Erica's Original Notes Bamboo is one of the most useful plants to man and is a member of the important family of Grasses (Poaceae). It is found growing naturally on every continent except Europe, and, of course, we especially associate it with the Far East where it is said to be used by man from cradle to grave. Because it combines strength, thanks to its silica content, and lightness, its uses are unlimited, from the dainty tea whisk used by the Japanese to the Hong Kong scaffolding for skyscrapers and reinforced concrete. It has been used in the Orient for centuries; carefully spliced and assembled fishing rods, for example, were made in China before Christ.
The bamboo does not flower often, and, when it does, the plant itself dies down, taking many years to grow back, a terrible occurrence for the panda who eat it or for the farmers who harvest it. It is usually harvested for drying after seven years' growth; before that, it contains too much moisture and would crack.
In the Orient the bamboo is known as a member of the trio of 'Winter Friends', the winter plum, flowering in the snow, and the pine, thriving in poor soil, being the other two. To the Japanese the bamboo represents endurance in the face of adversity, the hollow interior of the stem bespeaks modesty, and the long, smooth distance between nodes speaks of faults that are few and far between. Earliest written records were scratched on strips of bamboo and tied with ox sinews or silk.
NOTES Updated 2013 (MC) Bamboo Research Centres: Kyoto, Japan; Dehradun, India.
Growth: Two categories: a) sympodial - clumpers - usually tropical; and b) monopodial - runners - temperate zone. Fantastic rate of growth shown by the Orient's Phyllostachys bambusoides, which grows four feet in 24 hours!
Sheath: has irritating hairs which can lead to bacterial infection and poisoning.
Flowers: resemble wheat. The hardy bamboos flower infrequently. Black bamboo, Phyllostachys nigra, for example, has flowered every 120 years for the past 1,000 years! The genus Melocanna bears fruit.
Uses: are unlimited: fishing rods; tea whisks used in the Japanese tea ceremonies; bamboo flooring; cables for towing ships (noted by Marco Polo); the bridge across the Min River at An Lan, Szechwan, still in use after 1,000 years; musical instruments; farm tools; housing; medicine. Used in horticulture and in paper-making, from heavy kraft to printing stock. Was previously used for pole vaulting and ski poles.
History & Philosophy: Silk worms were smuggled out of China in bamboo sticks; canes disciplined students! Age-old referrals to characteristics of bamboo are found in poetry, religion, philosophy - see above. Bamboo represents an adherence to moral stance whatever the enticements!
Updates 2013 (MC) Often referred to as 'woody grasses', bamboos also contain herbaceous genera (South America) and, surprisingly, even a deciduous species (USA). Genera are broadly classified as either hardy or tropical. Two prominent hardy genera are Phyllostachys (mostly medium-size and timber, stem-grooved and zigzag), and Sasa ('dwarf'). The genus Arundinaria is now used only for North America’s three species: A. gigantea, 'river' or 'giant' cane; A. tecta, 'switch bamboo' (often used as rods for caning students); and the dwarf - and deciduous - A. appalachiana. The attractive Pseudosasa japonica was the first oriental species to become widely established on North America’s west coast.
Hardy bamboos do not often flower, and when they do, the plant usually dies to the ground, taking years to re-establish. This is a terrible occurrence for the panda that eats it and for the farmers whose crops are devoured by the astonishing plague of rats that thrived during the initial super-abundance of bamboo seed. This flowering and death occurs around the world at the same time for the same species. Some tropical species, however, often are in continual bloom.
To the Chinese the qualities associated with bamboo have long been important in human communication (poems, stories, song). The poem Bamboo Pole from China’s pre-dynastic 'Classic of Poetry' collection uses the flexibility of bamboo as a metaphor for human resilience. The speaker is sad, full of dismay. Finally... after wallowing in despair..., he, like a bamboo pole, flexes, moves on. We hear him say, “I hitch my team, go roaming /to ease my troubled mind.”
Updates 2013 (MG): Giant pandas eat 20-30 pounds of bamboo shoots a day. Many years ago, the Garden shipped off a container of bamboo to a Canadian zoo which was having difficulty procuring enough bamboo to sustain its pandas.