An Introduction to Bamboo
To talk of the habits of bamboos, and of the management of bamboo plants, has little meaning and is of no practical use. Each species has its own peculiarities and its own requirements...and without a reliable guide, the study of bamboos...would be hopeless.
The Silverman's became interested in bamboo in 1980 after reading an article about Bamboo in National Geographic. That interest has led to the establishment of our bamboo farm and nursery, Mid-Atlantic Bamboo. Our knowledge is limited but we have put together some of the more interesting facts about bamboo which we are passing on in the following articles. We have tried to avoid using technical terms and names whenever possible.
Even though it doesn't look like it, bamboo is a grass. Bamboo is a member of the bambusoideae, a subfamily of the grasses. For centuries bamboo has been used in fishing, papermaking, landscape gardening, handicrafts, fine arts, food, fodder, building, weapons and hundreds of other things. Some cultures are based on bamboo; the shoots provide a large portion of their food and the culms are used for building housing and for making products that are sold as their only form of income. Bamboo has long been used in handicrafts and as the raw material for thousands of objects used in daily life and in the pursuit of a livelihood. The qualities of bamboo have been, and are, celebrated in paintings, drawings and verse.
For centuries the Chinese have known the benefits of using bamboo for paper. The pulp of bamboo is well suited to making fine papers of many varieties and adaptations. Bambusa vulgaris and Melocanna baccifera rank very high in performance, both in the field and mill though most papers come from other species because of larger and more accessible stands. Two of such varieties are Dendrocalamus strictus and Bambusa arundinacea. In India bamboo pulp is blended with shorter weaker pulps for making wrappings and fine papers. High-grade bamboo pulp can be, and is, used in its pure state for making coated and uncoated book and magazine papers. The high length to diameter ratio of bamboo pulps gives it a special versatility in the paper making process.
Through research and invention many modern uses have been developed for bamboo. Tabasheer, microscopically fine-grained amorphous silica, is found within the culms of many tropical varieties. Its properties make it extremely useful as a catalyst in many chemical reactions. The chemical composition of the crystalline white powder produced on the outer surface of many bamboos is related to the female sex hormone. Diesel fuel has been made from distilling bamboo culms. Bamboo shoots provide a source for nuclease, deaminase enzymes as well as enzymes to dissolve fibrin and one capable of hydrolyzing salicin. The juice of bamboo shoots is a source for L-xylose and Glucuronic acid in a crystalline state. In medicine an extract of bamboo shoots has superior performance over conventional media for the culture of certain pathogenic bacteria.
Dried mature bamboo leaves are used to deodorize fish oils and the foliage of bamboo has long been used as forage. The USDA in conjunction with other Federal and North Carolina agencies conducted a 14-year study on the use of bamboo as a primary browse for beef cattle with good results.
Young shoots of many tropical species of bamboo contain lethal amounts of cyanogens. Fortunately the digestive processes of herbivores destroy the poison. Young cattle in India have been known to die from eating freely on the young shoots. Boiling the shoots totally drives off the volatile cyanogens eliminating the risk to man in eating the cooked shoots.
Bamboo the plant
Every farm in the South should be supplied with a small forest of the valuable plants, in the same manner as it is now supplied with a wood lot...
Bamboo is a unique plant which is gaining popularity as an ornamental for the home garden. When we first started growing bamboo, we found out how little we really knew about it. Bamboo is a simple grass with over 1200 known varieties distributed throughout the world with the largest concentrations in Asia.
There is only one variety native to the United States -- Arundinaria -- with two species: A. gigantea RIVER CANE and A. gigantea tecta SWITCH CANE. Both are referred to as CANEBRAKE and grow naturally from Maryland to Georgia to Texas. The USDA in conjunction with organizations and individuals has introduced over 300 varieties into the United States.
Bamboo varieties range in height from a few inches to well over 75 feet and in diameter from 1/16 inch to 12 inches or more, depending on the variety. In the United States the largest varieties generally reach a maximum of 8 inches in diameter and 70 feet in height. The leaves of bamboo varieties range from 1/4 inch wide by 3/4 inch long to 4 inches wide by 24 inches long. You will find green leaves, variegated leaves and yellow leaves. Culm colors are green, gray, blue, yellow, orange, red, black or some hues of these.
There are two distinct parts to the plant -- the above-ground portion and the underground portion. Let’s start with the terminology: The underground parts are the rhizomes and the roots. The rhizome is a segmented woody stem-like part. The segment dividers are called nodes and the segment between the nodes is the internode. The roots and rhizome buds form only at the nodes. A bud can create either a rhizome branch or an above-ground culm. Depending on the variety, the rhizome is usually much smaller than the culm. As the grove matures the rhizomes spread in all directions and form a very stable in-ground mesh, which is one reason bamboo is used for erosion control.
The above-ground portion of bamboo has several names depending on the stage of growth. When it forms on the rhizome node, it is a bud. As it emerges from the ground and until it develops side branches, it is called a shoot. Once the side branches form, it is called a culm. Once the culm is cut or harvested, it is called a pole or cane. Bud, shoot, culm, cane and pole all refer to the same individual above-ground plant. A single culm with rhizome and roots attached is usually referred to as a plant. Before being removed, it is a culm of the grove. If you plant a single bamboo plant, as it expands the new culms are all attached to the original plant by the rhizomes. The culm has the same design as the rhizome, nodes and internode sections. Most of the internode sections of the culm are hollow, but in a few varieties the internodes are almost solid. Branches form only at the nodes and have the same basic structure as the culm with leaves and side branches forming only at the nodes of the main branch or culm.
Now to the growth habits of bamboo: All bamboo culms normally shoot and grow to their full height and diameter in one growing season, usually in 60 to 90 days. In succeeding years the wood of the bamboo culms will increase in strength and silica content and the plant will put out new leaves, but the culm will never grow taller or increase in diameter after the first growing season. If you top a bamboo culm at 4 feet, that culm will always be 4 feet tall, year after year until it dies. This makes bamboo an excellent choice for hedges. The culms have a life span of 5 to 15 years.
Bamboo growth habit
Bamboo grows more rapidly than any other plant on the planet, It has been clocked surging skyward as fast as 47.6 inches in a 24-hour period.
One of the most asked questions we get when showing our groves:
"How many years did it take for this pole to get this big?"
Our answer: 90 days! However, our answer needs explanation. The culms (poles) of temperate bamboos will usually grow to their full size, both diameter and height, in 90 days or less. At this point we will get a puzzled look and the following question:
"You mean if I plant a single bamboo I will get a pole this tall in 90 days next year?"
By now we are sure you are probably as confused as our visitor.
If you visit any bamboo grove, you will usually find bamboo culms of varying sizes. Regardless of the size, whether it is 1 foot or 60 feet tall, it grew to that size in 90 days or so and will never get any larger. You can put a steel band around a bamboo culm and it will not girdle the culm as it never increases in diameter.
Now to explain why it will not get 60 feet tall next year.
The simple answer is leaf and root mass.
There is a saying about newly planted bamboo:
The first year it sleeps
The second year it creeps
The third year it leaps
For the first 15 years or so everything in your grove is one plant. All the above ground culms are connected by the underground rhizomes. When you plant a single plant, it starts putting out new rhizomes. The root mass will usually double in size each year. As the root mass increases, the energy available for the plant increases and the size of the new culms will increase in diameter and height in direct proportion to this energy.
Where does the energy come from, you ask. This is where leaf mass comes in. The leaves on your new plant transpire water that the roots provide and in return the leaves convert sunlight into food and send it to the rhizomes to use for producing more rhizomes and to store for use for the next year's new shoots. This process will continue until the grove flowers and dies. Critical root mass is when your grove produces the maximum size culms it is going to produce based on local growing conditions. For most varieties this will occur somewhere between 7 and 15 years (up to 30 years for some seedling varieties) and after that the grove will continue to produce the maximum size culms it is able to produce in that particular location.
The sizes of bamboo we sell for UPS shipping (A to D) are basically increases of 2" of diameter and proportional increases in leaf mass for each letter grade. That small increase will basically double the energy the plant has to get off to a good start in your location. The end result of your grove will be the same regardless of the size you start with, the only difference will be the time it takes to get there. The more energy your plant has to start the quicker it will size up.
Even though bamboo is a fast growing plant, don't plant a 6" to 14" root ball and expect a 45-foot culm the next year --- it won't happen. If you plan to plant in containers or small confined areas, start with the size plant you want as the root mass will be restricted and your chances of ever getting a bamboo with a greater height will be small.