Most San Diegans believe that the stuff that grows along the San Diego River bed in Mission Valley is bamboo. But it’s not. It's Spanish reed.
  • Most San Diegans believe that the stuff that grows along the San Diego River bed in Mission Valley is bamboo. But it’s not. It's Spanish reed.
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In early September 1988, late at night, a canny thief scaled the fence at Quail Botanical Gardens in Encinitas and made his way to the tender shoots of ten exotic species of bamboo and, after cutting them with an expert’s care, disappeared with the shoots forever.

George Shor, president of the American Bamboo Society, about the coco-de-mer: “That, my son, is the largest nut in the world.”

Richard Haubrich, a Scripps geophysicist and cofounder of the American Bamboo Society, estimated $1000 worth of bamboo had been stolen that night, including cuttings from the enormous, grayish-green Bambusa beecheyana, a native of China, which takes as long as a century to reach maturity. Haubrich told the Los Angeles Times he was certain the kidnapped bamboo was destined for sale in the little-known underworld of stolen plants. And Haubrich wasn’t taking any more chances. He told the Times that as soon as he’d learned of the theft, 50 specimens of Quail’s rarer bamboos had been whisked to undisclosed locations throughout the county where they could continue to grow in safety.

Bambusa sinosspinosa. A local doctor, attending a convention in Canton, China, managed to dash to a field where he dug up roots of Bambusa sinosspinosa, which he spirited back to Quail Gardens.

Haubrich had every right to be cautious. Throughout the 1980s, he and his industrious crew of bamboo enthusiasts had with fanatical zeal searched the globe for rare and unusual varieties to add to the Quail Gardens collection. They trekked through rural Mexico, Costa Rica, and Taiwan. They traded with specialty nurseries and botanical gardens across the U.S. and in Japan. A local doctor, attending a medical convention in Canton, China, even managed, in a spare moment, to dash to a nearby field where he dug up and cut sample roots of Bambusa sinosspinosa, which he later spirited back to Quail Gardens. Haubrich and his minions were nothing if not dedicated. Some might say obsessed.

Their obsession paid off. From the time the American Bamboo Society was founded at Quail in 1981, the garden’s bamboo collection grew from a meager handful to more than 186 varieties, the largest bamboo collection in the United States. A collection whose scope and quality were so exceptional as to attract the attention of relatively rare bamboo thieves. Its tremendous expansion was due in large part to Haubrich’s having obtained a special permit from the USDA to import live bamboos, the first permit of its kind granted by the department to a private individual since 1914. The permit entailed the raising of funds for and the construction of a quarantine house for imported plants, which were not particularly easy tasks to accomplish — at the time the permit was granted, the American Bamboo Society had only a dozen members. But the permit and the quarantine house did open the door to some of Quail’s most spectacular bamboo, like the amazing Bambusa bambos from India.

Bambusa bambos talks, or seems to speak its own creepy bamboo language. When the wind moves through the tops of its thick and spiny 20-foot-tall stalks, Bambusa bambos squeaks, groans, and chatters. It’s an unearthly noise, one not particularly soothing even in broad daylight. On the bright, clear day I stood in Quail Gardens admiring the stand of Bambusa bambos, listening to its monologue, a pretty blond woman in her early 50s sidled up to me and whispered, “Just listen to it.”

“Odd, isn’t it?” I said.

“Oh, yes,” she continued. “I have a very dose friend in Pasadena who was forced from her home by Bambusa bambos. She and her husband had moved into a new house, and he was often away on business. There was a large stand of this bamboo right outside their bedroom window. At first she thought the bamboo was nice because it offered so much privacy. Then, while her husband was away, she noticed she was having trouble sleeping. She kept waking up, thinking she heard voices. It was the bamboo. The bamboo sounded like it was talking. She was terrified. She couldn’t sleep. Finally, they had to move.”

“My,” I said, glancing over my shoulder to see if George Shor, ABS’s current president, had arrived yet for our meeting. “That’s a very strange story.”

“It certainly is,” the nice blond woman said, eyebrows raised. “Very eerie. ”

I wished her a good day and, at a brisk canter, went to the garden’s visitors’ center, where I found Mr. Shor waiting patiently on a wooden bench. Shor is a tall, 72-year-old fellow with splendid graying eyebrows and a well-tended goatee. In a lyric baritone, he speaks in meticulous, fluid paragraphs, each thought leading methodically to the next. To hear him speak is to hear a fine, well-ordered mind at work; before retirement, Shor was for 38 years a marine geophysicist at Scripps, where he conducted research and also taught. I asked him if the bamboo world was rife with physicists.

“No,” he laughed. “But Quail Gardens is rife with retirees.”

He made a broad gesture with his hand at the gardens, which were, in fact, teeming with retiree volunteers, both male and female, bustling about happily with filthy hands and muddy-kneed khakis. In their 60s and 70s, they move through the grounds, weeding, pruning, cleaning, planting, darting around in electric work carts. They stop to tell each other jokes and to flirt with each other in a coy, decorous way. It’s an Edenic scene Shor led me through on our way to the bamboo stands on the garden’s northwestern edge. The sun was warm, the breeze mild, quail gamboled, lizards scuttled, butterflies and hummingbirds flitted and zipped, and the air was filled with the scent of flowers and the tangy eucalyptus mulch spread many inches deep throughout the grounds. It’s very much as though these older folks have in their leisure rewarded themselves with a few acres of hard-earned heaven on earth.

As current president of the American Bamboo Society, Shor’s particular corner of heaven is the glamorous, arching clumps and groves of the plant grown to dramatic heights. Shor leads me deep into the cool, emerald-green light at the center of a grove of Phyllostachays vivax.

“This,” Shor says proudly, “is bamboo.”

Most San Diegans, he explains, believe that the leafy, green and beige stuff that grows in their back yards, canyons, and along the San Diego River bed in Mission Valley is bamboo. But it’s not.

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