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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 requirerments...and without a reliable guide, the study of bamboos...would be hopeless.
Brandis (1899)

We 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, MidAtlantic Bamboo. Our knowledge is very 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.
Sources: Encyclopedia Britannica, The Bamboos by F. A. McClure