Thursday, November 11, 2010

What’s so special about bamboo anyway?

Cousin S. recently asked what was so special about bamboo. I could simply say that I like the way it looks, but there’s so much more than that. A quick Google search will lead you to a treasure trove of information—more than you ever wanted to know, I guarantee you! I don’t want to duplicate what other people have already said more eloquently and convincingly than I could, but here are some of the major aspects that I find particularly intriguing, ranging from the objective to the purely subjective.

Environmental benefits

Bamboo releases 35% more oxygen into the air than a tree of similar size.

Bamboo is very efficient at removing CO2 from the air (a process called “carbon sequestration”); some species remove as much as 50,000 pounds per acre per year. Some scientists say that bamboo as a carbon sink can aid in reducing global warming.

Because of its dense network of rhizomes and roots, bamboo is ideally suited for erosion control, preventing runoff damage to fragile areas and retaining up to 100% more water in the watershed.

Superior building material

Bamboo has a tensile strength higher than many steel alloys, which makes it a superior material for home construction in many parts of the world, especially tropical regions where the culms (canes) of indigenous bamboos grow to a sizable diameter.

In Central and Latin America, Guadua angustifolia, which can grow to 70 ft. in height with 6” diameter culms, and other guadua species, are widely used as a building material. Guadua’s rot-resistance is superior even to hardwood, which makes it ideal for use in humid environments. Colombian architect Simón Vélez has gained an international reputation for building structures with guadua. This site contains many photos of bamboo buildings designed by Vélez.

In China, Phyllostachys edulis, the famed Moso bamboo, covers millions of acres and is used to make everything from tubing for aqueducts to bamboo flooring. Most, if not all, bamboo flooring sold in the U.S. is from Moso bamboo. If you’ve seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, you will remember the dance-like duel between two of the major characters in the tops of giant bamboo “trees”; that scene was filmed in the Moso forests of Anji, China.

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Moso bamboo flooring in our house

Versatile landscaping plant

Bamboo is the fastest growing plant on earth. Some large species have been measured growing as much as 40 inches in a 24-hour period. This is a lovely piece of trivia but not really meaningful in concrete terms for most people. However, it is that potential for rapid growth that makes bamboo such a useful landscaping plant.

Case in point: Last winter the City of Davis removed a 40 ft. ornamental pear tree in our front yard because of mistletoe infestation that caused branches to fall off.

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Bradford pear tree in front of our house before it was removed in January of 2010

All of a sudden we were faced with the loss of a major source of shade for our house. Planting another tree, even a fast-growing one, would have meant waiting 10+ for a significant amount of shade. Instead we decided to plant a giant clumping timber bamboo (Bambusa oldhamii) that has the potential to grow to 50 ft. in 5-7 years. In spite of its towering height, the base of the plant stays tight and compact—ideal for where we planted it.

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Giant clumping timber bamboo (Bambusa oldhamii) after just 8 months in the ground

At the other end of the spectrum, there are many low-growing bamboos that make good groundcovers, especially in a larger yard where they can be given free reign. (In smaller yards care must be taken to confine energetic running species, otherwise they might stray from their intended planting area.)

Cultural benefits

In the West, bamboo is a novelty phenomenon. In Asia, it has been an integral part of everyday life for thousands of years. It is a major food source, is used to make medicine as well as paper, implements and tools of every description, and serves as inspiration for music, painting and poetry. Few other plants, if any, have been so intricately linked to the development of mankind throughout the ages. I find that to be both inspirational and humbling.

Beauty

And finally, the most important—and most personal—aspect of all: I truly love the look of bamboo.

I love the way the leaves move in the breeze, and I love the many different colors the culms come in—green, gray, brown, red, yellow, black and shades in between. I love the sound of rustling leaves and clacking culms—if you’ve ever heard bamboo wind chimes, you know what I mean. I love how some culms are straight, presenting a very formal and almost regal look, while others arch gracefully under the weight of their green load, forming a protective canopy for the plants growing beneath. I love the atmosphere of faraway lands that bamboo imparts to our Western yard, allowing me to dream of exotic places I will never see. I love the physical plant that I can touch, and I love the emotions it invokes in me.

Bamboo makes me happy—what more could I ask?

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Chocolate bamboo (Borinda fungosa)
in our backyard

4 comments:

  1. You're making a convert of me!

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  2. You didn't mention one of the best traits from a gardener's perspective: shooting season! In the spring when most temperate bamboos produce new shoots, there's a great deal of anticipation and excitement while waiting for the shoots to emerge. How many will there be? How much larger will they be than last year?
    .
    If you're a gardener who gets excited by the sight of seedlings emerging or perennials putting on their new growth after winter, bamboo shoots emerging sometimes overnight will be one of the highlights of the season for you. It's exciting!

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  3. Alan, you are RIGHT. I don't know how I could have missed that, considering I constantly look for new shoots. Even at this time of year I have bamboos shooting: Bambusa oldhamii, Chimonobambusa marmorea, Yushania boliana, Himalayacalamus hookerianus 'Teague's Blue'. And I found a new shoot on my Fargesia robusta already; typically it doesn't shoot until late January or February.

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