SCIENTIFIC NAME: Various genera and species
FAMILY: Poaceae

Bamboo is the most widely used plant in the world. It is all things to some men and some things to all men.

Over the centuries, man's mastery of the many uses of bamboo has added significantly to his civilisation and culture.

In the Orient, bamboo has become inextricably woven into the fabric of Eastern culture. In fact, life in the Orient, as we know it, would be unthinkable without the vitality and versatility of this useful plant. It is at the very heart of their culture, folklore and poetry. "Bamboo is the very soul of Japanese culture." (McClure).

Nature has given this remarkable plant so many useful design features and produced this versatile material at so little cost. Try as it may, modern technology cannot hope to equal it.

As a material, bamboo is easy to work with. It is flexible yet tough, light yet very strong. It can be split easily in one direction, never in the other. It may be pliant or rigid as the occasion demands. It can be as resilient as spring steel or compressed as a peg in a hole. After heating, it can be reshaped. It has straightness and great tensile strength. Bamboo provides: foods, raw materials, fuel, shelter, tools, weapons, ornaments, medicine, protection, toys, paper, musical instruments and peace of mind.

Farming bamboo in Australia as a commercial crop has never seriously been considered in the past, but is now being researched by several interested groups. The main aspect they are looking into is the production of edible shoots. Australia currently imports about 600,000 kg of canned bamboo shoots each year. We also import bamboo furniture, ornaments and garden stakes. Australia has vast areas suitable for growing bamboo, from the Tropics to Tasmania, but the viability of such a crop has yet to be established.

The Atherton Tableland Promotion Bureau has carried out the following research: "Market research undertaken in Australia indicates there is unsatisfied demand for fresh bamboo shoots amongst the Asian community. There is effectively no regular supply available anywhere and at any time in Australia. It is concluded that a market exists for the supply of fresh bamboo shoots to this Australian market with no direct competition.

"The domestic market would be based, in part, on replacement of imported canned bamboo shoots, and in part on increases in consumption of fresh bamboo shoots. This market is estimated to be a potential 300,000 kg per annum valued at $1,350,000 retail.

"There is the potential to supply fresh bamboo shoots also to the Asian market, in particular Japan during the Northern Hemisphere winter. The size of this market is potentially large and lucrative, however further research, especially into the quality of Australian-produced bamboo shoots, needs to be carried out before this market is assured.

"The potential of the markets of bamboo as a timber replacement could be significant in the long term, given that bamboo is a completely renewable resource and the time for replacement is far less than that of timber, i.e. of the order of 4 years."

Most commercial edible shoot production occurs in China and Japan and comes from two main varieties - Phyllostachys pubescens (moso) and Phyllostachys bambusoides (madake). Both these varieties grow best in temperate climates. Many other varieties are also eaten, depending on quality and availability.

In the warmer climates of S.E. Asia, the main varieties eaten are: Dendrocalamus giganteus, D. asper, Gigantochloa apus, G. atter. In Papua New Guinea, the varieties eaten are Nastus elatus and Bambusa forbesii.

Other edible varieties include: Phyllostachys vivax, P. viridis, P. glauca, P. aurea, P. nuda, P. dulcis. (Phyllostachys aurea is well established and thriving in North Queensland.) Dendrocalamus latiflorus, Bambusa ventricosa, B. sinospinosa, B. beecheyana, B. oldhamii.

Edible shoots are generally harvested before they reach a height of 12 inches (300 mm) except for Dendrocalamus giganteus which is often sold in Bangkok markets up to a length of 4 feet (1200 mm). Much is written about the bitterness or 'bite' of bamboo and how much cooking is needed to remove this unwanted taste. Generally, if the bitterness has gone after boiling once in water, it is said to be a good edible variety. In China, Phyllostachys pubescens (moso) has to be boiled twice (in two different lots of water) to remove the bitterness, but this is tolerated because of the prolific shoot production of this variety. In Papua New Guinea, the variety Nastus elatus is so soft and free of bitterness, it can be eaten raw (uncooked). This variety is being grown on the Atherton Tableland in North Queensland, and very small quantities of edible shoots are sold in Cairns markets in the warmer months.

Bamboos generally fall into 2 genetic classes.

1. Clumping (sympodial)
2. Running (monopodial).

The clumping varieties are generally the colder, more temperate types, many being able to withstand heavy snow falls.

Bamboos have seven categories of usability.

1. Edible shoots
2. Garden ornamentals
3. Furniture
4. Building materials
5. Utensils/trinkets
6. Paper manufacture
7. Wind-breaks.

Edible shoot production is a very important industry in China and Japan as well as being an important food source for many villagers. Australia's potential in this aspect is unknown.

Bamboo is an excellent and cheap building material but unfortunately would not pass Australia's maze of specification standards, quality assurance standards and building regulations that exist at Federal, State and Local Government levels.

Australia does not have the expertise or the fine craftsmen for making utensils, trinkets and ornaments from bamboo.

Paper manufacturing from bamboo could probably not compete with our established reserves of native timbers, although bamboo plantations are ready to harvest in 4 years compared with 15 to 20 years for a pine plantation.

Bamboos make an excellent wind-break and, combined with one or two of the other uses, such as furniture making, could perhaps be of some benefit to Australian farms.

Many varieties of bamboo are currently being sold in Australia as garden ornamentals. This market is expanding and has a solid future.

Bamboo furniture is currently imported into Australia from S. E. Asia, and the landed price is quite expensive due to shipping and customs charges. This is an area where considerable savings could be made if Australia grew and manufactured its own bamboo furniture. Australia certainly has the capabilities to grow the product well and has many excellent furniture makers who could probably design and make a better product than the imported one.

The following are some miscellaneous bits of information that came to light during research on this subject:

• India has the world's largest reserves of bamboo - 10 million hectares.

• The most common bamboo in Japan is Phyllostachys bambusoides (madake) and is mostly used for eating, but is also used extensively in industry and furniture making.

• Best cutting age for bamboo culms which are to be used commercially is 3 to 5 years - before they get too hard or damaged by insects. If cut too young, the culms tend to shrink and crack as they dry.

• There are 1250 species spread over 50 genera, although when carefully categorised, many would disappear in nomenclature.

• There is a fruiting bamboo (Melocanna baccifera) from Eastern India and Northern Burma which has edible fruit the size of a small pear. The species fruits only about every 30 years.

• New shoots of all bamboo species emerge at full diameter and take 80 to 120 days to reach full height.

• China exports approximately 50,000 tons of Tonkin Cane (Arundinaria amabilis - also known as Tea Stick bamboo). It is used as a punting pole or fishing rod.

• Fastest growth rates for a 24-hour period was recorded in 1956 in Kyota, Japan, for Phyllostachys bambusoides which grew 47.6 inches in 1 day.

• The largest species is Dendrocalamus giganteus which grows to 100 feet high and up to 12 inches in diameter. In Cairns, Dendrocalamus giganteus has grown to a diameter of 9 inches (22 cm) and may reach 12 inches in diameter under ideal conditions. It is a very useful and attractive bamboo.

• The art of growing square bamboo culms is practiced in China, where square moulds are placed over new shoots to produce the desired shape.

• In South America, Guadua augustifolia is a very important building material in most villages. Houses up to 3 storeys high are built with this species, which produces giant hardwood culms. It is also a good ornamental variety.

• There are at least 3 varieties which are either solid or almost solid.

• Colours of the various species range from pink, yellow, green, blue and black or combinations of the above.

• In China and Japan the number of uses of bamboo has been listed at 1546.

Flowering occurs gregariously, i.e. every bamboo of the same species will flower at approximately the same time, however widely spread they may be - even in different countries. This feature reflects the strength of the genetic inheritance. Flowering frequencies range from 30 to 120 years depending on the species, although there are a few species which flower continuously, such as Schizostachyum brachycladum.

Flowering has different effects on different species. Some are totally killed but are replaced by thousands of seedlings, such as Bambusa polymorpha. Others are severely debilitated, with only a few culms surviving and may or may not produce viable seed, example - Bambusa balcooa. Others flower continually and it has no effect on the plant, which continues to grow new shoots.

In 1968 Bambusa polymorpha flowered in Cairns, North Queensland. All culms died and many seedlings were produced in the ensuing wet season.

In 1980 Bambusa balcooa flowered on the Mossman River and many of the culms died. No viable seed was produced, but new culm shoots were produced in the following year. The clumps slowly recovered.

Some species are much more difficult to propagate than others. The common bamboo, Bambusa vulgaris is probably the easiest, and will grow even from a cutting which has been planted upside down.

The surest way to propagate bamboo is by digging up culm bases complete with attached roots. Unfortunately, this is hard work. Running bamboos may be propagated by dividing the underground running rhyzomes into lengths which contain at least 3 nodes.

Propagation by cuttings of either culms or branches is more difficult and is restricted to some of the tropical clumping types.

Propagation by tissue culture is now an accepted method, but is difficult and slow. Tissue culture laboratories have been set up in Taiwan, China, Japan and Thailand. Bamboos like to remain dormant during winter, and this is not a good time to try propagation of any kind.

The methods for curing (drying) newly-cut culms are as many and varied as there are species. Often it is a secret skill handed down from generation to generation. It usually involves a period of soaking in fresh or salt water followed by a drying period of a few weeks. Bamboo used in furniture-making is often dried in the shade for a short period, then assembled while it is still relatively green.

Much has been written of the beauty and strength of this remarkable plant and its influence on Man's cultural development. As a raw material it has a thousand uses - as a living plant it brings peace and tranquility in today's busy world.

John Marshall, Bamboo Specialist

DATE: September 1992

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