Bamboo is grass (Graminace); if not a separate family of woody grass-like plants. There are around one and a half thousand species of bamboo from more than sixty genera, varying in size from forest giants to tiny alpine groundcovers.
Bamboo is a rhizomatous plant. It grows principally from rhizomes: tough underground stems that produce roots, new shoots and more rhizomes. There are basically two types of bamboo: running bamboo (monopodial bamboo) with long fast-spreading rhizomes, and clumping bamboo (sympodial bamboo) with short slow-spreading rhizomes. There is some variation within this distinction. Some clumping bamboos have much longer rhizomes and therefore form much larger, more open clumps than others, and some running bamboos can produce 'clumps' of new culms along their long, invasive rhizomes. But basically, there are two types of bamboo.
Clumping bamboo (sympodial bamboo) is non-invasive bamboo (despite still lingering doubt with some people). The rhizomes of clump forming species are short and new shoots appear close to the mother culms in a predictable clumped fashion, as with clumping grasses like Paspalum or Setaria (but without the annual seed heads). The new shoots of clumping bamboo grow at the end of each rhizome (the basal part of every shoot is a rhizome) and so the outer culms mark the limit of the hard underground parts of the bamboo plant: the rhizomes. For most species, the clump size seems to be self limiting (always dependent on growing conditions), and will not continue to increase indefinitely. We can control the shape and size of clumps by cutting the shoots where we do not want them. Some clumping bamboos form much smaller and tighter clumps than others and so will take up less space than the more open clumpers.
Running bamboo (monopodial bamboo) can be very invasive, especially in warmer climates such as we enjoy here on the east coast of Australia. The rhizomes of running bamboo are long and adventurous like the "runners" of Couch or Kikuyu grass, and in favourable conditions can continue to grow far outside the circle of culms and produce new shoots and more rhizome for years to come. The shoots of running bamboo grow from underground rhizomes that have already grown through and past that point. These bamboos should not be grown unless there is plenty of space for their spreading habit and a clear idea of the kind of soil barriers and/or maintenance required to securely contain them. Some running bamboos (notably Phylostachys species) have become declared noxious weeds in certain areas because people have failed to appreciate the true nature of these plants and the problems caused by planting them in the wrong places. Unfortunately people are still doing this and contributing to the bad reputation that bamboo has had with so many people, and the total opposition to the use of all these bamboo species by others.There are some useful and beautiful running bamboos well worth growing. In fact some are producers of timber with superior technical properties and we grow them mainly for that reason. They are also generally much more cold tolerant than most clumping bamboo species, and are best suited to areas with winter and spring rainfall. In the colder climates of northern Europe and the northern part of North America they are likely the best choice for large hardy useful bamboo.
Bamboo has long, fibrous, shallow growing roots that grow from its rhizomes and are able to stabilise soil and prevent erosion. Both running and clumping bamboos store energy in their rhizome systems to produce new shoots. These shoots grow to almost their full height very quickly, and stay the same diameter for life. As new bamboo culms, they produce branches and leaves, contribute energy back to the rhizome system to produce more shoots, and continue to harden and mature for years. Individual culms may live as long as ten or twenty years. Their hollow segmented structure gives them a combination of strength, flexibility and lightness that are typical of bamboo poles.
Bamboo flowers and dies. It does not always die, and this can depend on the variety and the growing conditions. Some bamboo species never or rarely flower. Other bamboos flower sporadically: not all at once but with odd individuals randomly flowering. Most bamboo species seem to flower gregariously: with all individuals of the same clone flowering at the same time across widespread populations, even across the whole planet. The length of the flowering cycle varies considerably, with intervals up to 120 years, and others might flower almost yearly and not die back at all.
Bamboo, well known as the fastest growing plant in the world, quickly accumulates high biomass and produces a carbon and silicon rich litter suitable for mulching both itself and other plants. To consumers of fossil fuels, bamboo is a superior sequestor of carbon dioxide. Bamboos are amongst the best plants for re-greening and healing degraded environments, both rural and suburban.
Bamboo is a very adaptable plant. Not only has it managed to evolve into such varied forms to suit so many diverse environments, it's size and development can also vary considerably within individuals of the same species growing in different conditions. You can find technical descriptions of bamboo species with incredibly large height ranges specified.
Bamboo species are native to Australia, Africa, and North America, but it is in Asia and Latin America where most bamboos are found.
In these lands, rich in bamboo resources, it's place is long established. Environmental mainstay; thousands of uses; a cultural icon.
To the millions of rural poor who still rely on it for their daily needs, bamboo is above all, a useful resource. The endless versatility of it's timber is renowned. It requires little processing for many uses, and with some skill and basic tools many more useful items can be made. Bamboo timber is unique in both its structure and technical properties. Bamboo timbers have both high compressive and tensile strengths, and especially as poles can also display impressive flexural strengths.
Some bamboo species produce large delicious shoots which can be used as vegetables. Bamboo shoots are tasty, low in fat and high in vitamins and minerals. Heavy mulch protects the new shoots from the light which makes them tough and bitter. You can boil bamboo shoots long enough to remove the slightly bitter taste that most raw shoots have without losing the crisp texture, and some are then sweet or creamy tasting. Many Australians have never tasted fresh bamboo shoots, but enough have to make shoot production a viable industry. Enough people also buy the imported canned shoots to make them freely available here.
Bamboo is still traditionally a preferred material for some uses such as cookware, ornamentation or garden structures, even for people who live in modern industrialised cities and do not directly depend on bamboo for shelter, tools or fuel.
And so it's value goes beyond it's usefulness. Bamboo is a traditional symbol of place or occaision, or even of spiritual values. Upright and dependable, strong yet flexible, humble but productive: bamboo has become synonomous with good character and virtuous behaviour.
Unfortunately, natural bamboo resources have been long over-exploited and undervalued, but there is now growing awareness of the need for preservation and development of these shrinking resources as an alternative to other diminishing forest resources. Growing demand for manufactured bamboo products such as flooring, fencing, furniture and artifacts in Western cultures has added further economic incentive to invest in research and development.
In the Western world bamboo does not have a long history of cultivation, and is fairly new to our culture. It may never be needed to supply many of the essentials of life as it has in parts of Asia and Latin America, but there are some uses that are already well known to us and that have huge potential for growth.
To gardeners and landscapers, bamboo is a very useful plant. Nothing else can compare to bamboo for fast growing, self-renewing screens and hedges, tropical looking features in cool climates.The exotic appearance of bamboo is very appealing, and blends well with it's useful nature. With bamboo, city people can not only soften and re-green their environment very quickly, they can also reclaim their privacy. Many people are planting bamboo in the city to grow privacy screens, and for this purpose nothing else can compare. And it's not just in the city; the large urban areas that surround Australian cities stand to gain greatest benefit from the widespread use of bamboo. It's seems that Australian suburban folk have more space per head of population than the citizens of any other country. These big backyards with short fences and open spaces often have no privacy and more and more people are using bamboo hedges as privacy screens. Non-invasive clumping bamboos are the best to use in most cases, and some of them are not only very useful and beautiful but also very hardy and easy to grow.
To many Australian gardeners bamboo is a pest; an enemy. This still too common misconception comes from the use of aggressively invasive bamboo species like Phyllostachys aurea (Golden Bamboo: 'the plant that gave bamboo a bad name' for so long), without soil barriers to confine it. It is important to recognise that there are a number of much smaller and more compact clumping bamboos that are much better suited to the urban landscape.
There is a growing demand for bamboo poles and manufactured bamboo products here in Australia. Craftwork both large and small, fences, outbuildings and interior decoration are common uses for bamboo poles. As practical natural looking materials become scarcer, cut bamboo can provide a welcome alternative to, or complement to the usual materials used for building and decorating. Pre-made items such as bamboo flooring and bamboo furniture are readily available and people are exploring ways to use bamboo poles to complement them.
To the Australian farmer, bamboo has potential for many of the uses that are common in countries where bamboo is cultivated. Hedges to shelter grazing stock in windy, or frosty, or very hot conditions is an obvious one. The leaves of some bamboos are high in protein and sugars and produce quality feed, so these hedges can be multi-functional. Plantings to lower water tables and control erosion are widely needed. Tools, stakes, props, and materials for temporary and permanent structures could be added to the list. Bambusa balcoa, the first clumping bamboo introduced to Australia is still found growing in massive clumps along the east coast. It is a giant bamboo that forms huge, often tangled clumps and though fairly well known, there has not been a tradition of using the timber or shoots. There are a number of more managable and useful species available, but they are not yet widely grown or appreciated.
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