City staff: Bamboo problem is real

Aug. 07, 2014 @ 04:44 PM

Agreeing with a Kent Street resident, senior officials from the General Services Department told the City Council on Thursday that Durham does in fact have a bamboo problem.

But it’s one that the city falls short of having the legal or actual tools to fight, department Director Joel Reitzer and Urban Forestry Division Manager Kevin Lilly said.

“In just the Duke University neighborhoods alone, we don’t have the staff to address it without first regulating its importation into the city,” Lilly said.

And it’s doubtful that Durham has permission from the N.C. General Assembly to ban the sale of the invasive bamboo variants at issue, City Attorney Patrick Baker added.

The bamboo issue first surfaced on the council’s radar early this summer, when Kent Street homeowner June Forsyth came to a meeting to ask officials to help get rid of an infestation next to her home, part of it on the public right of way.

Forsyth returned Thursday to suggest that the council follow the example of communities like Newtown, Conn., declare the plant a public nuisance and tightly regulate any plantings of it.

Bamboo is, botanically speaking, a form of grass. There are about 1,000 different types of bamboo, but the one Forsyth is most concerned about goes by the scientific name Phyllostachys aureosulcata.

It’s more commonly called “running bamboo” or “yellow grove bamboo.”

Native to Asia, it’s capable of growing quickly to about 35 feet in height and spreading well beyond its initial bed. And in practical terms, it’s almost unkillable, with even nuclear weapons proving inadequate to the task.

Plant-wise, “it’s so hardy that when Hiroshima was bombed, running bamboo was the first thing to emerge,” Forsyth said.

The key to that hardiness is bamboo’s root system, stems called rhizomes that can breed new plants even when fragmented. Think of a ginger root, minced, and assume every little piece your knife creates can spawn a whole new plant.

That means you can’t get rid of bamboo by chopping it down, or even necessarily by pulling it up. More extreme measures are required.

Typically, eradication requires three seasons of cutting, followed by an application of Roundup or similar herbicides, and then finally burning, Lilly said.

“You can also backhoe out the root systems, but you then have to sterilize the soils,” he added.

Bamboo is present in 57 to 60 Durham neighborhoods, Lilly said.

The city’s land-use ordinance does bar developers from planting it in new neighborhoods. But nothing, legally speaking, prevents garden stores from selling it or people in existing neighborhoods from planting it.

The issue for Forsyth and people in other communities who want legal curbs on bamboo plantings is that unchecked – and for the reasons already mentioned it’s almost always unchecked – bamboo can spread to neighboring property. It can destroy landscaping and gardens, and damage walkways, driveways and, in extreme cases, houses.

Forsyth is a gardener – she’s an officer in the Durham Council of Garden Clubs – and was thus distressed when her neighbor’s stand began spreading into her property.

But Reitzer and Lilly were clear Thursday in telling council members she’s not exaggerating the issue.

“We agree with Ms. Forsyth in terms of the nature of the plant material,” Reitzer said.

“There is no dispute with her characterization,” Lilly added.

They added that Lilly’s staff does try to control the plant on public property, through annual cuttings. But full-on eradication “just isn’t feasible for the city at this time,” Lilly said.

City Manager Tom Bonfield said the right-of-way cuttings will continue, and Baker said he’ll research the extent of the city’s legal authority to deal with the issue. But it was unclear what additional steps officials will take.

Mayor Bill Bell underscored the newness of the issue.

“You brought, at least to my attention and the council’s attention, something I was not aware of before,” he told Forsyth.