Introduction to Bamboo
Bamboos are fast-growing perennial flowering plants belonging to the Bambusoideae subfamily of the grass family Poaceae. The word “bamboo” comes for the word “mambu” which is the Malay word for the plant, in the national language of the Malaysians and the Indonesians. In the late 16th century, the Dutch and the Portuguese borrowed the name and themselves named it “Bamboes” after which it got its Neo-Latin name “Bambusa”. Some say the original Malayan word was “Bambu”, resembling the explosive sound ‘bam-boom’ which bamboo makes when it explodes after heating.
Bamboo comes from the grass family of Poaceae and it is interesting to note that bamboo is the only evergreen grass of all the grasses, that can diversify into a forest. There are more than 100 genera of bamboo, collectively comprising of well over a 1000 species, distributed across tropical and subtropical to mild temperate regions across the globe, with the majority of the species concentrated in East and Southeast Asia and across various islands of the Indian and Pacific oceans.
There are three clades of bamboos called tribes and these correspond to geographical divisions. The three tribes are:
- Tribe Olyreae (herbaceous bamboos)
- Tribe Bambuseae (tropical woody bamboos)
- Tribe Arundinarieae (temperate woody bamboos)
Many species of the genus Arundinaria are indigenous to the temperate regions of the southern United States growing typically along river banks or in marshy areas. Bamboos play an important role in Chinese culture and countless poems have been written by Chinese poets, metaphorically comparing people to the features and characteristic of bamboos such as uprightness, tenacity and modesty. The Chinese people endow bamboo with integrity, plainness and elegance, though it is not physically strong. It is regarded as the behaviour model for a gentleman and the ancient poet Bai Juyi believed that to be a gentleman a man does not need to be physically strong, but he must be mentally strong, upright and perseverant. Just as bamboo is hollow- hearted, a gentleman should open his heart to accept anything of benefit and never arrogance or prejudice.
Bamboo’s long life makes it a Chinese symbol of uprightness and the Indian symbol of friendship. Bamboos seldom flower and the rarity of flowers blossoming have been regarded as a sign of impending famine.
- Bamboos are fast-growing perennials and can grow at a rate of 30 cm per day.
- Bamboo stems are known as culms and are hollow between the nodes. Nodes are the woody rings between the culms.
- Young culms produce narrow leaves from the stem rings.
- Mature culms sprout horizontal leaf-bearing branches from the stem rings.
- Bamboo reaches its maximum height and width within one growing season.
- Bamboo grows in branching clusters from a thick underground stem known as the rhizome.
- Bamboo culms can attain heights ranging from 10-15 cm in small species to more than 40 metres in the larger species.
- Bamboos seldom flower throughout their lives and usually only once in a lifetime. Bamboo flowers produce seeds after 12-120 years of growth.
Bamboo Stem Anatomy
- The stem of the bamboo plant is the part that grows above the ground. It is straight and cylindrical in structure.
- The stems have nodes that strengthen the stem.
- The length, number and form of nodes and internodes vary between different species.
- Internodal length of the stem is shorter towards the base of the stem that towards the tip of the culm.
- Every node on the stem has a set of two rings. The lower ring is called the sheath ring and is the scar that is formed after the sheath leaf falls off.
- The upper ring is called the stem ring which is the scar formed after the growth of the intranodal tissue ceases.
- The part between the rings is the node itself and branches or leaves are produced at these points.
- Bamboo internodes are hollow and form bamboo cavities.
- Wall thickness of a bamboo plant depends upon the species and can vary from thin-walled to woody-solid. Example of a near-solid bamboo species is Guadua amplexifolia.
- The stem petiole is the lowest part of the bamboo stem consisting of numerous short sections. The petiole is generally solid, with degenerated leaves and without any buds.
Bamboo Base Anatomy
The lower part of the stem of the bamboo plant, known as the stem base extends into the soil and connects to the rhizome and root system of Bamboo. This underground root system is very similar to that of the culm of the bamboo plant except being horizontal. The underground parallel culm is known as the rhizome. The rhizome produces roots and shoots at nodes as compared to the culm that produces branches and leaves. The stem base consists of numerous sections of significant diameter from which the adventitious roots grow. The sections of the stem base also consist of at least ten alternate buds that grow into shoots and then into bamboo stems and other buds that are fewer in number and grow into rhizomes. Bamboo has a shallow root system and rhizomes grow within the first 6 inches below the surface of the ground extending typically to only a depth of 20 inches below the surface of the ground. For most species of bamboo, rhizome development takes place between late summer and early autumn.
Bamboo rhizome growth adheres to two specific patterns of growth classifying a bamboo as either a clumping bamboo or running bamboo.
Clumping bamboos have Pachymorph rhizomes that grow upwards emerging from the soil and develop into ariel culms. New rhizomes develop from existing ones and this effect collectively causes the grove to expand around the perimeter. This behaviour of growth gives the bamboo a ‘clumping’ habit. The root system expands slowly, by only a few inches per year around the main plant and eventually reaches a boundary at which point root pruning or re-potting may need to be considered. Clumping bamboos are preferred to running bamboos for in-pot growing as the clumping habit makes them easier to maintain without the requirement of any containment methods.
Running bamboos have Leptomorph rhizomes that run horizontally beneath the surface of the soil. New buds emerge from the nodes of the rhizomes and while many may remain dormant, a few of the buds may develop into new culms, roots or even another new rhizome, that will itself run horizontally under the ground. This growth behaviour gives the bamboo a ‘running’ habit. These types of bamboos need to controlling mechanisms in place to maintain their aggressive spreading habit.
Uses of Bamboo
- Bamboo has served mankind for centuries and is used almost everywhere, ranging in its applications from scaffolding used in construction, building roads, promoting fertility in cows to building houses and rafts.
- The needle in Alexander Graham Bell’s first phonograph was made of bamboo and Thomas Edison used it as a filament when developing the light bulb.
- Bamboos hold important economic and cultural significance and are extensively used for building materials, as a food source and as a raw product in the industry. Young bamboo shoots are cooked and eaten as a vegetable in Chinese cuisine and the seeds are consumed as a grain. The leaves are used as fodder for livestock and the pulped fibres of the species Dendrocalamus strictus and Bambusa bamboos are used to make fine-quality paper. The stems of the bamboo plant are used as scaffolding in construction and also supply planks for building houses and rafts.
- Ingredients from the black bamboo shoot are used by the Chinese to treat kidney diseases. Roots and leaves of bamboo are used to treat venereal diseases and cancer.
- In Indonesia water from the culm of bamboo is used to treat bone diseases.
- Bamboo leaves have antioxidant properties that can treat heart diseases and help maintain healthy skin. The leaves are used for preparing herbal drugs for their anthelmintic compositions which help kill parasitic worms
- Bamboo shoot is a low-calorie product high in dietary fibre that when eaten can help with hunger pangs and help reduce weight healthily. Eating bamboo shoots can cure symptoms like indigestion and diarrhoea.
- Bamboo can be used to treat wounds and ulcers because of its antibacterial properties.
- Bamboo is a natural exfoliant and is used in aromatherapy.
- Bamboo consumption can help control blood pressure due to the abundance of potassium.
- Bamboo extracts have a strong anti-inflammatory effect and can be used to treat diseases such
as arthritis and rheumatoid.
- Bamboo has strong antispasmodic properties that can help relieve muscle spasms.
Bamboo is used in the construction of roads, bridges and infrastructure such as houses and schools. Its hemp is used in making clothes and bamboo pulp is extensively used in the production of paper. Bamboo leaves are used as fodder for livestock. Its fibres are used in making rugs. Bamboo is used to make beer, toys and durable utensils. Bamboo hemp is used in the manufacture of diapers. It is very versatile when it comes to making musical instruments and is used in the making of flutes, drums, didgeridoos and saxophones.
Interesting Facts About Bamboo
- Flowering in bamboo is unpredictable phenomena and the frequency varies greatly between the various species. Once flowering occurs the plant declines and often completely dies.
- Flowering occurs at intervals as long as 65 to 120 years into the plant’s life.
- Bamboo has strange allergic properties and gardeners have been known to report reactions that they have never experienced before to any sort of exposure and then suddenly experiencing irritation and rashes developing into red welts on the skin, swollen eyes and even inflammatory problems leading to breathing difficulties.
- Bamboo charcoal is traditionally used as fuel in China and Japan and can also be utilised as a biofuel.
- In olden times people in India used pens known as ‘Kalam’ made from thin bamboo sticks by peeling them on one end and making a nib-like pattern at the end which would be dipped in ink for writing.
- “Lucky bamboo” is an ornamentally marketed plant that is actually not a bamboo plant at all. Its scientific name is Dracaena sanderiana and it is a member of the lily family that grows in the dark, tropical rainforests of Southeast Asia and Africa.
- Lucky Bamboo has been associated with the Eastern practice of feng shui, also known as Chinese geomancy, in which energy forces are used to harmonize individuals with their surrounding environment.