By Amanda Rofe

Bamboo is described as ‘friend of the people’ in China, ‘wood of the poor’ in India and ‘brother’ in Vietnam. This gives some indication of its incredible importance throughout the world. To say that it is a useful plant does it an injustice as it stands head and shoulders above the rest.

Old as the hills

Bamboo is an ancient grass and has been in existence for around 200 million years. Belonging to the Poaceae or Gramineae family, Bamboo has roughly 90 genera and over 1200 species. It is native to every continent but Europe and the poles, and will grow from sea level up to 12,000 feet.

Bamboo is broadly divided into sympodial (pachymorph) and monopodial (leptomorph) according to its rhizomes that are an underground system of buds and roots. Sympodial bamboo has ‘clumping’ rhizomes and is tropical and frost sensitive. Monopodial has ‘running’ rhizomes and is hardy and thrives in climates with pronounced winters.

Above ground, the aerial parts of the plant are called the culms (stems or canes) and support the branches and leaves. All parts of the plant except the fine roots and the leaves comprise of a series of nodes (the knobbly bits) and internodes. The solid nodes and hollow internodes make the plant strong, flexible and lightweight.

Although some species flower annually, bamboo normally reproduces by new shoots that sprout from the rhizomes. Flowering is often gregarious which means that all plants of the same species flower at the same time and then die. New plants are cultivated from the seeds.

Bamboo is mostly evergreen with many different guises ranging from short scrubby bush to giant skyscraper towering over 100 feet with a diameter of nearly a foot.

Around the world

Bamboo provides income and housing for millions of people throughout the world. Although statistics are fragmented, it is estimated that Asia has 65 per cent of the world’s share of bamboo with America at 28 per cent and Africa at 7 per cent. China is the richest country in Asia in terms of bamboo resources and has the earliest history of usage in the world. In the last 15 years there have been large-scale commercial plantations here particularly of Phyllostachys pubescens or Moso as it is more commonly known. Moso now makes up around 70 per cent of China’s bamboo.

Over 1000 uses

Actually some fifteen hundred uses have been documented for bamboo which includes such things as building material, diesel, firewood, food, furniture, fences, medicine, musical instruments, paper, scaffolding, transport such as bicycles and carts, windbreaks and windmills. The first acupuncture needles were purportedly made of this plant and Thomas Edison fashioned the world’s first light bulb using a filament from carbonised bamboo.

Worldwide, Moso is probably the most commercially important bamboo. Its large shoots make it the central species in the bamboo-shoot business in China and Japan. Although the wood of this plant is relatively soft, the culms are much used for construction cables, well-drilling equipment, children’s toys, mahjong tiles, tobacco pipes and tubing for piping brine, water and gas.

New bamboo products being commercially developed are charcoal, beer, juice, vinegar and flour.

Animals are also reliant upon bamboo; amongst these are the well-known giant panda, the red panda, the Himalayan black bear, the world’s smallest known bat who roosts in the culms and more than fifteen Asian birds.

Food

Bamboo shoots are a staple food in many parts of the world but beware of eating home grown species as some contain high levels of cyanogenic glycosides that make them bitter to taste and potentially very toxic. To remove any toxins bamboo shoots are boiled, often with two or three changes of water. Arundinaria, Bambusa, Dendrocalamus and Phyllostachys are principally used in the bamboo shoots industry. INBAR (International Network for Bamboo and Rattan) published a paper on cyanide in bamboo shoots which stated that there are clear differences in levels of toxins between species but no generalisations can be made which makes it difficult to make recommendations about which plants are safe to eat.

Environmental super hero

Bamboo was one of the first signs of new life after the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It has great strength to weight ratio and can absorb energy with a high capacity for resistance. It rivals steel in strength and that makes it an ideal building material for areas of the world prone to earthquakes. If a bamboo structures collapses, the loss of life and property is greatly reduced due to the lightweight nature of the material. Locally grown bamboo, particularly in poor isolated rural areas, is a useful and immediate resource not only for construction but also for food, firewood, piping, mats, cups, utensils, etc.

An INBAR project near Allahabad in India showed that bamboo can be used to rehabilitate soils heavily degraded as a result of brick-field mining. Bamboo established and grew on the residual soil and within a few years provided shelter and soil improvement enabling other cash-generating crops to be grown.

Because of its high nitrogen intake bamboo can relieve water pollution by removing excess from areas polluted by wastewater from industries such as manufacturing, livestock farming and sewage treatment.

Bamboo has a very dense rhizome growing near the surface of the soil and this makes it ideal for shoring up hillsides and preventing erosion.

Bamboo foliage disperses heavy rainfall, preserves moisture, makes efficient use of groundwater and protects against harsh sunlight and strong winds. It is one of the fastest growing plants on the planet (measured shooting up 47.6 inches in 24 hours) and established stock can be cut annually for over 50 years. This makes it particularly useful for carbon sequestration.

Bamboos for Europe

In 1997 an EC-funded project ‘Bamboos for Europe’ looked at growing and using bamboo commercially in Europe. Trials were carried out for various applications and these included testing which varieties would do well in the field for biomass production. Of the genotypes tested the best performers were Phyllostachys aureaosulcata Spectabilis and Phyllostachys aurea. Bamboo functions similarly to other woody fuels in relation to biofuel production.

Because wages are too high in Europe for manual harvesting, the project established that machinery currently in use could also be used for the harvesting of bamboo without any adaptation. Several other issues were also investigated including the development of mass produced plant stock (currently plants are more expensive than shrubs or trees), the production of fibreboard using a mix of bamboo and other wood, plus a wastewater treatment unit for pollution treatment and industrial biomass.

It seems that plantations may be the answer for commercial applications. Oprins, a Belgium-based company involved in the Bamboo for Europe project, says the main source of raw material for industrial applications have been unmanaged natural tropical bamboo forests. Natural forests normally yield only about 20% of the yield of a well-managed bamboo plantation.

Construction for the UK

Bamboo could be a sustainable material if grown and harvested locally. The environmental cost of importing bamboo to the UK is high which may prohibit its use as a green building material here. There is currently little effort being made to grow it in the UK for this purpose. More importantly, there is a general lack of expert knowledge in the West with regards to preparing and using bamboo culms that need to be dried and preserved correctly. You can buy construction grade culms (see Further Information) or you could grow your own vegan organic culms.

Studies have been carried out in Europe on bamboo for use in construction and in several instances the environmental performance of the culm is 20 times better than steel, wood, and concrete. Laminated bamboo was found to be less environmentally friendly. Bamboo is a natural product and always has some irregularity. It has been suggested that in Western countries the bamboo culm should be used in areas where the measurement requirements are not entirely precise or fixed such as in temporary buildings.

The good, the bad and the bamboo

This is the dodgy bit. Bamboo is undoubtedly an exciting plant with a truly outstanding number of uses. However, relatively new ‘products’ made for the Western market such as fabric and flooring, are a far cry from the simple eco-friendly articles made by local people with local resources. These products are usually highly processed, have been transported great distances and the plants grown on such a large scale that traditional methods of cultivation are not applicable.

Fabric A relatively new product, bamboo has been processed into a very soft fabric for t-shirts, socks, towels, dishcloths and other items. The fabric is 100 per cent biodegradable, anti-bacterial, UV protective and highly absorbent. However, Michael Lackman from Lotus Organics in USA, claims only a fraction of bamboo fabric currently on the market is environmentally friendly. He says “Because of the potential health risks and damage to the environment surrounding the manufacturing facilities, textile manufacturing processes for bamboo or other regenerated fibres using hydrolysis alkalization with multi-phase bleaching are not considered sustainable or environmentally supportable.” He adds that some companies claiming to use ISO 14000 and ISO 9000 standards, do not mean the facilities, manufacturing processes or fabrics are sustainable or environmentally supportable. Finally, there is the age-old problem of obtaining reliable data and information from manufacturers in China, where most clothing is now produced.

Flooring The most common form of flooring, particularly in southeast Asia, uses thin bamboo stems that are cut flat and often simply used without any further processing. Bamboo flooring we commonly see on sale in the West is nothing like this. These floor boards have been through a multitude of processes such as heat treatment, lamination using adhesives, treatment against insect infestation and mould, carbonisation topped off with a coat or two of lacquer, amongst other things. One company (you know who you are!) proudly boasts 28 different processes involved in manufacturing their flooring. I am sorry but I don’t see this as a positive marketing feature on a ‘green’ product!

A report, Bamboo Flooring by Dr Jim Bowyer (Dovetail Inc 2005), says it is common practice to cut down existing trees and plant bamboo at the expense of natural forests, shrubs and low-yield mixed plantations. Intensive management practices involve intensive use of pesticides, weed killers and fertilizers. Bamboo stocks are over exploited and farmed in an unsustainable manner. It concludes, “… much of the bamboo currently produced does not meet the criteria we associate with environmentally responsible material.”

So what now? … I don’t wish to be a party pooper but I have bamboo flooring and it went mouldy in the bathroom and didn’t appear as hard as tree wood although it looked fantastic. Also, the offcuts I threw on the woodpile were the only things that went mouldy. All the other wood including some natural bamboo cane just became very wet. More positively, I have also used bamboo fibre for spinning and fabric for sewing. Both were great and fulfilled all expectations.

Bamboo undoubtedly has huge advantages over many plants but there are questions we need to ask regards current commercial growing methods and product manufacture. In retrospect I wish I’d done more homework before buying these products but I have to say in my defence, the information wasn’t easy to come by and at one point I even wondered if I was making too much of a fuss!

www.veganorganic.net/growing-bamboo-uk features growing and harvesting your own bamboo in the UK and other temperate climates.

Further information

The Book of Bamboo: A Comprehensive Guide to this Remarkable Plant, Its Uses, and Its History by David Farrelly. Published by Sierra Club Books. ISBN 978-0-87156-825-0.

Bamboo Flooring. Environmental Silver Bullet or Faux Savior? by Dr Jim Bowyer. Dovetail Partners Inc, 528 Hennepin Ave, Suite 202, Minneapolis, MN 55403, USA. www.dovetailinc.org

This article appeared in Growing Green International magazine Num 22 (Winter 2008), p40.