Treasured in the culinary world for enhancing sweet and savory dishes, rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum) is an attractive addition to a home garden. The robust perennial thrives in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 3 through 8 and can be grown as an ornamental plant or a valuable vegetable. Bamboo (Bambusa Schreb.) is also prized for its function and form. However, the prolific perennial is a grass, which features nearly 2,000 species, including clumping varieties that flourish in USDA zones 8 through 10. Recognizing the difference between rhubarb and bamboo can help you produce a sustainable garden.
Examine the plant's leaves. Healthy specimens of rhubarb have large, smooth and dark green leaves with pleated edges that resemble those of a rose. Despite their attractive appearance, rhubarb leaves are inedible as they contain high concentrations of poisonous oxalic acid crystals. Bamboo foliage is light green, slender and pointed at the tip. The narrow leaves resemble large blades of grass and feature tiny hairlike projections around the edges.
Closely inspect the plant's stalk. Rhubarb stalks should be greenish-red in color and feel like smooth celery. The fibers in the stalk become less pronounced when heat is added. Cooked rhubarb adds tang and texture to pies, jams and tarts. Raw rhubarb is tough and sour. Bamboo stalks are thick, fibrous and feature varying shades of green and yellow. Certain species, including the Phyllosachys nuda, feature edible stems that resemble asparagus and taste like corn. The popular bamboo species grows well in USDA zones 6 through 8 and produces tender shoots that are commonly added to vegetable stir-fry recipes or boiled with pork and chicken to eliminate bitterness.
Look at the plant's flowers. Rhubarb features small greenish-white flowers that bloom on the end of its stems. The blossoms form thick clusters that contain seeds and often congregate in the middle of the plant. Bamboo flowers are white or light yellow; however, their appearance typically signifies the perennial’s impending death. Species such as Phyllostachys bambusoides, which thrives in USDA zones 7 through 10, can survive if its delicate flowers are removed immediately after they begin to blossom.
Tips & Warnings
- When in doubt differentiating between bamboo and rhubarb, look at the size of the perennials. Most mature rhubarb species average about 4 feet in height. Meanwhile, bamboo can grow to heights that exceed 20 feet.
- Don’t be fooled into thinking the Japanese Knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum), which grows in USDA zones 5 through 9, is a type of bamboo. While it’s commonly referred to as Japanese or Mexican bamboo, and features many of the same characteristics as the perennial grass, it is a member of the Buckwheat family.
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