Running bamboo

Running bamboo: critics say it's unstoppable. (Courtesy Caryn Rickel / Institute of Invasive Bamboo Research photo / May 29, 2013)

It's been called by one bitter antagonist possibly "the worst alien invader the USA has ever encountered. The invasions are widespread and the damage reports are coming in from all our states."

A Westport victim warns that it "spread like wildfire... You cannot kill it, stop it" without some extreme measures involving big-ass equipment. Similar cries of desperation and reports of destruction are coming from New Milford, Southbury, New Haven, Branford, New London, Preston, East Lyme, Higganum and Orange — from all over Connecticut.

The target of all this anger and hatred isn't some terrorist cell, it's phyllostachys aureosulcata, and phyllostachys bissetii, types of ornamental trees from China more commonly known as "running bamboo" and "yellow-grove bamboo."

You'd think that, with so many people getting so ticked off over this freakin' plant, Connecticut officials would simply ban the stuff from being sold in this state.

But that isn't happening. State experts say this "aggressive" and "difficult to control" monster doesn't belong on Connecticut's Invasive Plants List. According to their investigations, running bamboo can only spread near someplace where it's been planted by humans, and poses no significant threat to the state's natural environment.

This state's commercial nursery and greenhouse owners insist running bamboo is one seriously misunderstood species of vegetation. "It's actually a wonderful plant," says Kevin Sullivan, owner of Chestnut Hill Nursery in Stafford Springs. "There are people who love this stuff."

Plus they really, really don't want anyone telling them they can't keep on selling these things. Profit, after all, is profit.

The running-bamboo bill now working its way through the well-manured political soil of Connecticut's General Assembly would pre-empt the kinds of local bamboo bans enacted in several Long Island communities recently.

Instead, this legislation would require sellers of running bamboo to educate buyers on how to control it, and would make someone who plants these suckers responsible for any damage to neighboring property. And that means the greenhouse or nursery that sold the bamboo has no liability at all.

"If I was a property owner," says William Hyatt, chairman of Connecticut's Invasive Plants Council, "I would find that [liability issue] a significant disincentive for planting bamboo."

"This bill was long overdue, as bamboo victims with serious damages are calling from every town for help," says Caryn Rickel of Seymour, a bamboo victim herself and creator of the Institute of Invasive Bamboo Research.

The only way to get rid of it once it has invaded is with a backhoe or a bulldozer. And you have to burn the broken roots or they'll return to life and start the entire frightening scenario all over again.

In 2010, the Invasive Plants Council conducted an initial investigation and found no reason to ban the plant. More complaints prompted a repeat review last year, and the result was the same: as bad as this sucker could be for neighbors, it simply doesn't qualify as "invasive" under the state's technical definition.

"It needs to be able to invade and exist in high numbers in natural habitats," says Hyatt. Running bamboo can only spread through connected root systems, and apparently isn't able to displace native plants. There apparently was a suggestion at one of the council's meetings on this plant to have it designated as "potentially invasive," which could theoretically have led to a ban on sales of running bamboo.

That idea was voted down (you need to get a two-thirds majority vote on the council for that sort of action), but the mere possibility of a running-bamboo ban triggered a fierce reaction from greenhouse industry types.

According to one state source, who didn't want to be identified because of the touchiness of this issue, the behind-the-scenes action got pretty nasty at times.

Connecticut's Department of Agriculture, which one might expect to have an opinion on this plant-related controversy, has remained suspiciously silent on the running-bamboo bill. An agency spokesman declined to comment for this story.

Another sign of how wary people are comes from Rickel. Her website is the one that labels running bamboo "the worst alien invader the USA has ever encountered." But when asked if she wishes Connecticut's legislature had simply banned the sale of this plant, Rickel's only answer is, "No comment."

Bob Heffernan is executive director of the Connecticut Green Industries Council and of the Connecticut Greenhouse Growers Association. He's also the chief industry lobbyist who's been pushing hard to get the compromise bill approved.

Heffernan argues that there's simply no reason to restrict the sales of running bamboo, "because it's so easily contained."

According to literature put out by the Connecticut Nursery & Landscape Association, the proper way to contain running bamboo is to "construct a barrier out of polyethylene, metal, cement or fiberglass to surround the plant and avoid undesirable spread."

Both Heffernan and Sullivan insist running bamboo isn't even that big a profit item for Connecticut nurseries and greenhouses. "In the grand scheme of things," Heffernan says, "it's not a big seller at all."

As far as a lot of Connecticut homeowners are concerned, the "grand scheme of things," when it comes to running bamboo, adds up to just one thing:

A botanical nightmare.

Follow @GregoryBHladky on Twitter