Be like bamboo: flexible but with integrity

Bamboo scholar Ned Jaquith to speak at PSU

Ned Jaquith’s Bamboo Garden Nursery is an emerald grove of gently nodding exotic grasses that stretch up to 40 feet tall.

Bamboo scholar Ned Jaquith to speak at PSU
Symbol of resilience: Just one of many specimens of bamboo in the LanSu Chinese Garden.
Saria Dy / Vanguard Staff
Symbol of resilience: Just one of many specimens of bamboo in the LanSu Chinese Garden.

Ned Jaquith’s Bamboo Garden Nursery is an emerald grove of gently nodding exotic grasses that stretch up to 40 feet tall.

Despite their foreign origins, the bamboo look right at home amid the stands of Douglas-fir, western red cedar, elm and maple trees that accent the 20-acre property. Jaquith purchased the plot of woodland just north of North Plains 28 years ago and has been selecting and propagating varieties from at least three continents ever since.

Jaquith will be imparting some of his vast knowledge of bamboo in a lecture on the woody grass as a part of the East Asia Program Series First Saturday program. He plans to discuss some of the 300 or so varieties of bamboo that he tends, with a special emphasis on the 17 or so types that he donated to the LanSu Chinese Garden when it first opened in 2000.

Jaquith was an early member of the board of directors of the Classical Chinese Garden Society, the precursor to the actual garden, which formed in 1985. His interest in the garden was prefigured by his interest in bamboo. He’s been a member of the American Bamboo Society since 1980.

“I went to a plant sale at a place called the Huntington Garden, which is big beautiful garden near Pasadena, Calif., and at the sale I bought a dozen different bamboo and I joined the bamboo society right there,” Jaquith said.

The East Asia Program Series is a collaboration between PSU and the LanSu Chinese Garden that aims to enlighten the general public about Chinese culture and to further their appreciation of the garden. The program began in 2001 as a means to further educate the docents of the garden and was brought to the PSU campus late last year under the auspice of the East Asia Program, a department of the Institute for Asian Studies.

The lecture series has technically always been open to the public, but the garden did very little in the way of publicizing what they simply called First Saturdays, according to Katherine Morrow, programs administrator for the Institute for Asian Studies.

“The caliber of the speakers was phenomenal,” she said. “The topics had wide appeal, and I thought, ‘Why not open it up to a larger audience?’”

Dennis Lee got involved in the Classical Chinese Garden Society in 1999, and he suggested the layout for the garden tour that is still used today. The program was started, he remembers, as a way to advance the cultural enrichment of the docents, in whose company he counted himself. Lee explained that to understand the garden, one needs to understand not just horticulture, but Chinese culture.

“We started out very simply. We said, ‘Let’s talk about Chinese New Year. It’s coming up, everyone hears about it, but do they really understand the traditions behind it?’” Lee said. “So our very first meeting, we had about 30 people show up.”

The importance of bamboo in both Chinese culture and horticulture is difficult to overstate.

“What do the Chinese eat with?” Lee asked.

Bamboo chopsticks is the answer—chopsticks that they may use to eat bamboo shoots from bamboo dishes. Traditionally, the Chinese lay down on bamboo mats. They build on bamboo scaffolding. They thresh grain with bamboo. The list goes on. If the practical uses of bamboo are extensive, its symbolic significance is intensive.

The LanSu Garden is a specific type of garden known as a Scholar’s Garden, according to Lee. Bamboo traditionally signifies the scholar, in that it grows upright and bends, but does not easily break. It represents resilience. This is a historically important quality for Chinese scholars.

Lee cites one example of the plant’s symbolic significance: “In China during the Ming, Ching and earlier dynasties, the government had many scholars. You want to learn how to bend, but you want to maintain your integrity” in order to be an effective bureaucrat, he said.

He described the importance of light and shadow in the garden and the effect of a particular stand of bamboo of a variety called Moso. If one visits the garden at a certain hour of the morning, the sun rises behind this tall stand of bamboo and casts a perfect silhouette onto one of the garden’s white walls. The effect lasts for a few minutes, and then disappears.

Jaquith said Moso is his favorite bamboo, as it has many small leaves branching out from a large stem, called a “culm” in bamboo terminology. From a distance, it takes on the feathery appearance of a stalk of fennel.

Bamboo is a member of the grass family poaceae, the subfamily bambusoideae and the tribe bambuseae. There are bamboo native to every continent except Europe and Antarctica, and they thrive in a variety of climates. Bamboo spreads through underground rhizomes as well as seeds. There were once vast fields of a North American variety of bamboo, Arundinaria gigantea, blanketing river valleys in the southeastern United States, from Florida to Ohio.

There’s a lot to know about bamboo, and Jaquith will be sharing it for free.