Moso Bamboo, also known as Phyllostachys edulis, is nothing new, but in recent years it has sparked a revolution in agriculture, textiles and construction.
This Chinese timber bamboo goes by the scientific name Phyllostachys edulis, but until recently had been listed as Phyllostachys pubescens. The common name, Moso, comes from the Chinese mao zhu, which means hairy bamboo. Of the roughly 1,500 varieties of bamboo that populate the earth, it’s easy to argue that Moso Bamboo is the most economically important species of all.
When you hear about bamboo clothing and bamboo flooring, these are products of Moso. When you see bamboo scaffolding on skyscrapers in Hong Kong and China, it’s very likely Moso. And when people speak of bamboo growing a foot or two a day, Moso is one the varieties that can actually do that.
In the right climate, this can be a very impressive and rewarding species to grow, either ornamentally or commercially. It’s fairly common in the U.S. and relatively easy to grow from seeds. And if it’s warm and muggy enough, it can get to be enormous. The older species name, pubescens, meaning hairy, refers to the fine hairs that grow on the young culms. This is one way of distinguishing it from related species like P. vivax and P. bambusoides.
Cultivating Moso Bamboo
Native to Southern China and Taiwan, Phyllostachys edulis thrives in the warmer, subtropical climates. In these regions the plant can reach its full potential, with towering culms of 90 feet or more, and growing a couple feet a day in the growing season. But like most Phyllostachys, it can also tolerate more temperate zones. Just don’t expect it to grow to such an impressive size.
Members of the genus Phyllostachys are running bamboos, meaning that they spread and propagate by way of sprawling rhizome roots. From this complex underground root system, new culms shoot out of the ground in the growing season and quickly grow to their full height. A mature grove of Moso Bamboo will put out shoots with a 4-5 inch diameter.
Once every 50 years or so, a Moso Bamboo plant will flower and produce seeds. In some varieties of bamboo, every member of a given species will flower at the same anywhere in the world. This phenomenon, known as synchronous blooming or gregarious blooming, does NOT occur with Moso. Instead, it exhibits sporadic flowering.
In many varieties of bamboo, the plant will die after it flowers and goes to seed. This is called monocarpic. This is NOT the case with Moso. A healthy stand of Moso can produce thousands of seeds and most of them will germinate, while the mother plant survives. Rats and rodents, however, will generally eat a significant portion of these tender seedlings, which tend to be only 2 mm in diameter.
Can I cultivate and farm Moso Bamboo in the U.S.?
The preponderance of commercial Moso farming takes place in China, where the species is indigenous. It’s much happier in that subtropical climate. Within the U.S., the Deep South has the best growing conditions for Moso Bamboo.
It does particularly well in Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina. A company called Only Moso launched a commercial bamboo farm in Gainesville. Florida, in 2011. Some farmers grow Moso ornamentally in Oregon and the Pacific Northwest, where it can survive but does not thrive. Without the hot summers and humidity, it will not reach its maximum height and girth. Moso is much better suited for growing east of the Mississippi River, and south of the Mason Dixon line.
West of the Mississippi and in USDA zones 7 and 8, Phyllostachys bambusoides, aka Japanese Timber Bamboo or ‘Madake’, a closely related timber variety, grows especially well. It is slower to spread, but culms can get even larger than those of Moso, and are excellent as a building material.
Have a look at our article on Bamboo Farming in the US.
Phyllostachys edulis ‘Heterocycla’: Tortoise Shell Bamboo
The subspecies ‘Heterocycla’ isn’t nearly as important economically, due to the strange and uneven shape of its culms. But this odd pattern makes for a beautiful specimen plant, and a dazzling addition to any bamboo enthusiast’s garden. In Japanese, they refer to this variety as ‘Kikko’, which literally means tortoise shell. The cultivar doesn’t grow nearly as tall as the species, but in eastern states it is a very desirable plant for bamboo collectors.
The Many Uses of Moso
The magnificent size and vigorous growth habit of Moso Bamboo makes it the perfect candidate for a wide range of practical and industrial applications. Moso from China has become especially important for the production of bamboo flooring and bamboo clothing.
Bamboo flooring took the building industry by storm about 20 years ago, quickly becoming available from hardware stores and flooring specialists everywhere. Unlike traditional hardwoods, bamboo reaches maturity within 4-5 years, while the trees could take 20-100 years to mature. Bamboo, with its high metabolism, can also sequester about 50% more carbon than a typical forest.
In addition to the ecological benefits of bamboo, Moso also produces a very hard wood, making it an ideal material for things like flooring and cutting boards. According to the Contractor’s Guide for Green Building Materials, standard bamboo flooring has a Janka hardness rating of 1180 to 1380. This is comparable to most oak varieties, rated around 1300 to 1400. More innovative types of bamboo flooring, using a woven strand technique, have scored from 3000 all the way up to 5000.
As much as we like to advocate the use of bamboo as the environmental silver bullet, it is important to be aware of certain ecological concerns. As a laminated wood, bamboo flooring does require a urea-formaldehyde (UF) adhesive to bond together. These adhesives can off-gas and pose other environmental problems. Still, bamboo uses far less formaldehyde than other materials like particle board. And formaldehyde-free bamboo is also available now.
Another issue, when bamboo flooring exploded in popularity, was the removal of native forests in China for the purpose of cultivating commercial bamboo. This sort of deforestation has led to the destruction of natural wildlife habitat and soil erosion, and could easily outweigh any environmental benefits of bamboo. It’s important, therefore, to learn as much you as you can about your bamboo supplier, and see that they meet all the highest standards of certification.
Remarkably hard on the one hand, bamboo can also produce a rayon fabric that is incredibly soft on the other. Shortly after the appearance of bamboo flooring, we began seeing socks, t-shirts and towels made from bamboo.
Along with the well-reported ecological benefits of bamboo—fast-growing and readily renewable without the need for pesticides and herbicides—bamboo fabric also boasts a number of advantages in performance. Most obvious is bamboo’s softness. Like cotton or any other conventional textile, bamboo can be woven into any kind of fabric. But the result is always uniquely soft, with an uncommon mix of cool silkiness and warm fuzziness.
Additionally, bamboo material is naturally anti-microbial, hypo-allergenic, odor-resistant and temperature regulating. It may sound too good to be true, but the properties of bamboo are plainly evident if you sleep on a set of bamboo sheets or wear a pair of bamboo socks two days in a row. We’ve also heard from many customers with sensitive skin disorders and serious allergy issues that bamboo is one of the only materials they can wear.
Bamboo’s very high absorbency also makes for some exceptionally nice towels. But be advised, bamboo socks and t-shirts will take a bit longer to dry for this same reason. Generally this is not a problem. If you’re keeping your carbon footprint down and using a drying rack instead of an electric dryer, just leave the clothes on the rack a little longer. If you’re traveling however, and trying to dry your clothes on a line in your hotel room overnight, bamboo might not be your best choice.
Processing bamboo for textiles
Some have expressed concern over the pulping process that goes into make viscose fabric from bamboo. In fact, caustic soda (or lye) is used to extrude the cellulose from the stalks and leaves of the bamboo before it can be spun into thread and woven into fabric.
The primary concern here is how the manufacturer disposes of this bi-product after pulping. It is possible to reuse and recycle the lye, and certain manufacturers are bound to be more conscientious than others. We have always been committed to working with the most ecologically responsible producers as possible.
Most of us who work in the bamboo industry are determined to see it being used in the most ecological way possible. It’s good to know that many have been improving the standards of cultivating and processing bamboo over the years.
Cotton, by comparison, is extremely pesticide intensive to grow, as it is very vulnerable to insects and other pests. It also requires a great amount of irrigation, because it is typically cultivated in hot, dry climates. And even organic cotton must go through a processing stage before it’s spun and woven into fabric.
Phyllostachys edulis is edible
Finally, we need to talk about how Phyllostachys edulis got its name. Long before the advent of bamboo floors and bamboo underwear, Chinese foodies were making use of Moso Bamboo’s tender young shoots.
So Moso earned its botanical name from this characteristic. Actually, many varieties of bamboo have fresh culms that are edible. This species just happens to be one of the most majestic, widespread and recognizable in China. Not only that, but given the plant’s size, you can practically make a whole meal out of one shoot!
Take a look at our article on Edible Bamboo Shoots to learn more.
If you’re looking for other varieties of bamboo that are especially useful and fast growing, Guadua angustifolia is one to watch out for. Native to Central and South America, Guadua is a clumping genus of mostly timber bamboos. They make an excellent building material, and have been used widely throughout the continent to create some very impressive structures.
For more details, have a look at our in-depth article on The best bamboos for building and construction.
To learn more about the ecology and versatility of Moso and other species of bamboo, check out some of our other articles.
- What’s so great about bamboo?
- 10 Best varieties of Bamboo for your garden
- Best bamboo for poles
- Buddha Belly: Bamboo of the highest calling
- Hemp vs. Bamboo: The ultimate comparison
PHOTO CREDIT: Wikipedia