Jeff Straub and Kelly Nash Straub stand in their bamboo garden in Ashland. - Jim Craven

'They have a song'

ASHLAND — If you want a grove of tall, hardy, rapidly growing, exotic-looking evergreen plants in your yard, bamboo might be the way to go.

However, as Jeff Straub of Ashland will caution you, bamboo is not for everyone.

You have to be a "bamboo person," a gardener not afraid of an amazingly persistent plant (actually it's a grass) that can grow to its full 35-foot height in a month, as one did in his side yard, and send out 12-foot runners that bloom with their own bamboo "trees."

If you can keep it under control, Straub says, the esthetic rewards are many — the golden-bronze trunks, the busy leaves responding to the slightest breeze with whispers and sighs, a nice meditation spot and a landscape feature that responds well to accoutrements like pottery, statues and rock gardens.

"If they had a personality, I would say it's gentle and calming. They have a song. They dance and flutter and draw hundreds of finches, also hummingbirds, and it's wonderful to sleep on the back deck in summer and hear them all night," says Kelly Nash Straub, Jeff's wife.

People often line up in the alley off their backyard, taking in the sound, sway and sumptuous beauty of the bamboo grove, sometimes asking for a start. However, says Jeff Straub, they don't sprout from starts. You have to get them with a good root system. A paraphrase of an old Asian proverb says, "If you get a root ball one man can carry, it will establish itself well in 10 years — or if you get a rootball 10 men can carry, it will do it in one year."

Jeff Straub, the son of the late Oregon Gov. Bob Straub, found his fondness for bamboo during a stint in Air Force intelligence in Thailand. Decades ago, he picked up two small plants from a nursery, plus a few more given to him by homeowners who couldn't fight the bamboo battle.

Behind his 1885 Railroad District home on B Street (near 4th), the Straubs let their plants get a head of steam, sometimes cutting a hole in their deck to let them through. A few crossed the property line, but the neighbors seem OK with it, he adds. The neighbor on the other side warns him not to cut them down and appreciates that he buried metal sheeting to stop runners into her yard.

New sprouts can be nipped off to halt spreading — and the sprouts also can be cooked and eaten.

When growing up, Straub's sons made use of the hearty, fibrous wood for flutes, a didgeridoo and shakuhachi (Japanese flute). Jeff Straub weaves the stalks (called culms) as fencing to keep the bamboo in.

While many might think of bamboo as tropical or Asian (the word is Indonesian), it handles cold and high-elevation climes and is found in most of the world except Europe and Canada. It suffers under Ashland's occasional snow, but bounces right back on the next warm day, the Straubs say.

Bamboo comes in more than 1,000 species and is sold according to whether it has runners or clumped roots, the latter being easier to keep from running your life. Southern Oregon Nursery in Medford sells them starting at $9 in a gallon pot. It's called a gold-striped dwarf and will grow to only 3 feet. There's one at $70 that promises a 20-foot height. Prices top out at $132.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at

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