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bamboo grove

Bamboo is in the same league as giant kelp when it comes to growing fast, but considering that, as a land plant, it has to create self supporting tissue, it is extra amazing. The largest bamboos can grow up to 90 cm in one day in the growing season under favourable conditions!  Fast growth, and the associated carbon sequestration is only one facet of what is useful about bamboo. It is truly versatile and provides us with food, raw materials for clothing, buildings and furnishing, plus artistic and spiritual inspiration.


What is bamboo?

All true bamboos are species of grass. There are thought to be over 1,500 species of bamboo, native to every continent but Europe and Antarctica. The distribution of a given species is limited to areas which have a suitable range of temperatures and rainfall, but species diversity is high, and so a wide range of areas support bamboo. Although many species are tropical, there are also montane bamboos in areas with cold, snowy winters. Also, bamboo is often planted in gardens and in some cases, planted in non-native areas for commercial reasons. It is likely that there are more than 35 million hectares of bamboo around the world.

global bamboo distribution map
global bamboo distribution

Some of the tallest bamboos species can grow to 30+ meters, the tiniest no more than 5 centimeters tall.

Bamboos are generally divided into two functional groups - the clumpers and the runners, depending on the behavior of the plant's rhizome. As the names suggest, clumpers form a discrete clump of culms. Runners put out rhizomes from the original plant, often becoming invasive.

Individual culms have a life span of about 5 to 10 years depending on the species.

Bamboo plants do not blossom annually. In fact, it can be decades between incidences of flowers appearing. The longest cycle is thought to be about 150 years. Many bamboos exhibit gregarious flowering i.e. plants of a given species flower all at one time. This may be followed by mass die off simultaneously all over the world with subsequent reseeding to re-establish populations.


Bamboo as a habitat

Bamboo forests provide a home for a variety of organisms. Most famously giant pandas and red pandas both have diets consisting largely of bamboo shoots. Tigers inhabit bamboo forests due to the preponderance of prey animals and the presence of water. Gorillas include bamboo shoots in their diet, as do certain species of lemur. Bamboo rats eat the bamboo and bamboo snakes eat the bamboo rats. There are many insects living in the bamboo forest and these in turn are eaten by birds visiting the forests. A multitude of microorganisms make their home in the soil in which the bamboo is growing.

Bamboo and the atmosphere

Bamboo is very efficient at locking up CO2. In case of giant tropical bamboo, one newly planted bamboo plant can sequester 2 tons of carbon dioxide in just 7 years. In comparison, a typical hardwood tree will sequester 1 ton of carbon dioxide in 40 years. Measurements of mature groves of bamboo show that they can also generate 30 to 35 percent more oxygen than an equal area of forest. Furthermore, as a grass, bamboo easily regrows after harvesting. In other words, like a mowed lawn, the bamboo grows right back. Unlike trees and annual crops which get harvested and then need to be replanted, the rhizome roots of bamboo plants are sufficiently intact to produce more shoots. Because the bamboo doesn’t die, it doesn’t release its stored carbon the way a tree does after it’s cut down.

Bamboo and the soil

Bamboo does not require heavy additions of fertilisers to grow, as new shoots utilise substances stored in the rhizomes. And because the rhizomes persist in the soil, they continue to bind the soil together even when the culms have been harvested.

A recent study has shown that the ecosystem services a bamboo forest can provide support to natural plantations, grasslands, and farmlands. Additionally, bamboo forests have proven more effective in slope stabilization and soil erosion control compared to other land use practices such as forests and grasslands.1

Bamboo and human nutrition

Bamboo shoots are low in carbohydrates and rich in vitamins and minerals. Long used in many Asian cuisines, the value of bamboo as a food source is being re-enforced by the findings of western medicine e.g.

Bamboo salt, which is rich in minerals, is being investigated as is being investigated for its role in dental health. e.g. Oral health: Bamboo salt

Bamboo as a raw material

Bamboo can be used in to replace wood in many, many applications such as buildings, scaffolding, fencing, irrigation channels, furniture construction, home wares, boat construction, musical instruments and many other objects created out of necessity and ingenuity. It is also being used a sustainable, biodegradable alternative to plastics e.g. for toothbrush handles and cotton bud stems. Bamboo textiles are increasing in popularity and have been recommended for people with eczema.

Bamboo in culture

Story behind the first image

The story is told in the Chronicles of the Taiheiki. Kumawaka's escape was dramatic since the boy (after murdering a man to avenge his father's execution) had to get away from the compound and also the island. After the killing, he fled to hide in a bamboo grove. The guards, who saw small bloodstained footprints, went out in search of him. Faced with a deep moat, Kumawaka climbed onto a long branch of bamboo, and bent over by the weight of his body, it allowed him to drop over on the other side. He then headed for the harbour for a ship to take him back to the main islands.2

Summary of services provided for us

  • Carbon sequestration and storage
  • Oxygen production
  • Soil stabilisation
  • Food
  • Raw materials for multiple uses in building construction, furniture , housewares, food harvesting aids, weapons, writing materials, health aids e.g. tooth brushes, textiles for clothing, transport materials, toys, musical instruments, etc etc
  • Health supplement
  • Habitat for many other species
  • Services for ecosystem stability
  • Recreational opportunities
  • Contributions to culture

Threats to the services?

Major threats to bamboo

  • Over harvesting of bamboo crops e.g. not allowing time for the bamboo to mature
  • If bamboo flowers gregariously, in many cases all adult plants may die over a short time span. The land may then be taken over for other crops on the false assumption that it is fallow.

Other complications can arise. For example,

Phyllostachys nigra var. henonis, a monocarpic bamboo with a 120-year flowering interval, is next predicted to flower in Japan in the 2020s. Because a huge area of the country is presently covered by stands of this species, post-flowering dieback of these stands and ensuing drastic changes in land cover may cause serious social and/or environmental problems.

-Does monocarpic Phyllostachys nigra var. henonis regenerate after flowering in Japan? Insights from 3 years of observation after flowering

What can we do to retain these services?

Dig deeper


  1. What bamboo forests do for nature and human well-being []
  2. []
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