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30 / 06 / 2021

Gregarious flowering

The rare flowering of bamboo

Maybe you know those stories about the Giant Arum? This plant rarely flowers, just like the agave plant. It only flowers at the end of its life and that can take up to forty years! This kind of flowering always attracts a lot of visitors at botanical gardens. There is also a similar phenomenon in bamboo. It is called "Gregarious Flowering" where, depending on the species, flowering takes place every 100 years. However, the locals are not very keen on this.

Gregarious Flowering, a rare phenomenon among plants. This means that the plants only flower together once every few years. The number of years depends on the bamboo species. It can vary from 30 to as many as 130 years. With Gregarious Flowering, the entire bamboo forest goes into bloom. But not only the forest, all the bamboo of that particular type will flower at the same time all over the world. It is genetically programmed into the bamboo.

First, flowers grow on the bamboo. These flowers then give way to the fruit, which is called 'bamboo rice'. The bamboo does all this with such dedication that the entire forest dies. All energy goes into producing fruit and seeds. When it is ready, the whole ground is covered in such a way that a fresh new forest can start growing. Of course, this process does not happen overnight and can take several years.

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A flowering bamboo

Why this happens is still unknown. There are various theories, but none has been confirmed with certainty. There are speculations that this has to do with pests eating the fruit, which would die out if there were so many years in between. More plausible is that it is meant to provide extra space for the new growth.

The blooming of such a forest has many consequences for the local population. Because the forest dies, they miss vital building materials. Where they could normally cut bamboo for construction, there is now a whole forest missing. It takes about 6 years before it is ready to be cut again. So it has great economic consequences.

In ecological terms, it has three major consequences. First, we go back 8,000 years. The domestication of chickens. The modern chicken is descended from the red jungle fowl, also known locally as the bamboo fowl. These are wild animals that live in the forest. During such an event of gregarious flowering, an abundance of food is released. As a result, they start breeding en masse and lay many eggs. This led to the keeping of chickens and selective breeding. Thus began the chicken as we know it today.

chicken
Left 'Jungle Fowl', Right modern chicken

The flowering of the bamboo also attracts insects. For example, there are stories of millions of peeling bugs that emerge with the flowering of the bamboo. These insects crawl into every crack or hole. They do not bite or do anything else, but it is a real plague when they come by the thousands. A deep-fried shield bug is considered a delicacy, so for some it is like a gift from heaven.

One of the biggest changes is happening in the local rat population. They have an endless supply of food when all the fresh seeds and fruits cover the ground. As a result, the population can increase tenfold. The rats then eat whatever seeds and fruits they can find and when these are finished they start eating the rice fields of the local population. It is then up to them to eradicate the population before it is too late. In 2009, a documentary, "Rat Attack" by Nova, investigated this connection.

rats
Left the normal rat, right a Bamboo Rat

This rat infestation should not be confused with the so-called 'bamboo rat'. This animal may have the name rat, but it looks more like a large guinea pig, measuring an average of 30 centimetres. The bamboo rat lives in bamboo forests and is considered a delicacy by the local population. These rodents are therefore not responsible for the nuisance caused by their smaller namesakes.

There are plenty of bamboo species that never flower. There are also species that just bloom sporadically. There are more than 1600 species of bamboo and only a few of them flower gregariously. Among the commercial bamboos, there is basically no bamboo that blooms gregariously. This is of course good for a stable supply, but above all it is good that 'our' bamboo does not pose ecological and economic risks for the local population. So you don't have to worry about your bamboo products at home, they are actually very good for the local population and the flora and fauna of the area it comes from. You can read more about this in this blog.

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Gregarious flowering: the rare flowering of bamboo 5
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