From food to flooring, bamboo has thousands of practical uses. But when’s the last time someone brought you a bouquet of bamboo flowers? When was the last time you even saw a bamboo flower, for that matter?

Perhaps never, because bamboo flowers are both infrequent and inconspicuous. Or you may have seen a blossoming bamboo and not even realized it. No, they aren’t so exciting to look at, but bamboo flowers can be a fascinating thing to study.

How often does bamboo flower?

Like most characteristics of bamboo, the answer to this question varies greatly between species. There are, after all, more than 1,200 varieties of this noble grass.

The short answer is: rarely. Bamboo flowering cycles are generally very long, often between 40 to 60 years. In some cases, more than 120 years will pass between blooms. And because the period is so long, most gardeners will only see an individual specimen flower once in their lifetime, if they’re lucky.

As a result, the flowering cycles of bamboo are not entirely well understand, and remain something of a mystery. But we do know a few things.

Flowering terminology

To better understand the nature of bamboo flowers, it will be helpful to review some botanical terms and concepts.

  • Monocarpic: This describes a plant that will only flower once and then die. This is not to be confused with an annual plant, including most grains and vegetables, who go through their whole life cycle in a single growing season. Many varieties of bamboo are monocarpic, but not all of them. Bromeliads are another example of a monocarpic plant. It may take some years for the plant to flower, and afterwards the plant dies.
  • Polycarpic: Flowering multiple times before dying. This is the opposite of monocarpic.
  • Gregarious flowering: Also called mass flowering or synchronous blooming, this refers to plants of a given species that all bloom at the same time, regardless of their location. This is one of the most fascinating characteristics observed in a several species of bamboo. Species that exhibit this unusual behavior are typically monocarpic.
  • Sporadic flowering: Each specimen flowers on its own schedule, and not on a mass scale. Most bamboos flower sporadically, and most of them are polycarpic.

Gregarious bamboo flowering

This exotic behavior remains one of bamboo’s greatest mysteries. As if there is some kind of alarm clock in the cells of certain bamboo species, every individual member of that species will flower at the same time. This is especially bizarre because the flowering periods are so long and irregular.

Phyllostachys bambusoides, also known as Japanese timber bamboo, is one such example. Sometimes it has a flowering interval of 130 years. Then every specimen of P. bambusoides—regardless of its location around the world—will blossom, go to seed and die.

Mautam: Mass flowering crisis

Probably the most exceptional case of flowering in bamboo, or perhaps any plant species, occurs with Melocanna baccifera. In an event called Mautum, meaning “bamboo death”, every member of this bamboo species flowers and leads to a famine in the region.

In northeastern India and parts of Myanmar, this variety of bamboo covers vast areas of forest. Every 48-50 years or so, all the M. baccifera blooms, goes to seed, and sparks an unexpected environmental cataclysm. The last time it happened was in 2006.

The unfortunate series of events runs something like this. After about half a century of ordinary vegetative growth, all the bamboo across the region flowers and turns to seed. Because of the general size, shape and geographic location, the seeds of bamboo are often called bamboo rice.

Although it has little or no culinary value for humans, the sudden proliferation of bamboo rice in rural, northeast India is a great boon for the local rodent population. Rats flock to the fields to participate in this once in a lifetime feast. And as they do so, their population skyrockets.

This is all wonderful for the rats and their burgeoning families. And it’s of little consequence to the people in the area, so long as the rats are well fed. But once the bamboo rice runs out, chaos and panic ensue. Enormous numbers of hungry rats now raid the surrounding villages, decimating storehouses of grain, leading to a widespread famine.

In 1966, the Mautam occurred, and warnings from village elders were dismissed as ignorant superstition. Subsequently, crops were destroyed, many starved, and a major political uprising took place. The obvious lesson here: listen to your elders.

When the cycle returned in 2006, local officials were far better prepared. Indian army and local militia had been anticipating the Mautam for two years. Local villagers had been growing other crops, as well as fragrant plants like ginger and turmeric to help ward off the invasive rodents. Their preparations paid off, and famine was averted.

Further reading

For more fun facts about bamboo, check out some of our other articles.

PHOTO CREDIT: Bamboo blossom (Wikipedia)

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