What is Chusquea?

Terrie Brockmann
Terrie Brockmann
Man mowing the grass
Man mowing the grass

Chusquea is the name of a plant genus of the Poaceae, or bamboo, family and contains more than 130 species of plants. These plants usually are native to upland woodlands in parts of Mexico down to Chile. Unlike most bamboo plants, Chusquea plants are solid inside the culms. Although the culms usually are tall and straight, many species have arching branches that droop, which explains the common name for C. culeou, Chilean weeping plant.

Typically these evergreen, clump-forming bamboos have cylindrical, smooth, and glossy culms with three primary branches that are borne in whorls alternately at nodes. Each branch usually bears linear-shaped to ovate leaves that are pointed and thorn-like at the end. The glossy leaves range in color from medium green to dark green, with some species having yellowish green leaves. C. coronalis from the regions around Guerrero, Mexico, has very small leaves borne in whorls around the culms at the nodes.

The plant C. culeou, which people sometimes call the Chilean feather bamboo, develops upright culms that have weeping branches. Some describe it as an ostrich tail because the foliage is feather-like. The branches may measure from 4 to 32 inches (10 to 80 cm) long, arise alternately, and almost circle the white, waxy nodes. When the leaves die, the stems do not fall, giving the plant a whiskered look on the lower culms. The plant may grow from 12 to 20 feet (4 to 6 m) tall, and usually experts do not recommend it for container growing.

The smaller C. nigricas may grow from 6 to 15 feet (about 2 to 5 m) tall and generally is a popular garden bamboo plant. A clump-forming species, it may expand to 12 feet (4 m) in diameter. For smaller gardens or container displays, there are dwarf cultivars of different Chusquea species.

A climbing bamboo, C. abietifolia is native to the mountains of Jamaica and seldom grows wild except in Jamaica and a few places in the West Indies. The culms are very thin, up to 0.25 inches (6.3 mm) in diameter. Botanists theorize that the plant blooms, bears fruit, and dies. Some people say that the plant has a bloom cycle of once every 33 years.

People where Chusquea bamboo is native use the culms to make musical instruments, such as the pan flute. Some of these instruments, called trutruca, had religious significance in ancient ceremonies. In modern times, it is mostly a recreational instrument. Other uses of bamboo culms include spears for fishing and hunting. Bamboo usually is exceptionally strong, and often the culms grow very straight.

Gardeners use Chusquea bamboo plants as specimen plants, for screening and hedges, and as ground cover plants. The diverse growing characteristics of the different species generally are why gardeners include them in landscapes. Usually growers propagate Chusquea plants by sowing the seeds, dividing clumps, and dividing rhizomes.

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