Bamboo Consists of Many Species!

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In Asia bamboo takes on almost spiritual qualities. It feeds people, houses them, provides cooking and eating utensils, furniture, baskets, ropes, clothing, roof tiles, chopsticks, axe handles, scaffolding and the list goes on. Under the applications of modern technology the list is rapidly expanding and high quality plywood, composite beams, flooring and paper are now being produced on a large scale.

Bamboo, in spite of its varied and sometimes spectacular uses in modern Asia has had a slow start in America. As a child I used it as a flexible and indestructible fishing pole. My father tells me that my grandfather used bamboo poles to poke the horses along. The poles sometimes would end up in the manure pile and suffer few ill effects. During my high school days we used a bamboo pole for the pole vault.  So, it’s not that bamboo hasn’t been present here for a long time. Although it has been imported into this country for centuries; bamboo still suffers from many misconceptions.

Readily available sources on the internet will inform us that bamboo has the tensile strength equal to or surpassing steel. We are informed that the very dense cellular structure can surpass that of oak in stability and elasticity. In terms of durability and rigidity bamboo (technically a grass) is superior to wood. Of course, it is very hard. We are equally informed that bamboo is extremely soft, and that it should never be near water because it easily takes on moisture.  We are told that bamboo warps and breaks easily. Does this sound contradictory? Yes, but it really isn’t. Why isn’t it contradictory?

One of my first encounters with the variability of bamboo was several years ago with a dealer/manufacturer in Vietnam. When I asked her about her principal markets, she told me that they were in Japan and domestic. I asked her “Why Japan - they have bamboo all over the place? I know – I used to live there.” She responded “Yes, sir, but only good for chopsticks.”  By the way, I am not so sure this is true. Nonetheless, she made her point: not all bamboo is the same!

Depending on the source, there are somewhere between 1,000 to 1,200 species of bamboo. According to Ngo Thi Minh Duyen of the Forest Science Institute of Vietnam located in Hanoi, there are only a handful that are suitable for building materials. The species that is used for chopsticks is indeed soft and should not be used for flooring. To anyone who has travelled in SE Asia the statement that all bamboo “takes on water” seems a bit silly. Houses, scaffolding, as well as all sorts of outside structures are made of bamboo. During the rainy season it rains incessantly and the inhabitants do not cover up their bamboo structures to protect them from the rain!

How hard or soft, how durable, how moisture resistant, or even when it should be harvested is dependent on the species of bamboo in question. Once the species of bamboo is determined, we can go on to consider the quality or applicability of the bamboo products produced.

Originally published by Royal in HOMEVIEW Magazine Sioux Falls SD, November 11, 2009.

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UPDATED JUNE 2018

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