There are close to 2,000 known varieties of bamboo, native to Asia, Africa and the Americas. That makes Europe one of the only continents with no endemic species of this prolific grass. But the region certainly has its share of bamboo enthusiasts. And now efforts are finally under way to begin farming bamboo in Europe.
As the world’s first or second largest market for bamboo products, Europe is highly motivated to start producing its own bamboo. Financial and environmental costs of importing bamboo from Asia underscore the need for Europe to establish its own sources of this supremely sustainable material. Southern countries, like Portugal, Spain and Italy, have the best climates for farming bamboo. These regions also have the most to gain economically, as this fast-growing and readily renewable crop could bring great opportunities to those rural communities.
Gaining ground in Europe
Europe is similar to North American in that its climate is not especially hospitable to bamboo. Most varieties of bamboo—particularly the giant and fast growing types—prefer the tropical and subtropical zones where summers are hot and steamy, and freezing is never an issue.
Another common trait between Europe and the US is the growing appetite for bamboo products. Although the raw material must ordinarily come from overseas, these wealthier countries are quickly recognizing the tremendous benefits of bamboo for its renewability and versatility.
So, to make bamboo an even more practical alternative, Europeans are now embarking on their own bamboo plantations. The climate suitability may be somewhat restrictive, but the economic potential of farming this wonder crop is nearly unlimited. A bamboo farm takes about five years to get established. From there, you can harvest the bamboo continuously. As a grass, it grows right, thicker and stronger. Furthermore, it requires very little in the way of inputs, like fertilizers and pesticides.
Where in Europe can bamboo grow?
With so many distinct species and cultivars of bamboo in existence, there is no shortage of cold hardy varieties that can grow in the snowy climates of Europe. If you live in such an area and want to add some bamboo to your garden, check out our article on Cold Hardy Bamboo.
But planting bamboo in your garden for a splash of zen is entirely different from farming bamboo as a cash crop. Although bamboo can grow in such climates, most types of this grass will be more likely just to survive, and not so apt to thrive. You might grow some beautiful bamboo in Germany, but it simply won’t reach the same girth and stature as a bamboo growing in Thailand or Colombia.
Southern Europe, on the other hand, does have some very favorable growing conditions for bamboo. Spain, Portugal, Italy and portions of the Balkans are especially suitable. Basically, it’s the places that enjoy a hot summer and don’t encounter frost in the winter, where bamboo will perform the best.
Who is farming bamboo in Europe?
Bamboo Logic Europe, based in the Netherlands, stands at the forefront of European bamboo farming. Their primary plantations are located in Portugal, however, and not in Holland. Of course, they use greenhouses to grow just about anything in the Netherlands, but not bamboo.
Bamboo Logic’s European Bamboo Plantation Program started its first seeds in Portugal, and also has its sights set on Spain, Italy and Greece. At this time, the organization is actively seeking investors to expand the scope of European bamboo farming.
2021 Update: Bamboo Logic has started its seedlings and was preparing to plant 200 hectares of bamboo in the spring of 2020. The pandemic has forced them to postpone their planting, but they remain hopeful for 2021. In any case, they have the land and the seedling are already going. At this point it’s just a matter getting those seedlings into the ground.
Only Moso, a major bamboo cultivator based in Florida, also has partnerships with a variety of medium-sized bamboo plantations. Their most significant activities are in Spain, France, Italy and Romania. They too are seeking investors to help bring more bamboo farming to the international stage.
If you’re looking for massive bamboo groves in Europe, there’s also a spot in the south of France that’s an absolute must-see. The Bambouseraie, just outside of Nîmes, has the fine distinction of housing the greatest collection of bamboo on the continent. Although not a farm, this botanical garden and arboretum boasts over a hundred varieties of bamboo in a stunning range of natural settings. Intermixed with ponds, bonsai trees and rice paddies, the diversity of grasses will dazzle even the most jaded bamboo farmer.
What varieties of bamboo are they farming in Europe?
Phyllostachys edulis, or Moso Bamboo, continues to be the most important species for commercial farming and production. This is the species that provides the raw material for bamboo flooring, bamboo clothing and textiles, and even some deliciously nutritious bamboo shoots.
Moso bamboo is native to the temperate regions of southern China and does not require a tropical habitat. But it does perform much better in the heat, growing taller, thicker and faster. And in order to achieve its full potential and compete with bamboo coming from Asia, European Moso will need the best growing conditions possible.
Planting large areas of non-native plants can be a challenging undertaking. What grows well in Asia without the need for fertilizers and pesticides might languish in a similar climate on the opposite side of the globe. It could also bring with it a host of unexpected problems. But extensive research has demonstrated that Moso bamboo can do quite well on many continents.
Bamboo Logic is also planting some Dendrocalamus, a giant clumping bamboo from Southeast Asia. Time will tell which species of bamboo perform the best in Portugal and other parts of Southern Europe.
Why plant bamboo in Europe?
As long as the demand for bamboo is great in Europe, there should be opportunities for farmers in the right regions to capitalize on this growing market. Moreover, the environmental benefits are what make bamboo so appealing to many European consumers. But many of those benefits are counteracted when the bamboo travels around the globe to get from farm to factory to end user.
Despite the impact of transportation, many argue that shipping bamboo from Africa or Latin America to Europe is still more sustainable than using materials like concrete and steel. But growing bamboo in Europe for European customers will greatly reduce its carbon footprint, making it an even greener option than before.
Also, the best climates for bamboo farming tend to be in the most economically depressed parts of Europe. That includes Greece, Portugal and southern Italy. Bamboo plantations provide an excellent opportunity for rural farmers in these struggling regions. A bamboo plantation has relatively low start up costs, with the first harvest coming in after about five or 6 years. And if demand continues to grow, the crop could turn out to be very profitable.
Bamboo Logic expects to sell timber bamboo poles as an alternative building material, far more sustainable than concrete and steel. They can also process it into a cross-laminated, plywood type of material. Finally, scraps and bi-products can provide and excellent source of biomass for ethanol fuel. Because it’s not a food crop, like corn, bamboo has great potential as a biofuel.
How can you get involved?
If you’re interested in planting a bamboo farm in Europe, or supporting one, there are a few ways to do so. First, you will need to secure some land somewhere in southern Europe. Bamboo doesn’t require particularly rich soil, but you can’t plant it in solid clay or in a swamp. So you’ll need to do a little research and preparation on the front end.
Next, you will need a source of plants. Unless you have a friend with a sizable surplus of Moso starts, you’ll probably want to contact a company like Bamboo Logic or Only Moso, identified earlier in this article.
These two organizations have a great deal of international experience with bamboo cultivation. That can also help you determine whether your land is suitable for a plantation. And if you decide against a future in farming, you can still play a valuable role as an investor. Bamboo Logic in the Netherlands and Only Moso in Florida are working hard to see that the bamboo industry grows as vigorously as the beloved plant itself.
To learn more about bamboo farming around the world, and the immense potential of this great plant, check out some of these other popular articles.
- Bamboo farming in the US
- Growing bamboo for profit
- Bamboo in Africa
- Finding bamboo in Europe
- The World Bamboo Foundation
- Sequestering carbon with bamboo
PHOTO CREDIT: Biogeographic regions of Europe (Wikipedia)