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Bamboo Know-how

Incredible stories circulate about bamboo, but is it all true what they say about this plant? Does bamboo really grow 1 metre a day? Does bamboo originate from China? Is bamboo stronger than steel? In this article you will find the real and correct answers to all these questions.

1. What is the origin of the word "Bamboo"?

bamboo bonfire
Bamboo campfire

The origin of the word bamboo comes from the Malay word "Mambu". In the late 16th century (1590-1600), the Dutch called it "bamboo" after which it received its Neo-Latin name "Bambusa".

Some claim that the original word "Bambu" was because it resembles the sound bamboo makes when it explodes in an open fire. When bamboo is heated, the hot air in the enclosed hollow internodal chambers expands, creating an explosive bam-boem sound.

2. Is Bamboo a Tree?

Bamboo belongs to the Bambusoideae subfamily of the grass family Poaceae (Gramineae). It was the German botanist, Charles Kunth, who first published his taxonomic findings in 1815. Of all grasses, bamboo is the largest and the only one that can grow into a forest.

Although bamboo is a grass, many of the large woody bamboo species have a tree-like appearance and are often popularly called 'bamboo trees'. However, there are some essential differences between bamboo and trees.

bamboo trees
A mixed forest with bamboo stems and trees. Can you see the difference?

Bamboos lacks meristem cells and a vascular cambium layer that are present in trees. The vascular cambium is the continuously growing layer of a tree trunk under the bark that makes a tree thicker every year. The meristem cells, in turn, ensure that the tree grows taller every year.

However, bamboo stems do not increase in thickness or length with age. A single bamboo culm reaches its full height and thickness in just one growing season (6-8 months). The bamboo culm's fibres mature over the next 3-4 years but the culm does not get thicker or higher.

Another important difference is that bamboos do not have a bark like trees, instead they have protective bracts around the culm in their early stages of development.

3. Where does Bamboo grow?

Bamboo naturally occurs on 5 continents: Africa, Asia, South America, North America and Australia. In other words, bamboo is native to all continents except Antarctica and Europe. Coincidentally, diamonds can be found on all continents except Antarctica and Europe.

Bamboo grows in the tropical and subtropical regions of Asia, Africa and Latin America. The northernmost bamboo species are found in the south of North America and central China, and the southernmost bamboo species are found in Patagonia. Bamboo also occurs naturally in northern Australia.

bamboo distribution map
The green zones are places where bamboo naturally occurs.

Bamboos are usually found as secondary vegetation in natural forests, but in some cases, they are the dominant vegetation. This is the case in north-east India, on the mountain slopes of eastern Africa and in some parts of South America where bamboo covers many thousands of square kilometres.

Unlike many other plants, bamboo can also tolerate extreme conditions. Some species grow from sea level up to 4000 m in the Andes and Himalayas, and some can withstand temperatures below -20°C. Most bamboos also survive extreme drought or humidity.

4. How many Bamboo species are there?

The subfamily Bambusoideae consists of both woody and herbaceous bamboos with a total of 1575 identified species in 111 different genera.

Herbaceous bamboos are usually small and look very much like grass, whereas woody bamboos (depending on the species) can grow up to 40 m tall and 30 cm in diameter. Therefore, they are often mistaken for "trees".

About 100 species are used commercially, of which 20 have been identified as priority species for those wishing to start bamboo plantations. Apart from these commercially important species, many attractive ornamental bamboos are also grown in nurseries for ornamental purposes.

types of bamboo culms
Culms of different bamboo species

5. How fast does Bamboo grow?

Bamboo consists of many different species that all have unique growth properties and characteristics. Saying that bamboo grows 1 metre a day is misleading, because not all bamboo species grow that fast (most of them "only" grow between 5-20 cm per day).

That being said, the Guinness World Records states that the world record for the fastest growing plant on earth belongs to a "certain bamboo species" that grows up to 91 cm per day. That is almost 4 cm per hour or a growth rate of 0.00003 km/h.

This growth rate can only be achieved if the bamboo grows in a very nutrient-rich soil and if the weather conditions are optimal (perfect balance between heat and humidity). Madake bamboo (Phyllostachys bambusoides) and Moso bamboo (Phyllostachys edulis) are currently considered the fastest growing bamboo species in the world.

bamboo growth rate
Interesting Bamboo Facts 7

6. How high does Bamboo grow?

Herbaceous bamboos are usually small, resemble grass and are only a few centimetres high. In contrast, woody bamboos can grow to more than 30 m in height and 20 cm in diameter, depending on the species, which is why they are often mistaken for "trees". The bamboo species Dendrocalamus sinicus is considered the largest bamboo in the world with a height of 40 m and a diameter of 30 cm.

7. Bamboo survived Hiroshima

An exceptional example of bamboo's ability to survive is the fact that it was the only plant to survive the radiation of the Hiroshima atomic bomb in 1945. The extreme heat destroyed all trees and plants except for one bamboo forest. The forest has been removed but the culms have been preserved in a museum in Hiroshima, Japan.

8. Can Bamboo Conduct Electricity?

Less than a year after he developed the first practical lamp (1880), Thomas Edison designed a new version that had all the essential functions of a modern lamp: a filament in a threaded glass bulb.

The most important factor was to find the right material for the filament, the part inside the lamp that lights up when an electric current is passed through it. Edison tested more than 1,600 materials, including coconut, fishing line, even the beard hairs of an employee.

Finally, Edison decided to use bamboo for the filament. Edison and his team had discovered that carbonised bamboo could conduct electricityand that the lifespan of a bamboo filament was more than 1200 hours, more than any other material available at the time.

Researchers have since built on his work and have now discovered that bamboo charcoal consists of natural "nano tubes" that can conduct electricity as a very thin film on a glass or silicon substrate surface.

9. Is Lucky Bamboo a real bamboo species?

The immensely popular ornamental plant that is supposed to bring positive energy and prosperity to those who place it in their homes or offices is, in fact, not bamboo at all.

Lucky bamboo is exported worldwide and cultivated on a large scale in China and Taiwan, although the plant actually originates from Africa. Unlike true bamboo, Lucky bamboo grows very slowly (approximately 10 cm per year). The stems are usually sold when they are between 10 cm and 100 cm long.

Although the word 'Bamboo' appears in the name of this plant, the taxonomic order is completely different from that of true bamboo. The botanical name for Lucky Bamboo is Dracaena braunii (also known as Dracaena sanderiana).

lucky bamboo
Interesting Bamboo Facts 8

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