In the tropics bamboos have a long tradition of more or less pan-tropical use. Temperate bamboos, despite being
well valued and utilized in their lands of origin, have been much less broadly investigated and are too seldom
considered for applications in other similar or compatible climatic zones. Previously most bamboo was wild collected
and whatever species was at hand was what was used, but now identified elite species are increasingly being grown
for specific qualities in both plantation and agroforestry type scenarios. The traditional uses of cut bamboo products
have been enumerated often and are currently at well over 1,000. The "high-tech" potentials are only now beginning
to be explored. Many of the ecological services provided by bamboo plantings are well documented, if obscure. The
authors, with over 45 years of bamboo investigation experience between them, will seek to make a case for the
prominent inclusion of temperate bamboos in Earth Healing scenarios for U.S.D.A. climatic zones 6-9 (extreme winter
lows of -10ºFahrenheit [-23ºC] or above). The essential and salient fact is that bamboos can be used in any manner
that tree wood can plus a number of additional applications utilizing its unique structure. Bamboos can do this while
performing needed ecological services and with an annual yield (after establishment) on a short-rotation cycle of from
one to five years depending on end use. From fuel to food to fiber, from re-bar substitution to dimension lumber
(composite) to houses, bamboo can save forests and farms. It can shrink our ecological footprint, ameliorate the
impact of our burgeoning organic waste stream, including that from C.A.F.O.'s (Confined Animal Feed Operations),
and raise the water table while conserving and even quantitatively building new soil. Bamboo can do all this as it
calms our spirits and improves rural economics. Perhaps bamboo could even improve national economies. Certainly,
its many virtues are worth considering.
Key words: Agroforestry
*Core portions of this paper first appeared in "Temperate Bamboos; a non-timber forest product of great value" which
was presented before the First World Congress of Agroforestry in Orlando, FL on 29 June '04.
Earth Healing with Bamboo –
Ecoservices, Bioremediation, Agroforestry
We, the human race collectively, and "over developed" societies in particular, are no longer living on the "yields" of
natural systems. We have disrupted, degraded, and even destroyed many interrelated ecosystems to the point that a
number of essential services have been marginalized or are no longer functioning. We are in what may be termed
the "Esau Syndrome". We are trading our (and, more importantly, our children's and grandchildren's) birthright
for a "mess of pottage". We are not only eating our seed corn but also consuming &/or degrading the topsoil, the
clean water, even the quality of sunlight needed to produce future crops for future generations. We need to
somehow disassemble the prevailing colonial paradigm, the Euro-American "success" model. We may try to salvage,
in a modified form perhaps, those aspects that are fair and equitable, but we must somehow replace our consumptive
and competitive behavior with a more communally oriented, cooperative ideal – our children are at peril. Let us
remember that war is the ultimate competition as well as our most disruptive, consumptive and polluting act. If we don’
t reconsider and reform the fatal flaws in our current paradigm … then Cheney may be prophetic regarding the
“endless war” of which we are currently on the brink. It does not have to be … if WE change. Preparing to use
domestically produced bamboo as source material wherever possible would be a big step toward reducing the
resource depletion and pollution currently fueling many global conflicts. Such a move would also help reduce our
vulnerability from present and future resource shortages.
"Agroecology", "Agroforestry", "Alternative Energy", "Bioremediation", "Community- Supported-Agriculture", "Good
Stewardship", "Land Reform", "Permaculture", "Plant-a-Row-for-the-Hungry", "Systems Thinking" – these are some of
the newer "buzz words" indicating society’s growing awareness that the status quo ante is not sustainable. Each and
all of the above concepts or disciplines have valid contributions to make in our quest for a more equitable and
mutually viable future. However, for any or even all of them to truly reverse our social and ecological decline, we must
first critically examine and where necessary revise the underlying attitudes and assumptions that led us to our current
dilemma. We cannot change our behavior until we change our thinking and we will not likely change our thinking until
we develop new attitudes – ie. we need to be open to new ways with new options. The deadly combination of
ignorance and arrogance implicit in our cutthroat competition and business-as-usual mindset is increasingly
unsupportable. We need to look into our hearts and minds seeking to find a sense of unity, while realizing and
acknowledging that we are all in this together. Only if so motivated are we likely to succeed in building a better future
for our children. We can begin by becoming environmentally conscious and “voting” with our time (study, discussion,
social activism) and money (what do you buy?... from whom? … made how and from what? … shipped from where?)
Anytime there is a choice of materials consider choosing bamboo especially if it is from a source closer to home
(shipping represents about 18% of the global use total and is very energy intensive!). If even Wal-Mart can “go
green” by its sourcing decisions – can’t we do the same? Being a good citizen confers responsibilities as well as
privileges. How about we start actually thinking about what we are doing? Also the consequences!
The above awareness came in a vision some 30 plus years ago. Implicit in that vision, was the awareness that all life
depends on plants. So began Earth Advocate’s research into practical or applied ethnobotany with a focus on warm
temperate climatic zones. In the late 70's on becoming aware that there were useful candidate species of hardy
temperate bamboos as well as the better known tropical bamboos, we began to study whatever literature was then to
be found while acquiring extensive hardy taxa for field trials in USDA zone 6 (winter lows to -10ºF., -23ºC.). In the
early 90's, with an established "palette" of over 200 candidate species and forms of temperate bamboos representing
20 plus genera, we began use and application trials. About the same time Earth Advocates applied for and received
a special USDA permit to import new species and forms of bamboo for research purposes. A number of new species
have since been introduced after completing the required one-year post-entry quarantine in the dedicated ‘Q’ house
at EARF. There are many more desirable species and elite forms that are yet to be brought into the U.S. And given
the increasing difficulties of acquiring and importing new bamboo taxa, this should be given a priority status as we can’
t evaluate any new bamboo taxa until we identify, locate, acquire and import them. Meanwhile we have broadened
our knowledge base by acquiring training in such ancillary disciplines as Erosion Control, Integrated Pest
Management, Permaculture, Bioremediation, and Soil Science which has, of course, broadened the scope of our
investigations into bamboos’ potential place in it all.
Thus far, we are persuaded that the bamboos, wherever climatically suited, possess a larger and more varied suite of
benefits, uses, and virtues than any other group of plants, and bamboos lack many of the drawbacks and/or
limitations that are found in other multi-use crops – as we will seek to demonstrate here briefly.
Bamboos are grasses, members of the Poaceae, and native to all continents except Europe where they were
extirpated during a recent ice age. They belong to the super tribe Bambusoideae which is composed of both
herbaceous and woody tribes. Over a thousand species representing 80 plus genera are currently known. We are
here concerned with the largest and most widespread tribe, the Bambusae or woody bamboos, specifically, select
members of the sub tribes: Arundinariinae and the closely related Shibataeinae (which might be termed the hardy or
temperate bamboos) within which there are over 20 genera with 300 plus currently recognized species. These can
vary from ankle high ground covers (many of which are excellent for erosion control as they have more mass below
grade than above) to giant tree grasses of 20 meters or more. Bamboos' natural range is from 50º N. latitude in the
Kurile Islands to 47º S. latitude in southern Chile and is found from sea level to around 4,000 meters. However, when
introduced, many hardy bamboo species can semi-naturalize well outside their original ranges in areas possessing
suitable climates and with a minimum of 75 cm (30 inches) of rain or irrigation available annually. More is better. The
larger and most cold tolerant bamboos are primarily found in genus Phyllostachys, however, a number of other
genera contain species with desirable characteristics as well. Many occur naturally as forest understory and/or as
edge species, although most are heat lovers and quite tolerant of full sun. Actual height, diameter, wall thickness,
wood quality, and frost tolerance can vary with species or even cultivar and, of course, site conditions. These factors
need to be carefully matched for successful realization of both the site’s and the candidate taxon’s fullest potential.
The annually updated Species Source List published by the American Bamboo Society (A.B.S.) on their web site www.
americanbamboo.org gives approximate growth parameters, requirements, sources, and some of the uses for nearly
400 bamboo taxa currently available in the U.S.
Bamboos are the fastest growing plants on earth. Dr. Sadao Suzuki in Japan has recorded as much as 1.07 meters
of vertical growth in 24 hours. Being grasses bamboos are extremely culture responsive, i.e. nutrient levels that
would be harmful to trees only accelerate bamboo productivity and growth rates without reducing the wood quality.
Bamboos are perennial and once established can continue to yield an annual harvest for fifty years or more before
replanting. And being evergreen they photosynthesize sunlight into plant energy year round. Both cellulosic ethanol
and bio-diesel can be profitably processed from Bamboo which is not as input intensive as other energy crops. The
new shoots of most temperate bamboos emerge in spring at their finished diameter and achieve their full vertical
stature in 60 days or less. At first they are soft, made firm only by hydrostatic pressure. To produce high quality
“wood” temperate bamboos need to stand "on the root" for five (5) years to become fully lignified and realize their
optimal potential strength. Tropical bamboos, with a longer growing season, mature in approximately three (3) years.
Less mature culms can be used for biomass, paper pulp, weaving or anywhere compressive strength or stiffness is
not needed. The bamboo grove’s ecoservices and ability to bioremediate compromised systems are a free, included
bonus. Establishment requires five (5) to ten (10) years before first harvest, depending on end use, but is annual
thereafter. Harvest can be selective, culm by culm on an annual basis, similar to "high-grading" a forest or rotated
swath cutting with a mixed age yield requiring hand sorting for various applications. Yield figures are impressive.
Being high yield along with bamboos’ low input requirements results in a very favorable “carbon footprint”,
advantageous for carbon offset trading when “carbon disclosure” is a factor in source material selection. Bamboo is
the ultra-green source plant and even more realistically carbon neutral than tree wood.
Benefits, Uses, & Virtues
Benefits or Services –
Bamboos' function in the hydrologic cycle is of particularly great value for future ecoservices applications as there is
essentially no rain runoff from established groves except in the most torrential downpours. And since bamboos tend
to be self mulching, there is no bare soil, consequently what little water does seep out of the grove tends to be clear.
Thus, both natural and managed bamboo groves can minimize erosion as well as providing an ideal ground water
recharge cover and/or watercourse protection. Tall bamboos on high ground comb moisture and airborne soil from
the atmosphere much as trees do, but bamboos tend to have a greater leaf surface area and being evergreen, they
function year round. On flood plains bamboo culms slow the water and harvest silt. Their continuous high nutrient
leaf drop makes them self-mulching and quantitatively increases topsoil while improving its moisture holding ability.
Bamboos accumulate, improve, and protect soils as well as cleaning the air and raising the water table. And they can
do all this on a diet of municipal or feedlot effluents or any nutritious organic waste thus providing a truly renewable
and sustainable resource base.
Bamboo groves provide habitat for birds, small animals, invertebrates, and fungi … and are a great playground for
children of all ages. The ecology of a bamboo grove can be quite diverse. Even large animals will bed or seek
shelter in Bamboo. Further, bamboo groves with their soil knitting rhizome structure are the safest place to ride out
Management strategies vary with type of bamboo, site conditions, and intended product yield or end use. Multiple
use management is possible – i.e. shoots and poles.
|Earth Healing with Bamboo –
Ecoservices, Bioremediation, Agroforestry©
Originally Prepared* for the
25th Anniversary Conference of the
American Bamboo Society
15-17 October 2004
by Adam Turtle FLS
and Susanne E. Turtle
Earth Advocates Research Farm
Summertown, Tenn., USA