A while back we watched Shang-Chi, a Marvel Series blockbuster with lots of digital effects showing scenes set in Shanghai and a hidden village deep in a bamboo forest. Truthfully there was a lot of FX involved in the forest but they must have started with images of the real thing. The real thing showed acres of 100 foot high bamboo stalks so thick you could barely walk through them. In Shanghai there was a martial arts fight on bamboo scaffolding covering the side of a high-rise building. Clearly this was bamboo like I had never seen it before.
In my vineyard and those nearby we use bamboo as part of our trellises and for net-setting poles. It got me thinking about growing bamboo on the farm. What does it take to grow it? How does it affect the soil? What can it be used for? And just what is it?
Fundamentally, bamboo is grass, very big grass. I tend to think of grass as covering a prairie. Its large root mass in relation to its above-ground size gives it the ability to spring back after being eaten or mowed. Properly managed, it creates some of the most fertile farmland in the world. As pasture it gives us livestock and meat. As grain it gives us baked goods and sprouts. Do those attributes still apply to super-sized grass?
Not so much. There are close similarities. Bamboo comes in two basic types, clumping and running. Clumping is like the fescue in most lawns. It grows in bunches and spreads slowly. Running is like Spreading Brome, commonly referred to as Quack Grass. The biggest varieties of the over 1000 species of bamboo are clumping types that can reach 100 feet in height and 12 inches in diameter (Wikipedia). Like corn (also a grass), they need rich soil, warm temperatures and plenty of water. They don’t grow here. What we can grow are running types which are much more forgiving of temperature and soil types.
Therein lays a problem. Think Quack Grass on steroids. Running types are considered an invasive species. Some types of bamboo can grow 3 feet in 1 day. Their runners can go 20 or 30 feet underground. Once a stand is established, it is nearly impossible to eradicate with non-toxic means. I needed to talk to someone who actually grows bamboo. Fortunately my neighbor, Rufus Cabral is that someone.
We buy bamboo poles and stakes of different sizes from him on occasion. We don’t have to do that very often because bamboo lasts. In fact it is resistant to many things that wood is not. Deer and insect pests seldom bother it. If left above ground, sun and water in this dry climate have little effect. When it is a young sprout, most varieties are edible after boiling off the cyanogenic glycosides, mild toxins with a bitter taste. Stalks reach full height in the first year but take 4 or 5 more years to leaf out and harden. The mature stalk can live for 10 years or so. The leaves emerge in the spring and hang around until the next spring, then fall off as new leaves emerge. Like grass, the stalk (culm) has nodes, which can be cut to form cups or used as floats.
Finding bamboo fishing net floats on beaches in Alaska, was one of the things piqued Rufus’s interested in bamboo. It is only one of the hundreds of uses of bamboo itself. Bamboo can be used for food, medicine, livestock feed and many fiber uses such as paper, eating utensils and construction materials. Bridges, houses and furniture can all be made from bamboo. Rufus points out that the mature wood is 40% silicon. This makes it hard on saw blades. Carbide is recommended.
Bamboo is strange in other ways. It can bloom and have seeds, but only very infrequently, happening on all stands of a species at once which then all die. Since it regenerates quickly and enriches the soil while it rots underground, this is more of a survival tactic than a catastrophe. Rufus described how the roots, when they become blocked by dry hard clay, exude moisture to soften the clay so they can move through. Ironically, when used to stabilize erodible stream banks, a common use, they can’t cross under the stream itself. He grows a variety found at the 10,000 ft elevation in the Himalayas and several others. But common types know as “fishing pole” and “yellow grove” died here.
The Cabrals got starts from a nursery on the East Coast. Trying to get new starts transplanted into pots that can survive the winter has been more challenging. One of the biggest issues, the expanding nature of running bamboo, has not been a big problem. The new sprouts are big and obvious, so it is easy to mow them down and contain the bamboo patch.
As for bamboo being good for the soil, maybe it is. The mulch of the leaves and density of the root system may fertilize the soil. But since the groves are so thick and persistent, nothing much but bamboo grows in the center of the groves and only grass near the edges. Essentially, if you have a steady use for bamboo poles or use it as food or feed, it is a dependable crop. It also makes good wind breaks and stabilizes erodible soil. But if you change your mind about that, it can become a big problem.
Bottom line: consider your options carefully. You don’t want to make a bamboo-boo.