Archive for May 2019 | Monthly archive page

Giant bamboo for building and construction

With all the talk about bamboo construction and building houses from bamboo, a lot of people are asking: What are the best varieties of bamboo for building?

In fact, most botanists recognize more than 1200 species of bamboo, or as many as 2000. And while each variety of bamboo is special and amazing in its own way, only a handful are well suited for construction.

The best bamboos for building typically belong to one of these four genera: Guadua, Dendrocalamus, Bambusa and Phyllostachys. We’ll get into the specific varieties in a moment, but first there are a few things you need to know about bamboo in general.

Know your bamboo

With thousands of varieties of bamboo to choose from, you can truly find a perfect species for any occasion. There are ideal specimens for making fishing poles, excellent bamboos for eating, beautiful accents for your Japanese garden, cold hardy varieties for the mountains, and adaptable candidates for bonsai.

And of course, there are plenty of varieties that have multiple uses. Bambusa oldhamii, for example, can provide an excellent privacy hedge, and its fresh, young shoots are also tender and delicious to eat. Oldhamii‘s long, straight canes even make for a great building material.

And there are many more varieties that look beautiful in the garden while also having other valuable functions. But then some bamboos are strictly ornamental. They might grow prolifically and add plenty of character to your landscape design, but their canes aren’t as useful. And finally, some varieties may be ideal for producing giant poles for construction, but just aren’t practical to plant in your backyard.

Your bamboo criteria

So determining the best variety will depend on a lot of factors. If you want to grow the bamboo yourself, you will need to be sure that it’s suitable for your climate and soil type. Most of the best bamboos for building are indigenous to tropical and subtropical climates.

Now if you live in Florida, that’s great. But if you’re in New York or Minnesota, it’s going to be a challenge. You might be surprised though, to see how many varieties of bamboo can thrive in a place like Oregon.

Whether you decide to grow the bamboo yourself, or order dry poles from a building material supplier, you will need to consider your specific needs. First of all: how big do you need? Some bamboos grow over 100 feet tall and up to 8 or 10 inches in diameter. Keep in mind, these results are rare. They are also based on ideal growing conditions, which you may or may not be able to provide. Furthermore, if you want to order 100-foot bamboo poles and have them shipped, it could be pretty costly.

If you’re looking for bamboo that’s 3-4 inches in diameter and 30 or 40 feet long, that’s very doable. Even if you live in a temperate climate, you should be able to grow bamboo this size. But it requires some space to spread out. Don’t expect to grow bamboo like this in a small, suburban backyard without ruffling some feathers with your neighbors. It can get out of control.

Then you have a number of other factors to consider. Most bamboo, you’ve no doubt noticed, are hollow in the center. And the best varieties for building will have the thickest walls. But some types of bamboo, in Vietnam for example, are actually solid. This could be desirable, or not, depending how you want to use it.

Also, for decorative purposes, you will want to think about the color. Some bamboos are very dark, almost black, and look beautiful when dried. You may want to use some black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra) for decorative accents. Although it does not have ideal properties for building. Keep in mind, most bamboo is dark green when it grows, but turns yellow once it dries.

Your bamboo building budget

At last, you need to think about how much you want to spend on your construction project. Bamboo has a reputation for being a remarkably renewable and inexpensive building material. And while it is very renewable, it is not necessarily cheap to build with.

In subtropical areas of Central America and Southeast Asia, where the bamboo is ubiquitous, the raw material is basically free. The bamboo will grow back faster than you can raise a house. And simple structures, resistant to floods and earthquakes, can be assembled at a minimal cost.

If you’re planning a bamboo house in the U.S. however, you will need to comply with strict building codes and regulations. That will probably involve hiring an engineer and an architect. You will also want to obtain specialized hardware for connecting corners and sealing gaps.

Most bamboo builders want to create a house with the minimal carbon footprint. That’s why they choose bamboo over conventional lumber. In keeping with this philosophy, they will want to incorporate passive solar, rainwater catchment and other green features. These elements could drive up your initial costs, but save you money in energy and utilities in the long run.

Best bamboos for construction Genus Guadua

For the smallest carbon footprint, your choice of bamboo will depend mainly on what variety is available in your area. In South and Central America, there is really only one choice of bamboo for construction. And it’s one of the most important varieties of bamboo on earth.

The genus Guadua contains about 20 different species. These are all massive timber varieties, and some of them grow more than 100 feet tall and more than 6 inches in diameter.

Guadua is a neotropical variety, meaning that it grows indigenously in the tropic and subtropic regions of the New World, namely Central and South America. And these are clumping bamboos, as opposed to the more aggressive running types. G. angustifolia, native to the area between Venezuela and Peru, is the most widely used. But other species are also common, depending mainly on the geography.

Bamboo construction is widespread in Latin America, especially in Colombia and Ecuador, where it has a long history. Simón Vélez, of Colombia, is one of the best known gurus in the field of bamboo construction. His bamboo structures in Asian and Latin America are legendary.

Guadua angustifolia

Alexander von Humboldt and Simón Bolívar brought attention to the Guadua bamboo in the 1800s, praising its strength and utility. And because of its rich history, botanists and bamboo enthusiasts from around the world have studied this genus extensively.

Today, international efforts are under way to propagate Guadua in more parts of Central and South America. INBAR (The International Bamboo and Rattan Organization) is working with organizations in Ecuador and throughout the continent to promote the use of bamboo for affordable housing.

In addition to its superior size and strength, Guadua also has excellent ecological properties. This fast-growing variety can convert significant amounts of CO2 and plays an important role in habitat restoration. In areas of deforestation, around the Amazon for example, bamboo is an excellent pioneer crop. It grows quickly, restores the soil, and paves the way for the return of other native species. And because Guadua is a clumping bamboo, it’s not going to take over the whole forest.

Genus Dendrocalamus

Native to the tropic and subtropic regions of India and Southeast Asia, Dendrocalamus includes several species with important uses for construction. Most members of this clumping genus can grow up to 50 or 60 feet tall with mature culms of 3-5 inches in diameter.

Here at Bambu Batu, we have a particular affinity for Dendrocalamus strictus. This species is sometimes called Male Bamboo or Calcutta Bamboo. And in Indonesia the natives refer to it as Bambu Batu, which translates literally as Rock Bamboo.

Revered for its hardness, this species is common for furniture and light construction, as well as paper making. The culms have especially thick walls, and in dry conditions they are nearly solid. Another nickname for this species is Solid Bamboo.

More popular for heavy construction, Dendrocalamus asper is another giant species that grows throughout Indonesia, Southeast Asia and the Philippines. This prolific species is used for everything from houses and bridges to housewares and musical instruments. Its young shoots can also be the source of a nutritious meal.

You’ll find the most impressive monuments of D. asper on the island of Bali in Indonesia. Here, John Hardy and the architecture and design firm known as IBUKU have built some of the world most astonishing bamboo houses and structures with D. asper.

In fact, they have even built a school with the world’s first all-bamboo campus. Check out the Bali Green School to learn more. Or visit Bamboo U to sign up for one of Hardy’s intensive courses in bamboo construction.

Genus Bambusa

One of the more common genera of bamboo, Bambusa contains well over 100 species, mostly native to Asia and the Pacific Islands. Many of these clumping bamboos are popular garden specimens, especially Oldham’s (B. oldhamii). Bambusa varieties are also well-known for their tasty and edible shoots.

Most species of Bambusa grow tall and upright, with handsome canes up 40-60 feet high. The best species for building puposes is probably B. bambos. Also known as Giant Thorny Bamboo, this variety can get up to 100 feet tall. Its poles have very thick walls, and when growing, the plant has a very dark green appearance.

Besides home construction, this species is also useful for a variety of applications. Bambusa poles are versatile for fencing, scaffolding, thatching, and crafts.

Genus Phyllostachys

Another of the largest genera of bamboo, Phyllostachys also contains more than 100 varieties. Native to China and Taiwan, it’s mostly subtropical but tends to tolerate a more temperate habitat. For this reason, it is commonly found in many more parts of the world.

But be careful, because unlike the other three bamboo genera above, Phyllostachys is definitely a runner. This means their roots will grow aggressively, and they can easily get out of control. Some people like how fast these bamboos cover a large area, especially when they are trying to create a large privacy hedge. But it doesn’t take long for your privacy screen to go on the attack and uproot the rest of your yard. And your neighbor’s yard.

In China, this genus is especially ubiquitous. The Chinese use numerous varieties for everything from construction and scaffolding to chopsticks and handicrafts. You can generally recognize a Phyllostachys specimen pretty easily by the distinctive groove that runs along its internodes. (See image.)

Phyllostachys with its distinctive groove

In temperate climates, P. vivax is one of the more popular varieties of timber bamboo. Its massive poles have a lovely yellow hue and grow up to about 60 feet tall and 4-5 inches thick.

One of the most important bamboo varieties of all, P. edulis is now the primary species of commercial bamboo. Commonly referred to as Moso Bamboo, this is the source for bamboo flooring and clothing, two major industries that have emerged in the last 20 years.

Further reading

To learn more about the many varieties of bamboo, their many uses, and how to select the best variety, take a look at these other articles.

10 Best bamboos for your garden 11 Cold hardy bamboos for snowy climates Dendrocalamus strictus, aka Bambu Batu Buddha’s Belly Bamboo The complete guide to growing bamboo What’s so great about bamboo?
How to grow bamboo

The benefits of cultivating and using bamboo are almost endless, and you can read all about them in our article What’s so great about bamboo? And even if you’re not growing bamboo on an industrial scale, you can think of all sorts of reasons to plant it in your own home garden.

But before you start planting bamboo, you need to be sure you know what you’re doing. Bamboo, after all, is a mighty plant. Sometimes it seems to have a mind of its own. So if you’re not well informed and prepared, you might just end up with a great mess on your hands.

In order to help you get the most out of your bamboo, and to make the most out of your garden, we’ve prepared a comprehensive how-to guide. This should include everything you need to know about growing bamboo. From choosing the best varieties for your landscape, to watering, pruning and transplanting, we cover it all.

And by following these basic instructions, you should be able to create a lush and beautiful garden. Of course, it helps to have a green thumb, but it’s certainly not essential. Even you’re thumb isn’t green already, it will be by the time you get through this how-guide and spend a few weekends among the rhizomes.

DISCLOSURE: Some of the links in this article are affiliate links. This means that, at no additional cost to you, we will earn a small commission if you click through those links and make a purchase. This helps us meet the cost of maintaining our website and producing great articles.

Why grow bamboo?

There are dozens of reasons to plant bamboo in your garden. But before you get started, you need to think about YOUR reasons for growing bamboo. Because your reasons will play a very important role in determining which varieties of bamboo you want and where you want to plant them.

Perhaps you want to grow bamboo for a privacy screen. This is one of the most common reasons why people plant bamboo. Many varieties of bamboo grow very quickly and get very tall and bushy, like a hedge. Some even grow up to 50 or 60 feet high, tall enough to provide privacy in your upstairs in windows.

But maybe privacy is not a concern, and you just want some beautiful bamboo to decorate you garden. You’ll want something that looks good with your landscape. A lighter, yellowish bamboo could bring a good contrast. Or dark canes with deep green might work better.

Are you going for a Japanese garden look, or just something tropical? Do you want an eye-catching centerpiece with unique character in the middle of your garden? Or just a some accents alongside an already established landscape? Bamboo could accomplish any of these things.

If your property is spacious, bamboo could be just the thing to fill some of that empty space and cover it quickly with greenery. Do you want to hear thick canes knocking in the window, or just the light rustle of leaves? If you have sloping land or waterways, bamboo’s complex roots are also ideal for erosion control.

With a small garden, in a suburban neighborhood or even an apartment, you may be better off keeping your bamboo in a pot. You might even want an indoor plant, which could be tricky, but not impossible with bamboo.

And maybe none of these practical and aesthetic purposes mean anything to you. You might just be interested in sequestering as much carbon as possible, and producing the maximum amount of clean oxygen. Bamboo is great for that, too.

Like I said, the reasons for planting bamboo are almost endless. You could just be aspiring botanist, or even an accomplished botanist, dazzled by the fact that bamboo is both a wood and grass. And with as many as two thousand species and subspecies, you’d like to cultivate as many varieties as you possibly can.

Choosing the best variety of bamboo

Once you’ve given some deep thought to why you’re growing bamboo and what you want to get out of it, you can make a better decision on which variety or varieties to plant. You’ll also need to consider how much space you have in your garden. Finally, you need to be aware of your local condition. Your climate zone and soil type will have a significant effect on how your bamboo performs.

To learn more about selecting the right species, check out our article on the 10 Best Bamboo varieties for your garden.

Running or Clumping Bamboo? Runners without borders

Usually, when people think of bamboo varieties, they split them into two categories. First you have your running bamboos, with their notoriously aggressive rhizome roots. This unstoppable growth habit has earned bamboo a bad reputation in some gardening circles.

Running bamboos have no respect for property lines or antique rose gardens. They can tear up your lawn, and your neighbors’ lawns. They can also wreak havoc on your sprinkler system, even your plumbing and your gas line. Bamboo has even been known to get into the exterior walls of a house.

And when you (or your neighbor) finally decide you’ve had enough, you’ll have your work cut out for you. Removing a well-established grove of running bamboo can be one of the greatest challenges in a master gardener’s play book. Bring out all your heavy tools, including a pick ax and a saws-all. You might even need to rent a back-ho.

Run for your life

But it doesn’t have to be like this. Unfortunately, a lot of amateur bamboo enthusiasts will run to the hardware store and grab a few inexpensive pots of golden bamboo (Phyllostachys aurea). Because it grows so prolifically, or invasively, it’s quite easy to propagate. For that reason it’s pretty inexpensive and easy to come by. But it can be a monster when you let it loose in your garden.

All members of the genus Phyllostachys are runners and should be handled with care. Luckily, you can easily recognize a Phyllostachys by the prominent groove (sulcus) that runs along the length of each segment (internode).

Phyllostachys bamboo with the distinctive groove.

Knowing this, you might wonder, why would I ever plant a running bamboo? But as it happens, there are a few running bamboos that are among the most popular strains. Black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra) has beautiful deep green foliage and dark canes that look wonderful in the garden and are lovely for building. Phyllostachys vivax is also popular for its massive height and girth. Its poles provide great privacy and are excellent for construction purposes.

Privacy screens and hedges are one of the most common reasons why people choose to plant bamboo. And when they do this, they want the hedge to fill in quickly. Therefore it makes sense to select a fast growing variety of bamboo, and that’s usually a runner.

Containing bamboo

If you do end up planting a running bamboo, you can also take precautions so that it doesn’t get out of control. The best method is to bury a rhizome root barrier deep into the ground and surround your bamboo with it.

The most popular, most effective, tried and true bamboo containing material is available online from Amazon. It’s the DeepRoot Bamboo Barrier, 30″ deep by 100 ft roll. This stuff is nearly invincible, going a serious 2.5 feet underground, and the 100-ft roll gives you enough length to contain a pretty major privacy hedge.

Once you’ve got your root barrier in the ground, you can rest easy know that your bamboo will stay in its place. Because without a reliable containment system, the roots are liable to get everywhere. And they might not do it right away, but eventually, a runner’s gonna run.

You can also try confining your bamboo in a large pot. I like to use half-barrels, which look more natural in a garden setting, but also have a lot of space. Even so, a bamboo in a barrel will never reach its full size the way it will when its roots are allowed to run free in the ground. And that’s a shame if you’re grown a nice big timber bamboo.

Furthermore, when you put running bamboo into a pot, you can run into other problems. The bamboo can get root-bound quickly. So you’ll need to transplant and divide the rootball regularly. Otherwise, your pot might burst. It’s also very difficult to water bamboo when it gets root-bound. The water will tend to roll off without actually penetrating down into the roots.

Check out our in-depth article on Bamboo Containment for more details.

Clumpers make good neighbors

As you can see, growing running bamboo can be a challenge. So it’s easy to see why many gardeners prefer to seek out clumping varieties. Even so, it’s important to realize that not all clumpers are equal.

Just as some runners are far more aggressive than others, this is also a range of growth habits among clumping bamboo. Typically, the clump will spread until it reaches full maturity. For some clumping varieties, the mature plant might only be 5 or 6 feet across, but others can get 15 or 20 feet wide.

So just because you have a clumping bamboo, it doesn’t mean you can go ahead and plant it right next to your property line. It’s still going to spread out, and could potentially get into your neighbor’s flower beds. Similarly, a clumping bamboo won’t necessarily be happy in a pot. Because most pots are going to be much smaller than the full size of a mature clumper.

If you really prefer to plant in pots and containers, you’ll be better off looking for dwarf bamboo varieties. There are actually quite a few such bamboos to choose from, some being far more dwarfish than others. A dwarf green stripe, for example, only gets a couple feet tall. And a dwarf Buddha Belly can get more than 10 feet tall, although it probably won’t if it’s in a pot.

Again, take a look at our article on the 10 Best Bamboos for your garden for more details about some specific varieties.

Tropical or Cold Hardy?

Once you’ve got a good handle on the size of bamboo you want to grow, and you’ve thought through the aesthetic considerations, you need to be sure you’re planting a bamboo that’s appropriate for your climate. Most bamboos are native to tropical and subtropical zones, but again, there’s wide variety to choose from.

Some tropical bamboos will actually do fine in cooler climates, while others may simply languish. And there are a lot of varieties that come from mountainous regions and will grow well in the snow. Although many will not tolerate such low temperatures.

It’s important to get the specs on your bamboo, especially if you live in an area that snows. We have an article on Cold Hardy Bamboo if you’re looking for some specific recommendations.

Sourcing and Propagating Bamboo

When you’re deciding what bamboo to grow in your garden, your best bet might be to visit a local nursery. Even better if you can find a local bamboo specialist. There are quite a few in California and Oregon, as well as down in the South. Specialists will know the varieties most suited for your part of the country.

Here are a few very reputable bamboo nurseries.

Bamboo Sourcery in Sebastopol, CA Bamboo Giant in Santa Cruz, CA San Marcos Growers in San Diego, CA Bamboo Garden Nursery in Portland, OR Lewis Bamboo in Alabama

If there is no bamboo specialist in your area, you can try your luck at a regular nursery, or you can order plants online. Most of these nurseries ship live plants nationwide.

How to grow bamboo from seeds

Bamboo flowers very irregularly, so obtaining seeds can be difficult. Most bamboo specialists only sell live, established plants. But if you’d really prefer to grow you bamboo from seed, it can be done.

Start by getting some nice bamboo seeds. You’ll probably have to order them online. Because growing from seeds is tricky, you’ll want to plant a lot of seeds, at least ten or twenty. Many of them may not survive.

For best results, get some peat pellets to start your seeds. You can easily order an inexpensive package peat pellets from Amazon. These pellets soak up water, and maintain the ideal level of moisture to germinate your seeds. During germination, you want to keep your seeds warm. It could take a week or so before you see them sprout. Always keep the pellets moist.

A bright spot in the window with a tray and a clear lid will create the perfect environment. You can also order germination trays from Amazon. Keep in mind, seedlings naturally sprout in the shade of taller plants, so indirect sunlight is best. Too much direct sunlight can be lethal.

Once the seedlings get a few inches tall, which could take a few weeks, you can place them into small one-gallon pot with some good potting soil. The design of the peat pellets makes it very easy to transplant them into dirt when you see the roots coming through the bottom. Also add some mulch to the pot, and see that the top of the peat pellet is slightly covered.

Keep the small pots in a bright window with plenty of indirect light, or in a sheltered spot outside with full shade. Water regularly, but be sure to let the soil dry out in between waterings. If the leaves start to curl, they need more water. If the leaves turn pale or brown, they are getting too much direct sunlight.

Once the roots have filled the pot, you should see some of them poking through the holes in the bottom of the pots. This could take some months, depending on the bamboo variety and your growing conditions. At this point, you can carefully transplant the young bamboo into a larger pot, or put it right into the ground. (See soil preparation section below.)

Propagating bamboo cuttings

The most common way to propagate bamboo is by root cuttings. This is much easier and produces much quicker results than growing from seed. It’s also the more common method used by mother nature.

Note: This is not the sort of cutting that’s commonly done with other plants and trees. Many plants can be cut where the stem is still soft and green, not yet brown and woody, and placed in water. Within days, you will frequently find that the cutting has grown roots. From here, you can transplant the rooted cutting into soil. Some plants can grow like this in a vase of water indefinitely. Lucky bamboo, is a perfect example. But lucky bamboo is not actually a bamboo or a member of the grass family. Cuttings from grasses will not root. (See our article on Bamboo vs. Lucky Bamboo.)

To take a cutting of bamboo, you need to break off a chunk of roots. This method typically has a very high success rate. Also, must bamboos need to be cut back periodically anyway, especially if they are in pots or growing in a residential neighborhood.

In some cases, you might just be able to break off a section from the main rootball. But usually, the root network is so tightly developed that you’ll need a strong saw to get through it. Making a clean cut will also be healthier for the plant, both the “mother” bamboo as well as the cutting.

Generally it’s easier to do this sort of operation when the soil is wet. And try to avoid doing it during the cutting season.

If you’re dealing with a potted bamboo, simply lift the whole root mass out of the pot. Then you’ll want to cut it into at least three or four sections. This will ensure that the new sections have plenty of room to spread out once they are repotted. Also, there’s a chance that some cuttings won’t survive the stress, so it doesn’t hurt to have some extras. Once replanted, with some nice, rich potting soil, be sure to keep them pretty wet for the first few weeks. The young cuttings, once established, will make great housewarming gifts.

If you’re taking cuttings from a bamboo in the ground, it can be a little more difficult. You probably need to do some digging to get in there and make a clean cut. And you might need to make several cuts, around and below, to separate from the main rootball. Just make sure there’s enough growth on the cutting. A cutting with at least one mature cane and a few younger shoots should look great and transplant nicely.

Preparing the soil for your bamboo

Bamboo is pretty hardy, and it can survive in most soil types, under a variety of harsh conditions. But if you want your bamboo to thrive, rather than just survive, you need to start by giving it a good soil medium.

Whether I’m planting bamboo in the ground or in a pot, I like to mix about half-and-half potting soil and compost or manure. Just be sure the compost or manure is not too hot and fresh. Horse manure is generally a good choice. If the manure is too hot (fresh cow pies or chicken poop), the tips of the bamboo leaves will likely turn brown.

How you prepare your planting mix will also depend on your specific soil type. If you planting in rocky or heavy clay soil, you will want to add more sand in the mix to improve drainage. If you have very sandy soil, you will want to use extra compost or manure to enrich the mix.

Another trick I like to use when planting in pots is to cover the bottom with small stones or peach pits. This helps to promote good drainage, while also preventing the soil from slipping out of the drain holes. I’ve seen many cases where the roots kept pushing out the dirt, little by little, until the pot was almost all roots and no soil. This makes it almost impossible for the roots to absorb the water they need.

If you’re planting in the ground, start by digging a good sized hole, maybe twice the size of your rootball. If it’s hard, clay soil, make the hole at least 3 times the size of your rootball. If you’re using a root barrier, dig the hole according the maximum size you want the bamboo to spread. Then bury the barrier. Be sure to get at least two feet deep. The root barrier is strongly recommended with any running variety, especially if you live in a residential neighborhood.

Then mostly fill the hole with your mix of soil and compost, and give the soil a good soaking. Then place the bamboo into the soil, with the surface just slightly higher than the surface of the surrounding ground. Then water it once again. After the second watering, the bamboo should sink a little further into the ground. Finally, level it off by covering the whole area with some mulch or wood chips.

Maintaining your bamboo

Now that you have just the right varieties of bamboo happily established in your garden, you need to make sure you keep them happy.

Feeding and fertilizing

I’m a firm believer in organic gardening and using what’s local. So I’ll never buy a jug of Miracle-Gro. I like to use different kinds of compost tea, and sometimes I use pellets that release slowly. But also happen to know a lot of farmers and landscapers, so I have a good source for compost tea. I can also get horse manure pretty easily.

Either way, just follow the directions, and add some nutrients about twice a year. I like to fertilize in spring and fall. Then, if I’m adding horse manure, I’ll top it off with a few more inches of mulch. The mulch helps keep the nutrient and the moisture in place. And eventually the mulch breaks down, adding more nutrients and also helping with drainage.

When to water bamboo

Bamboo likes to have a pretty steady supply of water. Depending on your climate, it usually needs watering once or twice a week. Of course, if it’s raining, your job is done. But if it’s a heat wave in the height of summer, you might need to water it every day. If you see the leaves curling, that usually means it’s thirsty. It might take a couple days after watering for the leaves to get back to normal.

Potted bamboos are the most sensitive when it comes to watering. They can dry out quickly, especially in black plastic or clay pots. They might need watering every other day. But pots can also have drainage problems. If the water isn’t draining the roots can have mold and rot issues. Be sure the pots are not root bound, and allow the soil to dry thoroughly between watering.

Pruning your bamboo

You might never need to prune your bamboo. Most bamboos varieties that are sold in nurseries are pretty attractive and look good naturally. Their leaves will fall and just add to the mulch. But in same cases, pruning is a good idea.

Certain varieties, especially striped bamboo like Alphonse Karr look great when you remove the lower branches. When you cut back all the growth around the bottom 3 feet or so of the plant, it really shows off the distinct color of the canes.

Buddha Belly is another species where you want to show off the shapes of the culms. Also, pruning Buddha Belly from the top will encourage the poles to grow more zigzagged, when produces a very interesting effect.

If you have bamboo privacy hedge, you may want to prune the top to make it clean and level. Personally, I prefer to let it grow naturally to it’s full height. Eventually the mature canes will top out at around the same place. But in some well-manicured gardens, a clean, square hedge might look more attractive.

More important, however, is the pruning of the roots. Especially with running bamboos, but also with clumpers, you want to dig in at least once a year, maybe more, and see where the roots are. In some case, the running rhizomes can be spreading much faster than the above ground bamboo would lead you to believe. You can cut these back with a sharp spade, or use a good pair of clippers for more precision.

Harvesting bamboo

Congratulations, you’ve successfully grown a bumper crop of bamboo! If you’re really into it, like me, you have some showcase pieces around the center of your garden, like Buddha Belly and Alphonse Karr. Then your perimeter will be lined with a nice bamboo hedge. And finally, you might have some compact, dwarf varieties to fill in the gaps and accent your more majestic specimens.

Among the varieties, you will certainly have at least one or two that produce tall, straight handsome poles for building and home decor purposes. Black bamboo dries out beautifully, with its rich dark brown tones. You can use it for any number of light carpentry projects. Then you may have some giant timber bamboo for heavier construction. Maybe some surfboard racks in the garage or some framing in the man cave. The possibilities are limitless.

Select the nicest canes, just the right size for whatever project you have in mind, and cut them down to just an inch or two above the ground. Any sharp wood saw should do the trick. Bamboo is very easy to cut through, because it’s hollow (usually). Just make a clean cut, and try to cut as close to the node as possible.

From there you can cut it down to the size you want. You will probably want to let it dry before you get too crafty with it. The color change, usually from green to yellow when it dries out. Small poles will take a few weeks to dry. And giant timber poles can take a few months. Best to let them cure slowly, in a dry, shady place.

Conclusion

Now you are ready to tame the wild beast. Maybe check out some bamboo photography collections to get inspired on what varieties to plant and how to use them for maximum effect in your garden. Then look for a some good spaces in your garden that need some revitalization. Maybe pull out some old Morning Glory vine or some other nuisance, and make room for a spectacle of bamboo. Plant wisely, and your bamboo garden could soon be the envy of the entire neighborhood!

buddha belly bamboo with bulbous culms

A fast-growing clumper with well-defined culms, Buddha Belly stands out as one of the most popular varieties of ornamental bamboo. While its irregular shape makes it less than ideal for poles and other uses, Buddha Belly Bamboo looks gorgeous in any garden.

The botany of Buddha Belly Bamboo

Buddha Belly and Buddha’s Belly are common names for the species of bamboo known as Bambusa ventricosa. Bambusa is a large genus of clumping bamboo. Typically, Bambusa varieties have multiple branches coming off of each node.

Most species of Bambusa, including Buddha Belly, are native to Southeast Asia, China and Melanesia. More specifically, Buddha Belly is indigenous to Vietnam and the Guangdong province of southern China. It can also grow happily in subtropical regions around the world.

And Ventricosa, the speciation, means wide in the middle and tapering at the ends. This accurately describes the distinctive culm shape that earned this strain of bamboo its common name.

Why is it called Buddha Belly?

Under most circumstances, the culms of Bambusa ventricosa grow more compact, with shorter internodes that bulge out in the middle. So unlike most of the more common bamboos, with their stick-straight canes, the bulbous culms of this variety look like chubby little bellies. And when you think of chubby bellies in Southeast Asia, it’s hard not to think of the laughing Buddha.

Buddha’s Eightfold Path promises to bring deliverance from suffering. And Buddhism is the most popular religion in this part of the world. Furthermore, bamboo is already recognized to be something of a magical plant. So naming an already attractive variety after the Buddha just makes sense.

Why is Buddha Belly so popular?

Of course, nearly every variety of bamboo has a look of tranquil elegance. But to the untrained eye, most types of bamboo look very similar. Buddha Belly’s distinctive shape is what gives the plant its unusual appeal. Also, in addition to the bulging bellies, the canes will sometimes grow in a zigzag, rather than simply upright. Neither straight nor narrow, this plant has real character.

Also, this species of bamboo grows quickly, but not aggressively. This is an ideal combination. Furthermore, it’s an excellent candidate for bonsai. (See Growth Habit, below.)

And naturally, it doesn’t hurt to have a great name. Invoking the name of Buddha adds an air of majesty to the plant. At the same time, the mention of his belly brings a sense of levity to the situation.

Bamboo, in general, already holds a high place in Asian culture and religion. And its association with Buddha is nothing so unusual. The fact that bamboo has such strength and resilience, but also flexibility, gives it a sort of Taoist connotation, too. It’s important to be able to bend in the breeze and flow like water. Also, bamboo is hollow, reminding us of the Buddhist principle of emptiness.

For more great examples of bamboo in Eastern legend and folklore, check out our extensive article on Bamboo Symbolism.

One of the most highly sought after subspecies is the Yellow Buddha Belly Bamboo (Bambusa ventricosa kimmei). The young shoots come up green, but gradually turn to yellow, sometimes producing some beautiful stripes. The Yellow Buddha can easily get up 40 or 50 feet tall, but the bottom few feet are usually bare, leaving the handsome culms visibly exposed.

Growth Habit

One of the most important things to understand about bamboo, when you plant it in your garden, is how it grows. Some running bamboos are incredibly aggressive and must be vigilantly contained. Other clumping varieties are pretty tame. And some are downright unpredictable.

How fast does Buddha Belly grow?

Part of what people like about Buddha Belly, besides it bulbous culms and irregular shape, is just how fast it grows. It is a clumping variety, as opposed to a runner, with those out-of-control rhizome roots. But even so, it is an unusually vigorous clumper.

So give this plant some room to spread out. If you’re looking for a privacy barrier, the Buddha Belly will fill out quickly. Or if you’ve got the space, give it a central position in the garden and make a showpiece out of it. It looks stunning at night with some good lighting.

How big will it get?

Your standard variety of Buddha Belly can get up to about 30 feet tall in the best conditions, with 2.5 inch culms. But there are also a number of subspecies to be aware of.

Giant Buddha Belly (Bambusa Vulgaris cv. Wamin) will reach full maturity after several years. At that point the whole clump can be about 15 feet in diameter with poles as much as 45 feet tall.

Another subspecies is known as Dwarf Buddha Belly, and this one is much more compact, as the name implies. Still, it’s a fast grower and can reach full size after just a few years. A mature plant will get up to about 12 feet tall. A bit more manageable, but equally attractive, this variety is very popular, especially in warmer climates.

Can I keep my Buddha Belly in a pot?

Yes, this variety does pretty well in a container. But like most large plants, they are more comfortable in the soil where the roots can stretch out and drain well. A potted plant will require more attention, and it won’t grow nearly as tall as a Bambusa planted directly in the earth.

If you prefer potted plants, and you have time to give them extra care and attention, Buddha Belly also makes for an ideal bonsai specimen. (See below.)

How much water does it need?

Under normal conditions, you’ll want to give your Buddha Belly a deep watering about once or twice a week, depending on the weather. If you’re bamboo is in a pot, just be sure it has good drainage. It should be able to dry out thoroughly in between waterings.

Will Buddha Belly survive in cold, freezing temperatures?

Buddha Belly and Giant Buddha Belly are somewhat cold hardy, and a mature plant will be more cold resistant than a young one. In some cases they can survive temperatures as low as 20º F.

Dwarf Buddha Belly bamboo is going to be less cold hardy. For this reason, the dwarf variety is more popular in places like Florida and Southern California where it’s not likely to freeze. But a little overnight frost probably won’t kill it.

Why is my Buddha Belly growing without bulbous culms?

In some cases, you might find that your Buddha Belly culms are growing like ordinary bamboo, without the characteristic bulging or zig-zagging. But don’t worry. Master bamboo gardeners have developed some tricks to help encourage this desirable trait by inducing stress.

One way to promote bulging culms is to prune the tops of the poles at least once a year. Without their tops, the bamboo will also tend to do more zig-zagging.

Stressing the plants with water deprivation is also a very effective method. Of course, you have to be careful not to over-stress and kill the plant. Generally, the leaves will start to curl when a bamboo is in need of water.

Buddha Belly Bonsai

One more reason that Buddha Belly is so popular is its adaptability for bonsai. Whenever you take a tree and miniaturize it in a small Chinese pot, you have a pretty great effect. Some trees can’t handle this kind of stress, but Buddha Belly, as mentioned above, thrives under stress.

Maintaining a bonsai means pruning the tops as well as the roots on a regular basis. This keeps the plant or tree small and prevents the roots from getting bound. With some trees, it also has the effect of making thicker bark and smaller leaves.

If you have the patience to do this with a Dwarf Buddha Belly Bamboo, you’ll surely be delighted with the results.

Can I grow this bamboo indoors?

Ordinarily, growing bamboo indoors is a very bad idea. Bamboo is a grass and wants to be outdoors in the sun and the breeze. But Buddha Belly is quite adaptable. Although it prefers full or partial sun, it can grow acclimated to an indoor climate. Keep it close to a window with good lighting and fresh air.

Can I propagate my Buddha Belly?

In general, it’s a bit more difficult to take cuttings from a clumping bamboo than a running bamboo, but it can certainly be done. Buddha Belly is a fast grower, so you usually end up with more bamboo than you need anyway.

For best results, try and break a small clump, with at least two or three culms, off of the main root ball. You will need a sharp saw to make a clean cut. Do this during the growing season and when the soil is damp. Keep the roots of the cutting intact, and transplant quickly into fresh soil.

Further reading

To learn more about some of the most popular varieties of bamboo, take a look at these other informative articles.

Growing Bamboo: The complete how-to guide 10 Best bamboo varieties for your garden 11 Cold hardy bamboos for snowy climates Dendrocalamus strictus, also known as Bambu Batu
Hemp and Marijuana are different

When you work with natural fibers and sustainable materials, one of the greatest sources of confusion is the relationship between hemp and marijuana. Are they the same, or are they different? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve brought up the subject of hemp clothing or hemp paper, only to be asked: “Can I smoke it?”

Most of the time, of course, people would simply ask this in jest. But even in jest, there are shades of truth. The fact is, most people aren’t exactly sure what the difference is between the hemp that makes clothing and the marijuana that makes you giggle and crave Ben & Jerry’s.

Understandably, the distinction can be a little confusing. After all, that five-pointed leaf is pretty unmistakable. And Cannabis sativa is Cannabis sativa, right? Well, sort of.

Yes we cannabis

It’s true, hemp and marijuana are both cannabis plants, and for the most part, they are Cannabis sativa. The leaves look very similar, and in some cases identical. And botanically speaking, they belong to the same species. That means the pollen of a hemp plant can fertilize the flowers of a marijuana plant, and vice versa.

And at last, according to Johnny Law, they are one in the same. At least if Johnny Law is a federal agent. But we’ll get to that.

So what’s the difference?

The way I like to explain it is this: poodles and pit bulls.

Both of these dogs belong to the same species, Canis familiaris. They are all dogs, and we all know a dog when we see one. And as members of the same species, a male pit bull can fertilize a female poodle. So long as they can overcome certain mechanical challenges.

At the same time, we can easily tell the difference between a poodle and a pit bull. You wouldn’t carry a pit bull in a purse, and you wouldn’t train a poodle to protect your home from burglars.

Similarly with hemp and marijuana, they do belong to the same species. But they are not difficult to distinguish.

Now this is only an analogy, and maybe not a perfect one. But it’s pretty accurate. These days there are hundreds of varieties of cannabis, mostly high-grade marijuana, with all kinds of fancy names. And some varieties are more distinct than others. Somewhat like show dogs.

Other distinctions

Another way to know for certain that they are different is because many countries have managed to grow hemp while maintaining strict laws against marijuana. Typically, the laws in those countries say that if it contains less than one percent THC (the most important psychoactive compound), then it’s hemp.

Anything with more than one percent THC is illegal. And in the U.S., the new limit on industrial hemp is 0.3 percent THC. But the fact is, the marijuana people smoke these days typically has at least 4 or 5 percent THC, but usually more like 20 percent or more.

Sometimes, however, in places like Nepal, mountain hemp is in small production, and marijuana use remains illicit but common. My understanding is that these small producers are actually working with varieties that are tall and fibrous but still have enough THC to do the job.

In general however, it’s pretty easy to recognize a hemp farm, with its tall, lanky plants, in long, crowded rows. It looks more like corn growing. Marijuana tends to be shorter and bushier, with the high-grade stuff requiring quite a bit more individual attention.

It’s also true that even a non-psychoactive hemp plant can smell pretty fragrant. But it won’t have the same degree of resinous stickiness. And the aroma isn’t nearly as strong.

Males and females

A common misnomer, which I’ve often heard, says that marijuana comes from the females and hemp comes from the males. Now there’s just enough truth in that statement to make it sound believable. But it’s simply wrong.

When growing for the potent, resin-producing tops, pot farmers will keep the flowering females and eradicate the pollen-producing males. Otherwise the males will pollenate the females, and the flowers will be loaded with seeds. Maybe that was OK for Cheech and Chong back in the 70s, but today? Not cool.

With a hemp farm, on the other hand, you plant acres of seeds and come what may. Whether they produce male or female flowers has no bearing on the quality of fibers. And furthermore, who has time to wander through a hemp field at the cusp of flowering season to pull out the females?

On a side note, I always wondered why the D.E.A. never figured this one out. Though I’m grateful that they didn’t. But if they’d flown over Northern California with a couple dozen bushels of male hemp flowers, they could have ruined billions of dollars worth of top shelf ganja.

After all, the hemp can pollenate the marijuana, and a seedy crop would be worth only a fraction of its value. Once the females are pollenated and go to seed, their frantic production of resin and hyper-developed calyxes goes way down. Not only that, the seeds would be of no real use either, just unwanted hybrids of high grade weed and industrial grade hemp.

Breeding and selection

If we get back to the canine analogy, we can understand even more about cannabis. Consider the origins of domesticated house dogs. In former times, our ancestors lived among wolves. Over time they noticed that some wolves were gentler and more agreeable than others. By selecting those wolves and interbreeding them, they slowly developed a new strain of wolf that was somewhat more loyal and obedient.

With more time and effort, wolf keepers and dog breeders learned to look for and select other characteristics. Over the centuries dogs became very domesticated. And in just the past 200 years, breeders have used artificial selection to create the few hundred dog breeds that we have today.

We can tell this same story about other house pets and most of our cultivated crops. So many of our green vegetables, for example, are actually Brassica oleracea. But after centuries of artificial selection, we have taken this naturally occurring specimen and produced broccoli, kale, cabbage and cauliflower, all from a single species.

Cannabis cultivars

The story of cannabis cultivation goes back thousands of years, to the earliest farmers in China and the Far East. Like any other species of plant or animal that we have domesticated, people first discovered the untamed, common ancestor of hemp and marijuana growing in the wild.

With a little prehistoric trial and error—a combination of curiosity and ingenuity—early humans began to discover the manifold properties of the cannabis plant. Those inclined toward weaving and basketry noticed the strength and utility of its fibrous stalks.

Meanwhile, the practitioners of herbal medicine appreciated its fine aroma, especially as its leaves and flowers smoldered over the fire. And before long, they’d be lying on their backs, gazing up at the stars, listening to the crackling sounds coming from their own dry mouths.

From there, we can find the first major fork in the family tree of cannabis. You might say that one took the low road and one took the high road.

One small step for plant

Weavers and craftspeople selected those specimens with the longest, strongest stalks and fibers, and propagated them. And the witch doctors and astrologers sought out the plants with the stickiest, smelliest and most resinous flowers.

Of course, this is an oversimplification of a very long and slow process. What happened must have taken place over the course of centuries through a combination of accidents and inexact science. Naturally, some cultures may have been more selective than others. And in all likelihood, different varieties would have already been more commonly occurring in certain climates and regions.

One great leap for plant kind

Fast forward to the 19th century. The agricultural revolution has transformed the relationship between people and their natural resources. Also, the industrial revolution has transformed the way people process their resources and turn them into products.

In the 1790s, Eli Whitney’s cotton gin changed the face of the cotton industry, making it ten times faster and easier to process the plant, separating seeds from lint. More than just faster and easier, cotton also became astronomically more profitable. The industry skyrocketed, leaving hemp and flax (linen) somewhere in the shadows.

But a century later, the invention of the decorticator did something similar for hemp. This new machine greatly sped up the process of breaking the hemp stalks and loosening up their fibers. And we can see how this resulted in two things.

On the one hand, hemp’s viability as a textile crop took another leap forward, renewing its competitive edge against cotton. Also, the use of heavy machinery made it more necessary to work with hemp varieties containing less resin. In other words, the more fibrous and less psychoactive hemp was encouraged to be made even less psychoactive.

The prohibition of hemp and marijuana

It’s impossible to explain the relationship between hemp and marijuana without discussing the story of cannabis prohibition. After all, many laws see hemp and marijuana as the same thing. And when we look at the history, it appears that much of this confusion was actually quite intentional.

One step forward, two steps back

With the publication of The Emperor Wears No Clothes in 1985, Jack Herer told the story of hemp prohibition as it had never been told before. So much of what we know about hemp today is a direct result of Herer’s painstaking research and activism.

Essentially, Herer was able to connect the dots between a burgeoning petrochemical industry, a yellow journalism empire, a faltering bureaucracy for alcohol prohibition, and the demise of industrial hemp.

In 1919, Dow Chemical received a patent for pulping wood for paper by means of a new sodium-sulfite process. At the time, hemp was timber’s number one competition for paper making. Dow had the chemicals, and William Hearst, the newspaper mogul, owned the trees. Dow Chemical, in the 1920s, also began experimenting with nylon, which would be another fierce competitor with hemp.

In the meantime, the U.S. federal government was creating a huge law enforcement bureaucracy to maintain alcohol prohibition, an idea whose days were numbered.

A forces coalesced, it was clear that the chemical, textile and lumber industries had a great interest in eliminating hemp. At the same, Henry Anslinger and his law enforcement cronies were looking for a new class of inebriated criminal to persecute. And Hearst, who had already used his newspapers to incite the Spanish American War 25 years earlier, had all the tools of propaganda at his disposal.

Reefer Madness

Through the 1920s and 30s, the pages of Hearst papers across the country wailed with horror stories of stoned out Mexicans and jazz enthusiasts on rape and murder sprees. A horrified public, who had so recently rallied behind the movement to outlaw alcohol, was ready to do the same with marijuana.

Interestingly, we can even thank Hearst and his newspapers for giving us the word marijuana. (Back then they often spelled it marihuana.) Surely, they had other slang terms for cannabis at the time, but it was the Hearst empire’s master stroke to bring the Spanish name for Mary Jane into common usage. Just a few years after driving Spain out of Cuba, anti-hispanic racism was at an all-time high.

Smoke and mirrors

So the gullible, newspaper-reading public jumped on board, and the Marihuana Tax Act passed in 1937. Henry Anslinger held his post as the first commissioner of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics (later to be called the Drug Enforcement Agency or D.E.A.) for 32 years. And unbeknownst to most everyone, the chemical and tree-pulping industries got just what they wanted, and a whole industry was swept away.

With the passage of the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act, it became prohibitively expensive to cultivate cannabis. And without registering under the act, it was simply illegal to grow or possess cannabis. So the tax act effectively became a criminal law. And for the next 60 or 80 years, hemp and marijuana shared their illegal classification.

Hemp revival

Following the publication of Herer’s book, a cottage industry sprouted up in America, promising that hemp could save the planet. Beginning in the late 1990s, supporters started holding hemp rallies at federal building and on court house lawns. A few fringe members of society even set up businesses importing, producing and selling hemp products. For the first time in several decades, products clearly labeled as cannabis hemp were becoming available to American consumers.

All of which led people to ask, is this even legal? And why or why not? In fact, hemp products were probably always legal. But there was definitely some uncertainty surrounding the matter.

When I got into the hemp business in 1991, it was illegal to grow hemp anywhere in the U.S. But it was legal to import hemp fiber, hemp fabric and finished hemp products. So you could find hemp product made in the U.S.A., but the hemp was grown usually in China or Eastern Europe. Hemp seeds were also legal, so long as they had been sterilized, most often through a heat or irradiation process.

Hemp education

Basically there were two purposes for getting involved in the American hemp industry at that time. On the one hand, we wanted to bring hemp back to the forefront of American agriculture and industry. Even if it couldn’t save the planet, it could play a role in getting the world on track towards a more sustainable way of thinking, farming and manufacturing.

Secondly, we recognized a need to educate the public about the great many uses of hemp and its long fascinating history. Nearly a century of misinformation had created an environment of confusion and misguided governance. And as a bi-product of this education, we felt confident that people would be forced to reconsider their attitudes on marijuana once they learned more about cannabis hemp.

But at first, it seemed like the campaign to educate was producing more confusion than clarity. After remaining in the dark for all those decades, the cloudy questions came wafting out from behind the curtain like smoke through the sliding window of an old VW bus.

If it’s not marijuana, then why is it illegal? If it’s illegal, then how can you sell it? So what do they do with all the leaves and flowers after they separate the stalks? Can I smoke these pants? Or did I ask that already? And by the way, do you know where I can score a satchel?

It was a slow, uphill battle, but gradually people began to understand. And they took pride in their hemp wallets. And their hemp jeans held up like iron. And no satchels, but the hemp backpacks sure got some good mileage.

Is hemp still illegal?

Yes, U.S. federal law still considers hemp and marijuana to be the same thing. That is, until quite recently, hemp and marijuana were lumped together as a Schedule 1 drug.

In 1970, the Controlled Substances Act went into effect and named cannabis a Schedule 1, along with crystal meth, cocaine, LSD and heroin, to name a few. By definition, a Schedule 1 drug has high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use.

Only with the passage of the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018 did the federal government finally remove certain hemp products from the Controlled Substances Act.

State laws vs. Federal laws

You’ve probably heard that most of the country has decriminalized marijuana or legalized it for medical or even recreational purposes. These are state laws and they still contradict federal law. But for the time being, the feds are choosing to look the other way, while the states and their glassy-eyed residents do as they please. Perhaps the day is not far off when the U.S. penal code finally accepts the fact that marijuana’s worst side effect is criminal incarnation.

Thanks to the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018, also known as 2018 U.S. farm bill, industrial hemp with less than 0.3 percent THC is now an ordinary agricultural commodity. Hemp farmers across the country have access to water rights, federal agricultural grants, and the national banking system. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell introduced this legislation, which had already passed with some popularity in his home state of Kentucky.

As of 2019, industrial hemp farming is finally making a comeback in the U.S. Currently, the states of Montana and Colorado are leading the way, along with Oregon, Kentucky and Tennessee.

On the cutting edge of cannabis

Since the psychedelic revolution of the 1960, the hybridization and artificial selection for high-THC cannabis has surged ahead at a mind rattling pace. As hippies ventured around the world on their soul-searching sojourns, they kept returning to California with exotic seeds of Panama Red, Colombia Gold, Thai Stick and the coveted Afghani.

The south Asian strains of Afghanistan and the Indian highlands are commonly known as Cannabis indica. But it’s not clear whether the indica varieties actually belong to a different species. Clearly, sativa and indica strains are capable of cross pollenating, and with some rather astonishing results.

Shorter and bushier in character, indica genetics have no place in an industrial hemp crop. But some amount of indica is highly desirable in most marijuana varieties. Whether for medicinal use or pure recreation, indica tends to produce the more sedated effects. Turn on the black light and turn up the Pink Floyd. Sativa, on the other hand, will get the heart racing and send you hiking into the woods or painting a mural in your living room.

Cannabinoids

Some say that cannabis plants contain a total of 420 diverse cannabinoids, or active compounds. It sounds good, and it would explain the bumper stickers. But it’s hogwash. A more scientifically accurate number would be around 120. And a benefit of hybridizing different strains of sativa and indica is to get more of these cannabinoids working in harmony.

The most important cannabinoid, as far as psychotropic side effects are concerned, must be THC. As mentioned above, this is the compound they test for when distinguishing between industrial hemp and mind-altering Mary Jane.

But the psychoactive landscape is far more complex than simply the fluctuating levels of THC. Of the 100+ compounds, several of them are considered important, but all of them add a little shade of color to the overall rainbow. Even though many of these cannabinoids are not actually psychoactive on their own.

THC typically occurs in the highest levels, and is the principal psychoactive constituent of marijuana. We might say that it’s responsible for the Jimi Hendrix effect, capable of rocking your world. CBN is another constituent, appearing in trace amounts, usually in older or low grade cannabis. We could say it produces the Doobie Brothers effect, something hardly noticeable.

And these days everyone is talking about CBD, reputed for its medicinal properties, although not exactly psychoactive per se. Studies show that CDB can be very beneficial for pain, anxiety and other conditions. And I like to think of it as producing the Crosby Stills & Nash effect. It doesn’t make you loopy, but it sure sounds nice.

Can a low-THC hemp plant produce significant levels of medicinal CBD?

If industrial hemp has less than one percent THC, and plants with more THC are considered marijuana, then you might ask, what about CBD?

Now that recreational and medicinal cannabis are legal across more than half of the country, maybe it’s not such a pressing question. But cannabis genetics can get confusing, and so can the laws. So I’d like to know. Where is all this CBD oil coming from?

Those obsessive pot breeders who have spent the last 40 years getting THC levels from 3 percent to 30 percent, are now changing course. They aren’t giving up on THC, but to satisfy a new market, they are bringing back older strains with lower THC and higher CBD. Because it’s impossible to grow cannabis that’s very high in both.

In fact, the highest levels of CDB, up to 30 percent, occur in cannabis varieties with negligible amounts of THC, like hemp. But there’s a third category that has balanced quantities of CBD and THC, and these strains are the source of most commercial CBD oil.

Hemp flowers for CBD

With the passage of the 2018 U.S. Farm Bill, industrial hemp cultivation is now legal at the federal level. While a handful of states have yet to lift the prohibition, most of the country is moving forward quickly to make the most of this incredible crop.

And one of the greatest economic incentives right now is CBD oil. Currently a billion dollar a year industry, many expect CBD to grow as much as twenty-fold by the year 2020. Researchers and farmers are working hard to develop and identify strains that produce the most CBD while still falling below the 0.3% THC level to qualify as industrial hemp.

CBD producers are even growing hemp very similarly to marijuana. Because the CBD is produced in the cannabis flower (just like THC), it’s more advantageous to only grow female plants. So many hemp growers are now seeking feminized seeds, more likely to produce female plants. They are also growing from clones, cuttings taken from female plants that are guaranteed to be female.

If these practices continue, cultivating bushy hemp plants to produce the largest possible flowers, it might indeed become very difficult to distinguish low-THC hemp from high-potency marijuana.

Is hemp oil the same as CBD oil?

Hemp oil and CBD oil are actually two very different things. But unfortunately, a lot of sloppy marketing material has created a whole new wave of cannabis confusion. Hemp oil, sold as a nutritional supplement high in minerals and fatty acids, is actually oil from the hemp seed. (High-grade marijuana, to be clear, consists only of female flowers and does not produce seeds.)

CBD oil, by contrast, is extracted from cannabis flowers. In the absence of THC, CBD does not itself produce any psychoactive side effects. Yet it does have a long list of medicinal benefits.

What does the future of cannabis look like?

It’s impossible to say, but I think that legalization is definitely going to open the doors to some surprising innovations in both hemp and marijuana. From industrial products like paper, textiles and insulation; to nutritional supplements like hemp nut and hemp oil; and a full spectrum of medicinal products.

Currently, the promise of low-THC hemp to produce medicinal CBD for pain and anxiety is the most interesting thing on the horizon. Will this lead to a gold rush for farmers looking to avoid conventional pharmaceuticals and the risk of getting high? Will the distinction between industrial and medicinal grow hazy? Who knows how all this will unfold.

We should expect to see a fantastic array of new cannabis offerings. But as with any new and changing industry, we need to stay and informed and be wary of things that are not what they seem. As discerning consumers, it’s up to us to hold cannabis to the highest standards so that it can live up to its greatest potential.

Further reading

To learn more about hemp and bamboo as a viable natural resources, check out some of our other popular articles.

Hemp Laws in all 50 U.S. States Hemp vs. Bamboo: The ultimate comparison What’s so great about Bamboo?
Hemp and bamboo the ultimate comparison

In the arena of natural alternative resources, two towering crops dominate the field. In some ways strikingly different, but with a great deal in common, hemp and bamboo have each risen to prominence in recent decades. And because of their similarities, the temptation to draw comparisons between hemp and bamboo is often irresistible.

Before launching California’s first all-bamboo boutique in 2006, I helped to open and operate two of California’s first hemp stores back in the early 90s. So I’ve had more conversations about the miracles of hemp, the benefits of bamboo and the dangers of pesticide-rich cotton than just about anybody. And I’ve had the pleasure of handling and using more hemp and bamboo products than most anyone I know.

I’ve also had the unfortunate experience of hearing an astonishing number of misconceptions. But one thing is for sure, I never get tired of talking and writing about it. And when I do, the question always comes up: which one is better?

Hemp or bamboo: Which is better?

Proponents of hemp and bamboo have both made some pretty bold and superlative claims over the years. Of course, I share their enthusiasm. But sometimes these claims wander into the territory of exaggeration.

Any in case, we hear it said that one is a miracle crop, and one can save the planet. Hemp grows like a weed, and yet bamboo is supposed to be the fastest growing plant on earth. So which one is better?

It’s not an easy comparison to make, and I’m generally reluctant to do so. At the same time, it is a question that comes up often. And it can make for some pretty interesting conversation. So let’s have a look at some of the benefits and properties of both hemp and bamboo.

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVES Ancient History

Before we start splitting hairs and sorting fibers, let’s examine the rich and fascinating history of each plant. I’ve heard it said that cannabis hemp was the first non-food crop to be cultivated by man. And I’ve heard the same claim regarding bamboo.

In fact, both plants are edible—hemp for seed and bamboo for tender young shoots—but this wasn’t the primary reason for their cultivation. Rather, its their versatility and ease of use that made them so desirable.

Like many so many things, hemp and bamboo both originated in China. The same is true of printing, gun powder and Confucianism, but not cotton. But as their uses date back many millennia, its difficult to say which came into widespread use first.

Evidence of hemp yarns and textiles in China traces back to about 5000 BC. And according to Professor Tengwen Long, there are signs of hemp flowers from an archeological site on the Oki Islands dating to 8000 BC.

Bamboo appears to be equally ancient. Asians from the late stone age were probably using bamboo for weapons and building materials several thousand years ago. But if I had to guess, I would think that hunters would have discovered bamboo as the ideal material for spears back when they were still stalking mastodons in the ice age. Long, straight and simple to sharpen. So easy, even a neanderthal could do it! (Can we put that on a t-shirt?)

Either way, it’s not a contest over which came into use first. Clearly, both plants have a long history and played an important part in early human civilization.

Hemp’s Colorful Past

Part of what makes hemp so interesting, or controversial, is its consanguinity with what we call marijuana. While some varieties of cannabis are ideal for material use, to make fibers and textiles, others are cultivated for their psychoactive resin.

Today we refer to the former as hemp, and the latter as marijuana. But originally, feral cannabis plants of Asia had both properties. There was no real distinction. It seems like those from the mountainous regions of India and Afghanistan may have been a bit more resinous. And the cannabis plants from the prairies and grasslands were a bit more fibrous.

As hunters and gatherers became more and more agrarian, they learned to domesticate their crops. As they did so, they selected and cultivated different strains for different characteristics. It was around this time that fibrous hemp and sticky ganja split into their separate branches on the family tree of cannabis.

Even so, the distinction was rarely 100 percent clear. As farmers began cultivating hemp on an industrial scale, using heavier machinery, the absence of resin became very desirable. The sticky stuff would gum up the machinery and slow down production.

Meanwhile, those who favored the THC-rich resin for medicinal and recreational purposes were not consuming the sort of strains we have today. Since the psychedelic revolution of the 1960s, the “domestication” and hybridization of psychoactive cannabis has achieved truly mind-blowing results.

Hemp Prohibition

As you can see, it’s impossible to discuss the history of hemp without digressing into a nuanced exploration of marijuana and its kaleidoscopic side effects. And that requires a further explanation of hemp prohibition, which went into effect in the 1930s.

In 1937, the US government passed the Marihuana Tax Act, which effectively outlawed both hemp and marijuana in one decisive stroke. Reefer madness and other propaganda efforts of the early 20th century convinced lawmakers and the American public of the need to eradicate marijuana. So that was it for cannabis sativa.

But most historians agree that the elimination of an entire industry was no accident. When hemp farms and factories across the country all ceased to operate, it was a great boon to the lumber paper making industry, the burgeoning petrochemical industry and king cotton.

Historical Significance

As far as the comparison between hemp and bamboo, they each have a long history that stretches back into prehistoric times. But hemp’s relationship with marijuana certainly makes it interesting. Depending which side you’re on, this could count in hemp’s favor, or it may count against it.

In any case, it does underscore the need for clarification. The fact is that hemp and marijuana are easy enough to differentiate. Most industrial nations, throughout Asia and Europe, continued growing industrial hemp even while prohibiting marijuana. Regulators in those countries had no difficulty restricting industrial hemp to cannabis varieties with less than 1% THC (the primary psychoactive compound).

Furthermore, many of us feel that hemp deserves an extra boost simply to make up for nearly 80 years of prohibition. Hemp was already achieving marvelous things in the 1930s. If America had continued to cultivate, manufacture and innovate with cannabis hemp through the latter two-thirds of the 20th century, who knows what incredible products would be available today.

SUSTAINABILITY & ECOLOGY OF HEMP & BAMBOO

The long history of these plants and their remarkably widespread use have everything to do with the way they grow. Hemp and bamboo both grow easily and prolifically. Unlike felling trees for lumber, utilizing these plants does not result in deforestation. In fact, greater reliance on hemp and bamboo can save trees and forests.

Also, as an alternative to cotton, hemp and bamboo both grow very easily without pesticides and herbicides. Cotton is one of the most chemical-intensive crops cultivated by man. When grown in monoculture, cotton becomes very susceptible to pests and disease.

But let’s no paint with too broad a brush. It’s important to remember that there are thousands of varieties of bamboo, and that dozens of countries are growing bamboo under all sorts of conditions. Similarly, hemp is cultivated and processed in many different ways. Also, organic cotton continues to grow in popularity. But even the term “organic” can mean a lot of different things when it comes to commercial agriculture.

Overall though, hemp and bamboo are both very fast growing and resistant to pests. Hemp is an annual crop. That means it is planted early in the year, harvested late in the year and replanted the following year. In most cases farmers will rotate hemp with things like beans, wheat, or alfalfa, to keep the soil healthy.

Replanting hemp in the same field for more than three of four consecutive seasons can make the crop susceptible to pests and disease. Otherwise, the plant is very resilient. For this reason hemp can easily grown without toxic pesticides or herbicides. In fact, it grows like a weed. Most crops will get taller than a house by the end of the growing season.

While hemp may be considered a weed, bamboo is actually a perennial grass. This means you don’t have to replant it. In most cases, gardeners have the opposite problem. Bamboo’s rhizome roots spread so quickly that it can be difficult to contain. But after harvesting bamboo, it grows right back. Like the grass that might grow in your front yard, it comes back stronger and healthier after a good trimming.

Also, bamboo naturally grows this way, in huge swaths. In other words, a natural bamboo forest will look almost identical to a cultivated bamboo farm. The bamboo grows thick, crowding out other weeds and plants, and its fallen leaves are enough to nourish the soil.

So, like hemp, bamboo grows big and strong, without the need for fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides. In fact, bamboos are among the fastest growing plants on earth. It’s common for commercial varieties to grow a foot a day in the growing season. And tropical varieties, in ideal conditions, can grow 2 or 3 times that much. Only certain types of seaweed grow faster.

So in terms of renewability and sustainability, I’d say it’s a draw. Both plants grow voraciously without the need for heavy spraying. And both crops can recapture sizable amounts of carbon, critical in the battle against climate change. Hemp has the advantage of rotating nicely with other food crops. While bamboo—if managed responsibly—can be harvested from natural forests in the wild, with minimal disruption to habitat.

VERSATILITY OF HEMP & BAMBOO

Even those who don’t fully appreciate the sustainability and renewability are pretty amazed when they set foot in shop filled almost entirely with products made from a single plant. Whether it’s a hemp store or a bamboo store, you can find everything from socks and underwear to furniture, toiletries, housewares and paper products.

I can’t think of many plants that can serve as the primary material for a whole department store. But I’ve done it twice, once with hemp and once with bamboo. If there’s another crop that can rival these two for versatility, I ‘d sure like to know about it.

Natural Fiber Clothing

For many, the most surprising and impressive use of hemp and bamboo is for fabric and textiles. But in fact, people have been spinning and weaving with hemp fibers for thousands of years. For centuries, hemp provided the ropes and riggings for all the major sailor fleets around the world.

Prior to the invention of the cotton gin, hemp and linen were the two most widespread textile crops. The first American flags were hemp, and our Founding Fathers famously grew hemp.

The advantages have always been the same. Hemp grows very easily, and it requires only the simplest machinery for processing. Containing some of natures longest and strongest fibers, hemp makes the sturdiest rope and some of the most durable fabric. For a heavy-duty canvas or denim, hemp is ideal. But it can also be woven into something softer, or blended with cotton for a lighter hand.

The use of bamboo is equally ancient. But bamboo fabrics are actually a very recent development, from the last couple of decades. And when it first appeared, natural fiber enthusiasts were just blown away. Having grown accustomed to the somewhat rough feel of hemp fabric, the sumptuous softness of bamboo came as a sheer delight.

Indeed, the comfort of bamboo socks, underwear and t-shirts well surpasses those made from hemp. And the drape of a bamboo sundress or nightgown is something heavenly. And then, for real luxury, the bamboo towels and bedsheets are just unbeatable.

There’s a reason, however, that bamboo fabric came so late on the scene. There is a processing stage to extrude the cellulose out of bamboo and reconstitute it into thread. This viscose extraction relies mainly on caustic soda, which is basically lye. And while it’s far from the worst of industrial bi-products, its use and disposal are something of a concern.

I’m convinced that compared to cotton, the sustainability of farming bamboo still makes it a superior resource, despite the viscose process. And even organic cotton goes through a processing stage. But compared to hemp, I’m not so sure.

In the end, it’s hemp for durability (jeans, backpacks, rope and twine) and bamboo for softness (undergarments, t-shirts, towels and bedsheets). After all, as much as we admire the versatility, we aren’t looking for a single plant to do everything.

Bamboo Building Materials

As a building material, I won’t hesitate to recommend bamboo. Hard, flexible and hollow, bamboo poles are incredibly easy to work with. I’ve made my own stools and picture frames. And with some basic carpentry skills, you can produce all manner of furniture and accent pieces.

Today there is almost no limit to what can be built from bamboo. The flooring is everywhere, but bamboo houses and bicycles are catching on fast.

Still, let’s not ignore hemp as a building material. In 1941, Henry Ford built a car from hemp plastic, stronger than steel. Hemp ethanol also fueled the car. It wasn’t long after after this that industrial hemp basically disappeared. Another victory for big oil and US steel.

I’m not sure how they measure up against bamboo, but keep an eye out for hemp houses. And after all, the greenest construction should incorporate as many different sustainable materials as possible.

Nutritional Properties of Hemp

Bamboo shoots are a delicious treat that people have been enjoying for millennia. Young and tender, they are also loaded with protein, minerals and fiber. But still, they are no match for the precious oil inside a hemp seed.

Not to be confused with CBD oil, hash oil, or other psychoactive cannabis oil products, hempseed oil has some incredible nutritional properties. Naturally rich in minerals and antioxidants, hempseed oil also contains an ideal balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. This makes the oil an excellent supplement for better skin and a healthier heart.

You can find all manner of natural skin care products, including soaps, shampoos and lotions made with a hempseed oil base. They’re wonderful for nourishing and moisturizing the skin.

Hemp nut has also been gaining popularity in health food stores. These are hemp seeds with the hard shell removed. Roasted hemp seeds are still tasty with a little salt or seasoning, especially if you like something crunchy. But the high protein (approximately 25 percent by weight) meat from inside the hull is much softer and easier to enjoy once the shell is removed. Try it as a delicious additive on salads or in your granola.

Magical Properties

The fact that cannabis sativa is the source of both industrial hemp and psychoactive marijuana makes it something of a magical plant. Even as we focus on the plant’s properties as a natural resource, it’s impossible to overlook its therapeutic qualities.

And it’s difficult to say which property was discovered first. I’m sure that botanists and anthropologists stay up late at night quibbling over this question, long after the well-worn Allman Brothers LP has begun skipping on the turntable.

But seriously, there’s always been and there always will be a tremendous demand for anything that can provide the kind of effects produced by THC, alcohol and other mind-altering substances.

The same cannot be said of bamboo. But it’s clear that this plant holds a unique and magical place in Asian culture. Because of its remarkable abundance and usefulness in providing food, tools and shelter, bamboo appears constantly in artwork and folklore.

Just try to imagine an Oriental landscape brushwork without a dash of bamboo in the background, or the foreground. It’s unthinkable. And you can be equally sure that the artist was painting with a bamboo brush.

What I find truly enchanting, however, is bamboo’s role in Eastern mythology. It seems that every Asian culture has its own story about the part that bamboo played in the creation of the world or the birth of mankind. There’s something endearing about the idea that the first man and woman sprung from the hollow space inside a bamboo pole.

Furthermore, bamboo’s characteristics of resilience, flexibility and emptiness conform nicely to the virtues of Eastern philosophy. It is important to be strong but not rigid. One must be able to bend in the breeze without breaking. And it’s essential to keep the ego in check while connecting with the empty void inside.

Conclusions

As eager as we may be to compare one plant to another and select a clear winner, the process just isn’t that simple. The fact is, hemp and bamboo both have tremendous benefits and advantages as natural resources. And if we compare them to the leading competitors—namely cotton, lumber and petroleum—they both come out way ahead.

But if we are looking for one wonder plant and panacea that can do it all, then we’re still stuck in the wrong kind of thinking. And what we need, more than anything, is a new kind of thinking. Hemp and bamboo are both fantastic alternatives, and we should be using them more and more. But equally important to what we use, is how we use it.

If we go cutting down tropical rain forests to set up giant bamboo plantations, then we’ve learned nothing. If you buy a new pair of hemp pants every week and stuff them in your closet with a hundred other outfits you never wear, then you’re not helping.

Sustainability is more than something you can point to in a certain crop or a single product. Sustainability is a way of thinking, living, and prioritizing. It means taking care of yourself, in order to help your community, in order to improve the earth. Just think about it, and make responsible choices.

If you have a local farm with seasonal produce and respectable farming practices, support it whenever possible. If you can avoid shopping at Walmart or buying palm oil, then by all means, do so. Or if you can patch a hole and make a pair of pants last another year, do it.

And if you have to choose between ordering a bamboo product on Amazon or a hemp product from a local mom and pop, or vice versa, just think about it. In the end, those decisions will make more difference than whether you can get this many tons of fiber from so many hectares of land.

Further reading

To learn more about the multifaceted world of alternative resources and natural fibers, check out some of our other articles.

What’s so great about bamboo? Bamboo symbolism in legends and folklore Q & A: 12 Common questions about bamboo Sustainable Ag and the trouble with monoculture
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