By now you’ve probably heard about the endless variety of products that we can make out of bamboo. If not, then you really need to take a look at this article about Bamboo Products from A to Z. But you might still be wondering how they do it. And you may be curious to know which parts of the bamboo plant are used for which products.
While bamboo’s thick, woody culms, or poles, are the most useful part of the plant, there’s also much we can do with the leaves, the roots and the branches. The massive poles of Guadua and Moso bamboo are ideal for construction and processing into engineered lumber. But many products only require biomass or plant pulp, which means they can use any and all parts of the plant. The fresh shoots are especially suitable for human consumption. The leaves may seem less useful, but they make for plentiful feedstock and a nutritious tea.
Bamboo: A grass that keeps on giving
Bamboo has a number of characteristics that make it so valuable and versatile. Most important are its strength and renewability. In most species of timber bamboo, the stems, more accurately called culms, have a hardness superior to pine and comparable to oak. But rather than taking 20 or 30 years to reach maturity, a bamboo plant only takes about 6 or 7 years.
Once the plant is mature and well established, individual culms will reach their full height in a single growing season. And as the poles are harvested, the plant continues to thrive. Bamboo’s life source is in its underground root system. So as the culms are cut down, the roots only grow stronger, continuing to produce mighty shoots and culms.
But there’s a lot more we can use than just the long, strong poles of timber bamboo. Different sized poles have different uses. And there’s also a lot we can do with the leaves, branches and roots.
Those long, woody poles, with a strength-to-weight ratio greater than steel, are the most obviously useful part of the bamboo. In their natural form, round and hollow, they can be stacked and assembled in all kinds of ways to build shelters, boats, scaffolding, etc. The bigger the pole, the larger the construction project.
Depending on what part of the world we’re in, different species of timber bamboo are more common. In China, it’s Moso bamboo they use for nearly everything. In Southeast Asia, various species of Dendrocalamus are more common for building and construction, especially D. asper. But in Central and South America, it’s Guadua bamboo that they use most widely.
Small species of bamboo are also useful because not every project requires a 5-inch thick pole. Thinner bamboo is excellent for fishing poles, for example, as well as any number of light crafts, like fencing, curtain rods, flutes, and so on. Bamboo poles also make ideal garden stakes, whether for a row of tomato plants or a plantation of banana trees.
For more sophisticated applications, like bamboo flooring and other engineered lumber, we can now process these giant bamboo poles into something more suitable and standardized for conventional construction. (Conventional in the sense that it will satisfy municipal building codes and such.) To do this, they typically reduce the poles into strips and then laminate those strips into layers. Take a close look at the edge of a bamboo cutting board to get an idea of how this is done.
For many commercial bamboo growers, especially in the United States and Europe, where processing facilities are scarce, fresh shoots are the most important product. Humans, particularly in Asia, have been eating the soft, young growth of bamboo for thousands of years.
A healthy, well-established grove of bamboo can produce fresh shoots at an astonishing rate. Even if you’re growing bamboo for lumber or for biomass, you can still harvest about half of the shoots without reducing the size of your grove.
Unlike the fully grown culms, the young shoots, which appear early in the growing season, are quite soft and palatable. They also have a very high concentration of nutrients, including protein and other vitamins and minerals. But you do need to boil the shoots first, or ferment them properly, in order to remove the natural toxins and make them safe for eating.
See our in-depth article on Bamboo for Eating to learn more about safe preparation and the best culinary species.
Humans aren’t the only ones who like to eat bamboo. Pandas famously subsist on this plant, as do a number of other mammals, like the Mountain Gorilla, the Golden Monkey, and the Bamboo Lemur of Madagascar. Like humans, they prefer the soft, nutritious, young shoots of bamboo. But they also eat the leaves and the woody branches.
We can enjoy the bamboo leaves in tea, as well. Bamboo leaves are very high in silica. So in addition to a smooth, nutty-flavored beverage, bamboo leaf tea is also excellent for strengthening the body’s connective tissues and alleviating arthritis.
Bamboo roots and rhizomes
Although they are underground, we cannot overlook the importance of bamboo’s vigorous roots and rhizomes. These are the life center of the plant. They are what make bamboo so renewable and difficult to eradicate.
For practical purposes, this rhizome network provides a terrific means of controlling and reducing erosion, especially on slopes and along waterways. And for wider benefits, to mitigate climate change, bamboo roots are capable of capturing and storing vast amounts of carbon from the atmosphere.
But that’s not all. The lowest sections of bamboo, where the roots begin to form, are also very useful for some unusual crafts. Traditional woodcarvers have come up with some exquisite designs to incorporate the smoothness of bamboo with the gnarly, bushy texture of the roots. I’ve also seen some great-looking pens made from the knobby sections of bamboo rhizomes.
It seems like we’ve overlooked some of the most interesting and important uses of bamboo, including bamboo clothing, bamboo paper, and bioethanol from bamboo. These products all provide crucial alternatives to fossil fuels, deforestation, and pesticide-intensive agriculture.
And these bamboo applications rely on the cellulose-rich pulp of the plant. That means we can use the entire plant and all of its biomass. Moso bamboo continues to be the chief source of pulp for bamboo clothing because it is so prevalent in China. But any pulp will do.
To make bamboo paper and bioethanol, the species of bamboo is not so important. The main goal is to produce the greatest quantity of biomass in the shortest span of time. American farmers are showing a preference for varieties like Henon and Rubromarginata, but the North American bamboo industry is young, and more research is still needed.
Other parts of the bamboo plant
If you thought bamboo consisted of nothing but roots, stems and leaves, well, that’s understandable. But there’s more to the plant, and still more we can do with it. The thinner tops and lateral branches of the bamboo make great toothpicks, bristles for brooms, or other light crafts.
And finally, let’s not forget the culm sheaths. These are the paper-like wrappings that encase the new growth of fresh bamboo shoots. On larger bamboo culms, these sheaths can be quite large. They can be made into rustic paper products or any manner of handicrafts. In the end, the only limit is your imagination!
The more you know
If you enjoyed learning about the many uses for the many parts of the bamboo plant, then you’ll love our website. Check out some of these popular articles to expand your understanding of bamboo.