Bamboo is the fastest growing woody plant in the world. In a single day, a bamboo plant can grow an average of up to 60 centimeters (about 23.6 inches), and certain species have been measured to grow as much as 121 centimeters (about 47.6 inches) in one 24-hour period. However, bamboo is not a type of wood, but a type of grass. It grows most abundantly in the East and Southeast Asian regions of the world, but it can also be found in Northern Australia, India, sub-Saharan Africa and the tropical regions of the Americas.
Aside from being used as building material for many centuries bamboo has also had major cultural significance in countries like China, where bamboo is a symbol of longevity. Japan’s Shinto religion makes use of bamboo as a sacred object. Bamboo forests often surround Shinto shrines and are believed to serve as barriers against evil spirits. Buddhist temples often have bamboo groves, as they create a peaceful and meditative setting.
Bamboo Growth and Harvesting
Bamboo has become a popular eco-friendly alternative to using hardwood as building material. Because of its rapid growth and short life-cycle, bamboo is one of the most renewable natural resources in the world, and it can be harvested on a regular basis without causing significant damage to its surrounding ecosystem.
Unlike hardwoods, bamboo plants achieve their full height and girth in just one growing season, which lasts between three and four months. Bamboo shoots spend the first year stretching upwards, after which they begin to dry and harden and begin sprouting branches and leaves. After their second year, the shoots continue to harden even more, shedding their young sheath layers and becoming fully mature bamboo plants. After 5 to 8 years, bamboo shoots begin to decay and die, partly as a result of fungus and mould. Because of their short life-cycle, bamboo is best harvested between its 3rd and 7th years.
The “Mass Flowering” of Bamboo
When a bamboo shoot flowers, the event usually signals the end of its life cycle. While some bamboos flower yearly, most do so very rarely, with many species exhibiting what is called “mass flowering”. Many people who hear about it believe that it is a myth or a product of cultural folklore, but bamboo mass flowering, one of the strangest and most fascinating phenomena associated with plant life, is a proven biological fact. Approximately every 50 years a species of bamboo called Melocanna baccifera blossoms en masse. This means that all bamboo stocks of the same flower-type blossom at the same time every 50 to 60 years, regardless of geographical location, and consequently die, leading in many cases to the seasonal starvation of animal creatures that normally feed on the bamboo plant. Though there are many theories as to what the reason behind bamboo mass blossoming is, the exact answer remains unknown.
The Uses of Bamboo
Bamboo has a wide variety of uses. From construction to cooking, it has been a part of human culture and consumption for centuries. Another very common use for bamboo today is as a decorative tool. Small bamboo plants are becoming very popular in western interior design, and Asian cultures have been using it to decorate rooms and altars for centuries. Here are some examples of the many uses of bamboo today.
Bamboo as Food
New bamboo culms, or shoots, are edible and have been used in Asian cuisines for many years. The taste of bamboo is sweet and the plant is a great source of nutrients. Today you can find edible bamboo in numerous Asian supermarkets, either sliced fresh or in a can. Not all species of bamboo are suited for human consumption, however, at least not readily. Many contain harmful toxins that have to be extracted via boiling before the shoots can be safely consumed by people. Certain animals, however, like the Golden Bamboo Lemur, have no problem with toxic bamboo. The Golden Bamboo Lemur can easily consume a vast quantity of raw giant bamboo stalks, which contains cyanide and can be deadly for humans. Aside from broths and boiled dishes, bamboo can be pickled and also used as condiment. The biggest eater of bamboo, however, is the giant panda. Giant pandas can consume over 19 kilograms of bamboo leaves and stems per day.
Chinese medicine has long used bamboo to treat infections. Other Eastern medicinal systems, like Indian traditional medicine, use bamboo to concoct a tonic that helps alleviate symptoms of respiratory diseases. Bamboo is also used to treat fevers, resolve phlegm, and relieve lung inflammation, among other things. As for its nutritional value, bamboo is a good low-calorie source of potassium.
Bamboo, when treated, can turn into an exceptionally hard and durable wood-like material that remains flexible and lightweight while. In Asia, bamboo has been a primary construction material for many generations, and it is still used in the construction of modern buildings today. Bamboo is used to build scaffolds, house frames, and even as a substitute for steel reinforcement rods in concrete buildings. Bamboo is also a very popular material for flooring, especially in Japan and China.
In the western world, bamboo has become increasingly popular as an alternative building material as well. Bamboo fences and garden furniture have become especially popular. The beauty and eco-friendliness of bamboo is one of its biggest selling points as a building material, especially since the western consumer public has grown more aware of environmental issues.