The history of bamboo and its relationship with humans traces back many thousands of years. And the majority of bamboo species are endemic to Asia and the Far East. It comes as no surprise then to find bamboo playing an important role in traditional Chinese Medicine.
If you’re putting together a medicine cabinet of traditional herbal remedies, bamboo is definitely something you’ll want to include. The leaves, the fresh shoots, and even the sap of the bamboo all have healing properties. In Chinese medicine, you might also see it written as Zhu, which simply means bamboo.
The curative benefits of bamboo address a wide variety of medical issues. Primarily, these include fevers, colds, urinary problems and even depression.
Medicinal properties of bamboo
Anyone who’s ever walked through a forest of bamboo can tell you that this remarkable grass has a special way of making you feel better. Bamboo has a certain undefinable capacity to exude a calming influence over anyone in its presence.
But besides this mysterious sense of positivity and good Feng Shui, bamboo actually has some real healing qualities. And as with most natural herbal remedies, traditional Chinese medicine makes use of all the different parts of the bamboo plant. And each part has its own benefits to offer.
BAMBOO SHAVINGS, or ZHU RU
One of the most common preparations of bamboo in Chinese medicine is to take shavings of the mature bamboo stalks, or culms. In this case, Phyllostachys nigra, or Black Bamboo, is considered the best species. It’s best to use a somewhat younger and freshly cut bamboo can for this purpose.
First, shave down the bamboo culm to remove the outer layer. You can think of it like removing the bark of a tree, although there’s no real bark on bamboo. But once you get through the outer layer, you get down to a greenish white substance. This portion of the bamboo can be shaved off and collected. Generally speaking, it’s easier to purchase Zhu Ru from an herbalist rather than try to collect and prepare it yourself.
According to Chinese medicine, this part of the plant has sweet and cold properties. That means it is beneficial to reduce phlegm and fever, particularly for children, and to soothe an upset stomach. Bamboo shavings can also be good for treating irritability, depression, and sleep disorders.
DRIED BAMBOO SAP, or TIAN ZHU HUANG
Unlike many kinds of trees, we don’t usually think of bamboo as a big sap producer. But inside the hollow culms of certain bamboo species, there is a light yellow sap that collects around the nodal joints.
Bambusa arundinacea, from India, is said to be one of the best sources of dried sap. Also known as Tabasheer, the sap is a translucent substance, composed mainly of silica and water with traces of lime and potash.
Tabasheer is especially important in traditional Ayurvedic medicine, originally from India. But it’s also common in Chinese medicine.
Usually the sap is ground into a white powder that can be easily consumed. Typically it is mixed with some other spices, like pepper, cardamom, and cinnamon. It’s a popular remedy for the common cold, sore throats, coughs and sinus congestion.
LIQUID BAMBOO SAP, or ZHU LI
It is quite difficult to obtain the liquid sap of bamboo outside of China, but its medicinal applications are slightly different. Generally, the liquid sap works to clear heat and reduce phlegm. It’s also good for hemiplegia and coughs resulting from excessive heat in the lungs.
BITTER BAMBOO LEAVES, or KU ZHU YE
The easiest parts of the plant to collect for medicinal purpose are the leaves. Pleioblastus amarus, a species from southern China, is one of the more popular bamboo varieties for this use.
In Chinese medicine, the bamboo leaves are also sweet and cold, as well as somewhat bitter. So they are good for treating fevers, colds and congestion. They are especially beneficial for reducing heat in the chest, and for the overall health of the heart and lungs.
BAMBOO LEAVES, or DAN ZHU YE
Harvested from a different species of bamboo, i.e. Lopatherum gracile, their uses are similar to the bitter leaves. They can also relieve urinary problems, such as blood in the urine.
What are the most important varieties of bamboo in Chinese medicine?
With over a thousand species of bamboo to choose from, it’s important to select the right variety, whether you’re gardening or practicing medicine.
Phyllostachys nigra, or Black Bamboo, is one of the most popular varieties for home gardens. It’s also one of the best for use in Chinese medicine, particularly for the bamboo shavings (Zhu Ru). Black bamboo is also a fast-growing type of running bamboo, so you are unlikely to consume it too quickly.
For dried sap preparations (Tian Zhu Huag, or Tabasheer), Bambusa arundinacea is one of the best species. This is a tropical variety of clumping bamboo, more common in India. Other varieties of Bambusa can be used as well.
Pleioblastus amarus is considered the best species for bitter bamboo leaves (Ku Zhu Ye). This is a running bamboo of Chinese extraction. In addition to its healing properties, P. Amarus works well as a light building material, for arts and crafts.
Lopatherum gracile is also cultivated for its stems and long, slender leaves (Dan Zhu Ye). This is a compact variety of clumping bamboo that grows in the tropics and subtropics.
Are bamboo and Chinese medicine safe?
As with any form of medication, it’s important to be aware of any potential side effects or contraindications. Bamboo is not known to have many side effects, but pregnant women should use caution before consuming bamboo leaves. Bamboo shavings are not recommended for anyone with nausea or spleen issues. Always consult a medical expert expert before combining herbal remedies with other medications.
As you can see, many parts of the bamboo plant can provide a natural remedy for a number of ailments. Used in Chinese medicine, bamboo is most useful for calming and reducing heat. More specifically, it can treat fevers, colds and coughs, by loosening the phlegm and cooling the chest and lungs.
But before you try concocting a bamboo remedy from your own back yard, we recommend consulting a trained specialist certified in Chinese medicine. For best results, you can purchase various bamboo remedies that are already prepared for specific uses.
To learn more about the many healthy and traditional uses for bamboo, check out some of the following articles.
PHOTO CREDIT: Bamboo leaves (Unsplash)