilizer, with the second cut in June.

Every November, the Fuji Bamboo Garden — which also sells bamboos — holds a “Bamboo Week,” which this year is Nov. 11-Nov. 17. Events include making bamboo drums, toys, charcoal, and planters — as well as outdoor cooking with bamboo. Classes are for 25-30 people and cost 300 yen to 2,000 yen.