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Big on Bamboo

by: VERN UYETAKE, Paul Lee, owner of Bamboo Home and Garden in West Linn, stands on his proptery off Borland Road.

With just one turn off Borland Road in West Linn, motorists may find themselves in the midst of a bamboo jungle. On an eight acre parcel butting up to the Tualatin River, the Bamboo Home and Garden business shot up out of nowhere a decade ago and has been growing ever since.

Owner Paul Lee says that by carrying 150 different species of bamboo, homeowners, businesses and the adventurous can find exactly what they're looking for to enhance their landscaping through these unique grasses.

'One hundred percent of the time if (a client) wants bamboo and they come here, they'll find it,' said Lee, who operates the business by appointment only. 'You can do so many things with bamboo - trim it like a hedge, or build a wall.'

Lee uses a bamboo guidebook to explain the differences in the grasses while driving visitors around the property in a golf cart.

Whether the bamboo will be used for ground covering, erosion control, hedges, windbreaks, large groves, specimen plants or container plants, Lee says he works with customers to suggest varieties that will work best.

'People tell me where they want the bamboo to go and how much light they have. I ask how much space they have and even if it's just two feet, a medium sized bamboo will work,' said Lee.

Bamboo upbringing

Lee's love for bamboo stemmed from his upbringing in Hong Kong where he says, 'bamboo was everywhere.'

While living in the Lake Grove area of Lake Oswego, Lee wanted to use bamboo as screening between his house and neighbor's house but says he couldn't find any. So he started to grow bamboo. And when the bamboo outgrew his area, he realized he needed more space. He sold his restaurant businesses and moved to West Linn to sell and cultivate bamboo full time.

Lee planted one bamboo tree in 1996, and from there his West Linn business expanded. Paths twist and curve around different bamboo varieties and colors - some from Chili, some from Japan, some yellow, some black and some square shaped.

'I think bamboo grows pretty quick,' he says, 'you just have to water it.'

Bamboo grows in two different methods: clumping and running. Clumping bamboo spreads underground slowly and is better behaved than running bamboo. Running bamboo, if not controlled, will grow away from the mother plant in places it wasn't designated to grow. Heavy plastic is often used as a barrier underneath the soil to tame running bamboo. Lee uses this technique and suggests it to his customers.

A tropical terrain

Twenty different types of tropical bamboo grasses grow within an oversized green house. Lee drives his golf cart around the temperature-controlled building where plants are watered using automatic sprinklers.

'This room is great for customers to look at bamboo in the rain,' said Lee. 'Some plants (require) high light, low light and moderate light - (the variety) depends on where they want to place it.'

While half of his sales come from homeowners, Lee says he also sells bamboo for commercial projects. He says 75 large bamboo plants were moved to a children's hospital in Washington and planted in a courtyard. The plants - four inches in diameter and 40 feet tall - were uprooted and lifted with a truck hold. Then, they were transported by a trailer. Lee says these are some of the tallest bamboo plants that can grow in Oregon; he says he does not have any bamboo that grows over 40 feet.

For most residential projects, Lee transports the bamboo using his vehicles. While some bamboos can grow up to 118 feet - such as in Australia - Oregon's bamboo growing season is shorter that other climates because it has less sunlight year round. Lee says bamboo typically grows in Oregon from March through October, when it becomes dormant. With warmer spring weather, plants get new shoots - new bamboo culms that come out of the ground.

Lee says there are over 1,000 different species of bamboo and hundreds of different genera. And a unique characteristic of bamboo is its flowering times.

'They flower every hundred years or so, so once it's flowered we'll never see it flower again,' said Lee, who watched a bamboo plant closely that flowered in 2002.

Whether zipping around the property on his golf cart with his dog Yuki running beside him, or sitting behind his tiki bar desk made from bamboo, Lee surrounds himself with his favorite product each day at Bamboo Home and Garden - lots and lots of bamboo.

And while his business sprouts new plant life and changes everyday, he says he's only half way done developing the land.

He plans to continue adding to his collection of Chinese pots; He leaves this month for another buying trip in China. And he said he hopes to develop the rest of his property, which stretches to the Tualatin River.

Lee is a member of the Oregon Bamboo society - which holds meetings within a large building on the grounds. He is also affiliated with the American Bamboo Society, dedicated to the use, care, propagation and beauty of bamboo; the national group visited Bamboo Home and Garden a few years ago and built a truss with bamboo as a strength experiment.

Lee hopes to utilize this creation as another covered area for displays.

'It's been holding up well,' Lee said. 'When we finish up it'll be a display area for bamboo, planters and water features.'

Visit Bamboo Home and Garden at 2115 SW Borland Road. The store can be reached at 503-638-0888.