Bamboo in America

Bamboo in America

By Janet Mosely

Barbour Lathrop
Shortly before his death, Barbour Lathrop visited the bamboo groves he donated to the USDA in 1919. The Federal Plant Introduction Garden would be posthumously renamed in his honor as The Barbour Lathrop Plant Introduction Garden. Savannah, Georgia. November 19, 1926.
David Bisset
David Bisset, USDA superintendent of the Federal Plant Introduction Garden, standing by a new planting of bamboo species being tested as possible mule fodder. November 19, 1926.
David Fairchild
David Fairchild inspecting a gatepost of concrete and bamboo that he had made three years earlier at the Federal Plant Introduction Garden in Savannah, Georgia. November 20, 1926.
Bamboo lumberyard in Tokyo
A photo of a bamboo lumberyard in Tokyo, taken by David Fairchild during his 1902 trip to Japan with Barbour Lathrop.

The Barbour Lathrop Plant Introduction Garden pays homage to the world traveler's passion for introducing exotic plants to the United States.

The plant that the philanthropist and world traveler Barbour Lathrop was most passionate about introducing to the United States was bamboo.  This says a lot, considering he was passionate about many plants whose introduction to the U. S. economy and culture was the driving goal of his exploratory voyages around the world.

The study and collection of bamboo was the primary focus of Lathrop’s third expedition with David Fairchild while they were in Japan in 1902.    “One of the main things here is the Bamboo,” he told Fairchild, according to The World Was My Garden.  “I want to finance a big shipment of the plants to America.  We should have them at home.  Bamboo is beautiful as well as useful.  The Japanese use it for everything.  It may take a long time before Americans learn how to use it, but they’ll never learn if we do not introduce the plant.  Don’t spend so much time on other things that you can’t study the bamboos.” 

A large part of the story of bamboo’s introduction to the United States lies in the Fairchild Archive Collections, which include correspondence and photographs spanning the years 1902 to 1955.  During these years the main location for the introduction and study of bamboo was the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Barbour Lathrop Plant Introduction Garden in Savannah, Georgia.  Its story starts in 1890 when Mrs. H. B. Miller planted three giant Japanese timber bamboos, Phyllostachys bambusoides, in the garden of her farm along the Ogeechee River. The parent plants had been brought to Georgia in the 1880’s by a rice planter named Andres E. Moynelo.  Miller's three plants  grew into what was then the largest grove of Japanese bamboo in the country.

In 1915, Col. S. B. Dayton, who worked on Mrs. Miller’s farm, feared the grove would be destroyed.  He wrote to David Fairchild in Washington, D.C. that the owner of the grove planned to cut it down and asked Fairchild  to save it.  Fairchild was amazed to find a grove of valuable Japanese timber bamboo growing to fifty feet and covering approximately one acre.  He told Lathrop about the grove and suggested he buy it.  In 1919, Lathrop bought the 46-acre property and gave it to the USDA for use as a Federal Plant Introduction Garden.  In May 1927, shortly after Lathrop’s death, the garden name was officially changed to the Barbour Lathrop Plant Introduction Garden in recognition of Lathrop’s contributions to economic horticulture in the United States.

The next five years saw the development of the farm into a fully functional federal plant introduction garden.  In 1924, David Bisset took over as Superintendent of the Garden, a post he would hold until his death in 1957.  The correspondence between Bisset and David Fairchild details bamboo introduction successes and failures, as well as dealings with other interested cultivators and business people, botanists and plant collectors.  Bisset worked tirelessly to promote bamboo cultivation in the United States and was honored in 1956 by having a species, Phyllostachys bissetii, named after him.

Although no longer a federal plant introduction garden, Barbour Lathrop’s bamboo grove can still be visited as part of the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens which is part of the University of Georgia’s Cooperative Extension Service.  It is said to be the largest bamboo collection open to the public in the United States. 

Note: This article also appeared in Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden's magazine The Tropical Garden 68(3):64. In the printed article, David Bisset is mistakenly identified as Peter Bisset in the text and one picture. Both David and Peter worked for the USDA: Peter was David's father. [Our thanks to the Bisset family for providing us with that information.]

Phyllostachys shoot
Sent to David Fairchild at the USDA by Col. S. B. Dayton in May 1915, this large Phyllostachys shoot prompted the USDA's Peter Bisset to visit the bamboo grove outside Savannah, Georgia in July of that year. He reported its value to Fairchild, who convinced Barbour Lathrop to buy the land in 1919. Lathrop then leased the land to the USDA for $1 to be used as a federal plant introduction garden.

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Please contact:
Nancy Korber
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden Center for Tropical Plant Conservation
11935 Old Cutler Road
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