In the past 10 or 20 years, the variety and availability of bamboo products have just exploded. From socks to towels to sheets to flooring, bamboo can do pretty much anything. And thanks to a preponderance of Moso bamboo from China, bamboo IS doing nearly everything.
The environmental benefits of bamboo have made it a top choice among eco-conscious consumers. And many of those consumers are also asking, “What about bamboo farming in the US?”
Bamboo farming in America is a terrific idea. In fact, you can cultivate bamboo anywhere that they grow corn, and with fewer chemicals. The most massive varieties of bamboo are better suited for tropic and subtropic climates, but temperate bamboos like Phyllostachys are fast-growing and cold hardy, and many species grow larger than trees. Although it won’t grow as well in Kansas or Kentucky as it does in its native China, commercial bamboo holds great promise for American farmers looking to diversify their acreage.
Mixon Farms in Florida recently became the first commercial bamboo plantation in the nation, gathering their first harvest last summer (2019). But don’t expect them to cover the midwest with it just yet. There are a number of reasons why farming bamboo in the US may or may not be a good idea.
If this topic interests you, be sure to check out our in-depth article on Growing Bamboo for Profit.
Can you grow bamboo in the US?
Gardeners across the US plant bamboo as an ornamental and for privacy screens. In any of the 50 states, and in Canada too, you can find bamboo varieties that will thrive or at least survive. No, your bamboo might not achieve its highest potential in a place like Vermont or Minnesota, but yes, it can grow.
Bamboo species to choose from
Now growing bamboo in your garden and farming it as a cash crop are two very different things. For the garden, there are hundreds of bamboo species to choose from, depending on the climate and the desired effect. But to farm bamboo and compete with China on the open market, there are just a handful of species worth looking at.
Until quite recently, all the commercial bamboo farming was taking place in China and southern Asia. Most species of bamboo are native to that part of the world. That means there is no difficulty in finding a type of bamboo that will perform well, and without unexpected pests or other problems.
Moso bamboo, from southern China, is the variety that produces bamboo flooring and clothing. That’s where the demand is. To grow bamboo for poles and light construction, there are many more species to choose from. Guadua bamboo is the primary variety used in Latin America for poles and construction, but it doesn’t do so well north of the tropics. (See our in-depth article on Bamboo varieties for construction.)
But before planting the US with great swaths of Chinese and South American bamboo, one needs to do some serious research. Non-native plants can have a hard time adapting to foreign weather and soil. And, of course, bamboo is notoriously fast-spreading. These are some serious considerations to take into account before introducing bamboo into a foreign habitat on an industrial scale.
Phyllostachys nigra ‘Henon’ (Giant Gray) and Phyllostachys bambusoides (Japanese Timber Bamboo, pictured below) are temperate varieties that grow more easily in a wider range of climates, USDA zones 7-10. They can easily get 50 feet tall and 5 inches in diameter, with straight, smooth culms, excellent for building and other applications.
Phyllostachys rubromraginata, or Red Margin Bamboo, has long been popular as an ornamental, and now it’s gaining currency as an excellent cash crop. Rubro, as it’s sometimes known, is extremely resilient, highly tolerant of both heat and cold. And in terms of proliferation, it’s one of the fastest-growing species there is. It may not be a giant species like Moso or Henon, but Rubro grows in dense thickets that can yield as much biomass per acre as any timber bamboo.
Climate conditions for bamboo
It’s true, there are types of bamboo that will grow all over North America. But in order to farm bamboo on an economically viable scale, most varieties will need a bit of heat and humidity to reach their full potential.
There is no shortage of bamboos that can withstand freezing temperatures. In fact, you can grow bamboo anywhere that you can grow corn. But very cold weather will certainly slow down the crop and reduce the overall harvest. So the practical zones for bamboo farming are pretty limited in the US. The Southwest may have some potential, but it’s a bit dry there. And in order to farm successfully and competitively, you need all the conditions working in your favor. Still, some farmers are considering bamboo in the California desert.
The ideal region for an American bamboo farm is the deep Southeast. Once the land of King Cotton, it’s now the up-and-coming grove for Big Bamboo.
Bamboo farms in Florida
A longstanding fruit farm in Manatee County, Florida, Mixon Farms went ahead and planted about eight acres of commercial bamboo around four years ago (2016). With citrus trees struggling to cope with plagues of pest, disease and climate change, these pioneers took a stand with bamboo.
Based in Bradenton, Florida, near Tampa, Mixon Fruit Farms is counting on bamboo to be a more resilient and more profitable crop than the citrus that has long dominated the local landscape. At this time, they are primarily focussing on cultivating Moso bamboo (Phyllostachys edulis) for its edible shoots, high in fiber and rich in vitamins and minerals. Once the plantation is more mature, they will probably begin harvesting the massive poles for timber and a multitude of other uses.
To the southeast, near Fort Lauderdale, OnlyMoso specializes in growing Moso bamboo for all of its many uses, from shoots to floors to sunglasses. More importantly, they have been providing the starter plants to other farmers and growing operations, including Mixon Farms. They also have partners in China and across Europe.
Farming bambo in North Carolina
National Bamboo is helping farmers throughout the region covert their land from traditional crops to promising bamboo. Their species of choice is Phyllostachys nigra ‘Henon”, a temperate timber bamboo, well-suited for this climate and purpose, given its impressive size and growth rate. They also recommend and work with Phyllostachys edulis (Moso), P. rubromarginata, and P. vivax. If you’re considering a bamboo farm in this part of the country, try contacting National Bamboo for a consultation.
Bamboo farming in Georgia
Thigpen Trail Bamboo Farm is another interesting operation in the Deep South. This family-owned farm and nursery grows about 100 varieties of bamboo, specializing in those that will not be a detriment to the local habitat.
Southern Georgia has an ideal climate for farming bamboo, but also lots of pristine natural habitat that could be disrupted by planting the wrong types of invasive species. On their website, they go into great detail about the benefits and versatility of bamboo. They are also careful to explain the risks of planting exotic species in the longleaf-wiregrass ecosystem.
As a retail nursery, Thigpen sells live bamboo plants to individuals and the general public. They also sell wholesale to other nurseries across the region, and to an increasing number of small farms looking to embark on commercial cultivation.
Also take a look at our article on the Best Bamboo Nurseries in America.
In terms of sustainability, there is no resource that can match bamboo with its vigorous growth habit and unlimited versatility. But reducing carbon footprints also means sourcing materials from closer to home. And as long as all the bamboo is coming from China and the Far East, that will be a drawback.
Stateside advocates for sustainability and environmental responsibility are finally now cultivating plantations to meet America’s healthy appetite for bamboo. While farmers in places like Kentucky and in the Midwest jump on the hemp bandwagon, the Deep South is tapping into the potential of bamboo.
Until further research can prove otherwise, it appears that the area around the Gulf of Mexico is best suited for commercial bamboo farming. Only in this hot, humid, semi-tropical climate will the giant timber bamboo achieve its full size. Elsewhere, in cooler zones, the growth would be somewhat stunted, and domestic farmers could never compete with Chinese bamboo. Even so, cultivating a domestic supply of this vital resource would seem to be in our national interests.
But there are still risks and challenges with growing Asian bamboo in North America. Some species may not do so well on this continent, and others may do a little too well, driving native ecosystems into extinction. Finding the “Goldilocks” varieties that are neither too much nor too little isn’t easy, but at last, it’s happening.
Thanks to trailblazers like OnlyMoso in South Florida, Americans are finally farming bamboo on a large scale. At this point, the most ambitious farms are in Florida’s citrus zone, but Georgia is also recognizing the economic promise of bamboo in the Peach State.
If all goes well, the bamboo fields may someday stretch all the way from Miami to Houston. But keep in mind, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. The key is to maintain balance and diversity. The goal is to farm in a way that’s compatible and complementary with native forests and grasslands, and not to replace them all in the name of “green gold.”
To learn more about farming bamboo in the US, check out the works of Daphne Lewis. She is the author of several books about bamboo, including Farming Bamboo and Bamboo on the Farm: Increase Your Income, which are both great reference guides for the beginning farmer.
You can also check out some our related articles.
- Investing in Bamboo: Yield of greens
- Best bamboo varieties for building and construction
- Best bamboo to grow for poles
- Growing bamboo for erosion control
- Bamboo and carbon sequestration
- Why bamboo is more sustainable
- Genus Arundinaria: Native bamboos of North America
- Bamboo farming in Europe
PHOTO CREDIT: James Lee