Uses –
    
Historically, bamboo-based cultures developed not only in Asia but also in parts of South America and Africa.  The pre-
European Indians of the southeastern U.S. made extensive use of "cane" (
Arundinaria gigantea) the largest of our
native North American bamboos.  

What can't be done or made with bamboo might provide a shorter list than what can.  For instance, symbiotic edible
fungi can be cultured in the grove.  The new shoots of bamboo are a healthy, nutritious and currently pricey human
food.  The foliage furnishes a very palatable high-protein feed (up to 22%) for livestock which must, of course, be
excluded from growing areas -- especially during the shooting season.  The cut culms are a good source of pulp for
high quality papermaking and according to joint studies by the USDA, Champion Paper, Scott Paper and Auburn
University, one species –
Phyllostachys rubromarginata - can out-yield loblolly pine (Pinus taeda) 6 to 1.   Bio-
polymers (the basis of most plastic, formerly sourced from petroleum) for packaging (and other applications) can
readily be processed from bamboo.  The volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) can be recovered for energy production
before pulping for paper making.  Many of the more recently available species have not been evaluated adequately for
either use or yield potentials under U.S. conditions.  There are also a number of species not yet in the U.S. that may
have useful attributes.  In New York state there is a 14 million dollar experimental willow (
Salix spp.) plantation for co-
firing with coal for electricity production.  In NY willow is probably the best choice, but in both the lower Atlantic Coastal
Plain as well as the Gulf Coastal Plain bamboos could not only out-yield willow, but do so with less input.  Studies from
trial plots in Germany, Ireland, and Brazil have indicated bamboo can yield a high BTU biomass for low emission
energy generation.  (Energy generation is currently the #1 source of greenhouse effect gasses contributing to global
warming.  Deforestation is the #2 contributor.  Bamboo can address both.)  Up to 37 tonnes per hectare annual
biomass production have been reported.  Mature bamboo wood quality is similar to other medium density woods and is
superior to pine in strength.  Dr. Andy Lee of the Engineering Department at Clemson University in South Carolina has
found that when sawn and laminated, bamboo can be used in place of tree wood in many applications.  The sports
stadium at Clemson even contains bamboo “re-bar” in its concrete work.  When used in the round, bamboos' unique
form and its strength to weight ratio offers many advantages both architecturally and in applications such as:  water
and gas piping for use in low cash flow remote areas, or even ganged together as stiffeners in recycled plastic-
encapsulated utility poles.  When processed with borates in a modified Boucherie treatment, bamboo becomes
resistant to insects as well as fungi.  Gary Young in Hawaii, working with woven bamboo mat impregnated with an
organic epoxy and vacuum molded, found it could assume almost any shape, with strength and weight and cost
comparing favorably to fiberglass.  High quality rayon-like fabric, both knitted and woven, has recently been developed
from bamboo fiber in China and is currently available as various finished goods.  At EARF we sleep on bamboo sheets
(flannel in winter, smooth in summer), walk on bamboo floors, wear bamboo T-shirts and socks, and stand on a
bamboo bath mat while drying off with a bamboo towel.  We have bamboo tables and chairs.  In the workshop the new
“work-mate” has a laminated bamboo work surface.  Bamboo charcoal commands a premium price for use in the food
industry as well as in chemistry and medicine.  In China at a bamboo expo several years ago, we even saw limited use
picnic plates made of the naturally shed culm sheaths laminated and molded to a plate shape – not yet widespread,
but undoubtedly less energy intensive than paper or plastic table ware.  We also correspond on fine bamboo
stationary.  Bamboo cloth and knitted articles have a natural anti-bacterial property that increases their appeal.  
Bamboo fibers can be substituted for carbon fibers in some applications.  Bamboo plywood or "plyboo" as well as
bamboo O.S.B. or oriented-strand-board and laminated bamboo flooring are now being marketed with demand
outpacing supply.  When used for durable applications, i.e. furniture, architectural materials, concrete reinforcement,
etc., bamboos can provide significant carbon sequestration.  Even when burned for fuel there is still a benefit in that it
is contemporary carbon rather than fossil carbon which is released.  

The U.S. currently has a tremendous negative balance of trade even as we import over 50 million dollars a year worth
of bamboo shoots, poles and other products.   We also have:  massive unemployment, many abandoned small farms,
devastated rural economies,  overburdened land fills, organic waste disposal issues, receding water tables and
diminishing water quality, severe soil erosion, material shortfalls, inequitable land distribution, worsening air pollution,
etc., etc.  Our problems continue to worsen in large part because of our head-in-the-sand attitudes.  Now, as our
awareness of the interconnectedness of life on earth increases, we are hopefully closer to some sort of tipping point
where we genuinely consider new options.  Domestic production and use of bamboo could favorably address many of
these interrelated issues; and if given check-off subsidies and incentives similar to the timber and/or mining and/or
energy and/or agriculture and/or transportation industries, a "bamboo industry" could quickly become very
economically competitive as well as both socially and ecologically beneficial on many levels.  And if we also regionalize
paired production and use we would reduce our vulnerability due to our currently overlong supply lines and the ever
increasing costs of long distance shipping.

International bamboo trade has recently been estimated at over 10 billion U.S. dollars annually.  Internal or domestic
uses are estimated to be as much as an additional 50 billion U.S.  These figures are for current use levels and do not
reflect the potentials possible with new applications from bamboo substitution nor for use in new technologies.  Nor do
they put a value to environmental services or social benefits.  As a quick growth, short cycle feedstock with multiple
industrial applications, bamboo is peerless. And being a high-annual yield, short-rotation crop, bamboo could give
small farms and rural economics a renewed viability.  Projects like the Bamboo of the Americas (B.O.T.A.) (www.
bamboooftheamericas.org) can be effective in encouraging the conservation of native habitat, which includes the
native bamboos of an area, while offering profitable economic uses (such as construction and furniture, etc.) for low
income areas.  BOTA sponsors projects throughout the Americas so that farmers and rural communities as well as
local and national governments will see the potential economic and environmental value of saving their native stands
of bamboo.  Margaret Cirtain at the University of Memphis in Tennessee and others are addressing canebrake
(
Arundinaria sp.) eco-system restoration in the Southeastern U.S.  At Earth Advocates Research Farm in middle
Tennessee we are screening and evaluating nearly 300 taxa of temperate bamboos.  Hopefully, we and by extension
our communities, will choose to encourage and support these kinds of efforts.  

Sensibly grown and utilized, bamboo can greatly reduce our dependence on tree wood and to some extent it can
substitute for and/or be co-fired with coal.  Used to produce cellulosic ethanol, bio-polymers for plastics bamboo can
reduce our dependence on imported petroleum.  It is even used like mild steel for concrete reinforcement and "Ferro-
cement" type applications.  Best of all – with a bamboo plantation, if/when the economics of one end-use scenario
becomes uneconomic, then the management strategy can be shifted to another end-use.  For instance if the
plantation is growing bamboo for bio-mass (fuel or pulp), a shift in management (mainly in harvest cycles and
procedures) could position it for the OSB market.

Downside –

There are a few bamboo pests currently known in the U.S.  There are bamboo mites (first described on the Gulf Coast
in 1917), some bamboo scale (including armored, pit, and mealy-bugs), a shoot fly and some leaf rollers.  Fortunately
these are generally well integrated into the local ecologies and flare-ups are readily dealt with using Integrated Pest
Management (I.P.M.) (the Bio-Integral Resource Center website:  www.birc.org) strategies and techniques.  Also, what
damage occurs is mainly cosmetic affecting primarily the appearance of horticultural bamboo plantings.  Voles,
chipmunks, and especially squirrels all have a taste for Bamboo shoots and are more serious pests for us in our
bamboo nursery operation.  It would be expected that bamboo plantations would share these problems.  In the western
U.S., problems with gophers challenge bamboo growing.  As there will likely be on-going R&D if/when bamboo
becomes an economic crop in the U.S., just so, these and other not-yet-known difficulties and/or potential limiting
factors can be dealt with as they arise.  Another bottleneck is the current low availability and relatively high price of the
quantities of field ready bamboo plants needed to establish plantations; however, techniques and strategies are being
developed to address these issues.

Virtues –

The seven sages of Chinese lore are said to have valued life in a bamboo grove as it provided the tranquility needed
for their contemplations.  Part of the explanatory rationale for this lies in the gentle susurration or white noise made by
the leaves.  In addition to inducing emotional tranquility, a virtue in short supply in our hurried and harried society,
bamboo is intellectually stimulating -- as any child fortunate enough to have played in a grove can attest.  There are
also subtle symbolic attributes.  Bamboo is known as "the gentleman", upright but able to bend and always willing to
serve.  Bamboo is hollow, lightweight and resilient demonstrating that mass and rigidity are not the only paths to
strength.  Bamboo is also known as "the brother" available to comfort or help.  Its evergreen beauty and calming
effect, where known, are highly appreciated.  As a colony organism, bamboos offer a model of mutual support and
cooperation, as well as multiple benefits to their "guests" and neighbors.

The Future –

In the 1890's the first modern (well, western anyway) wave of bamboo prophets put forth their vision of a bamboo
sourced society.  Among them in the U.S. were such luminaries as Frederick Law Olmsted who designed bamboo into
the Biltmore Estate, the site of the first scientific school of forestry in the U.S.  Thomas Edison's use of bamboo
(selected out of over 6,000 materials tested) for the first commercial light bulb filament is well known.  Others included
David Fairchild, E.H. McIlhenny, Barbour Lathrop – all of whom subscribed to Ben Franklin's admonition that "The
greatest service a man (or woman) can provide their country is to introduce a useful new plant."  We believe that still
holds true today, but we would add that besides "introducing" the plant, we need to actively explore its useful
properties and promote its potential applications … again and again as necessary.

Most of these early visionary efforts came to naught, except horticulturally.  This was due largely to Europeans (and
we as their cultural heirs) lacking any bamboo tradition except in “the colonies” where it was viewed as a "native"
resource.  This obliviousness to the virtues of bamboo has been further exacerbated by our entering what might be
termed a corporate neo-colonial period of profligate resource extraction and wasteful exploitation.  Now as our various
follies catch up to us, we may at last have no choice but to reconsider and accept the manifold gifts of the bamboos.  
In the immortal words of the former comic strip hero Pogo, “Gentlemen (and ladies, ed.) we are confronted with
insurmountable opportunities!”

Worldwide there are pockets of exploration and research.  Tissue culture protocols have been developed for a number
of species.  The recent discovery of induced in-vitro flowering techniques now allows the creation of hybrid forms with
elite characteristics.  New plantation management techniques and strategies are increasing potential yields.   INBAR
(International Network of Bamboo and Rattan) an NGO, which is currently headquartered in Beijing, China, provides an
excellent service in coordinating/informing internationally in bamboo selection, culture, and use.  These efforts are
approached through publication of low cost handbooks and manuals as well as through consultation and the offering
of workshops and training sessions.  INBAR could use more participation from both individuals and organizations such
as the ABS.  As a wealthy nation, the U.S. should be leading the world in research and information sharing to improve
conditions for all people.  So why is the U.S. still non-signatory to the INBAR treaty?    Also Kyoto?  Why do we not
have any government participation in bamboo research?  And why is there such a strong restriction on the importing of
new bamboo taxa?  Americans can ask their congresscritters or representatives.  Bambuseros of other nationalities
can query their governments about INBAR treaty participation.  INBAR web site is at www.inbar.int.

If we had just one George Washington Carver and some research funding, imagine what we could do with a naturally
versatile plant material such as bamboo.  Unfortunately, the U.S.D.A. bamboo germplasm collections are neither active
in new accessions nor adequately curated, nor are enough climatic zones even represented.  At present, we still have
not successfully brought live plants of each potentially important species into the U.S., and as international tensions
continue to increase and plant imports become more problematic – even travel is more complicated and expensive --
we need to find and acquire as many taxa as possible for future screening.  We need to begin to redress this situation.
We should also make promotional and research materials available to encourage university students to pursue a
bamboo career.  We also need more bamboo awareness programs in elementary, middle, and high schools – in the U.
S. Carol Stangler (author of “The Craft and Art of Bamboo) and others have already begun some programs, and we
need more – what can you do?  More informed contact with other groups/disciplines/professions can be very helpful in
raising bamboo consciousness. Perhaps you could speak to your Rotary or Lions or other civic groups.  We never
know who may be listening or how it may affect them.  Being exposed to bamboo frequently alters the worldview of
those who experience it.  Write articles for your local newspaper (do check your facts – there's enough mis-information
already published!)  Invite your local TV or even radio station to come visit and do a piece on your bamboo, be sure to
mention the American Bamboo Society and call attention to bamboo's uses and earth healing aspects.  If you are a
college alumnus, ask your alma mater to include bamboo studies.  If you've also been blessed financially, consider a
contribution or scholarship earmarked for bamboo studies.  Or with less expense you could donate bamboo books
and/or an ABS magazine subscription to your university or high school and/or the town's public library.  Many Bamboo
people just like the looks of bamboo, but we also have some awareness of its virtues and so we have important
information to share.  We need to get "proactive" in spreading bamboo awareness – and soon!

Conclusion –

Growing bamboos can contribute to the desperately needed repair of vital ecological services.  As a commercial crop,
bamboo has manifold agro-industrial advantages and desirable socio-political virtues, and all this while providing a
soothing and evergreen beauty.  If bamboos had no directly harvestable aspect, they would still be worth planting
extensively if only for their ecoservices.  Fortunately we get both.  If our often stated desire for healing the Earth is to
be validated, if we choose to give more than mere lip service to our avowed goal of sustainability … we can no longer
afford to ignore the many gifts and advantages offered by the bamboos.  We need every ally we can find.

Acknowledgement of the cumulative negative synergies of our current extractive and wasteful practices would insist
that we step off this treadmill of unsustainable economic growth which is made possible only by externalizing true costs,
suppression of "others", not cleaning up our mess, etc.  Perhaps then we can jointly and mutually begin an integrated
and wholistic age of enlightened siblinghood.  Toward and within this scenario we believe the temperate bamboos
have gifts to offer, lessons to teach and a prominent role to play.

Talk is cheap.  Let’s do something! And soon.



©Earth Advocates Research Farm 2007 – Contact Junior author for permission to excerpt or reprint
entirely.
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