We typically think of bamboo as the woody grass (in the family Poaceae) with the hollow stems. This is one of the notable characteristics of bamboo that makes it relatively easy to recognize. But there are a few varieties of solid bamboo whose stems, surprisingly, are not hollow. Technically speaking, they have little or no inter-nodal cavity. These bamboo species are not common in North America, but they are very popular for building furniture in Asia and South America.

Botanical nameCommon nameDescription
Chusquea quilaThe QuilaSouth American clumping bamboo
Dendrocalamus stocksiiMarihal bambooMid-sized clumping bamboo from India
Dendrocalamus strictusMale bamboo, Solid bamboo, Calcutta bambooClumping timber bamboo from Asia
Phyllostachys heterocladaSolid stem bamboo, Water bambooCold hardy, running bamboo

The importance of solid bamboo

The varieties of solid bamboo have great economic and cultural importance in the areas where they grow, particularly India and southern Asia. These plants have all the other properties of bamboo, growing very quickly, producing strong wood, and being resistant to pests and disease. Not only that, but because the stems are solid, these varieties of bamboo have even greater structural integrity for building purposes.

Species of solid bamboo

Chusquea quila

The genus Chusquea is endemic to Latin America, and most varieties have stems which are solid or nearly solid. C. quila in particular, grows mostly in the Valdivian temperate forest of Chile and Argentina, up to altitudes of around 2000 feet. This is a clumping and climbing variety with winding, almost vine-like culms, which grow more than 50 feet high.

Crafts people and furniture makers are especially fond of C. quila as a robust and readily renewable building material. It is also prized for fire making due to its ability to burn easily, even when fresh.

In places that have suffered from deforestation, this prolific bamboo has sometimes reclaimed and dominated barren areas, leaving no space for other native vegetation to gain a foothold.

Dendrocalamus stocksii

A mid-sized, non-thorny, loose clumping bamboo native to southern India, D. stocksii plays an important part in the local furniture making industry. Like other species of Dendrocalamus, it is sometimes referred to as an “iron bamboo” for its tremendous strength.

The species is indigenous to the humid tropics and is not widely known outside of Central Western Ghats, in the Kerala state of India. Culms grow up to 2 or 3 inches in diameter and to about 30 feet in height.

Dendrocalamus strictus

Another variety of “iron bamboo”, D. strictus has culms that are often (but not always) solid. Canes of this timber variety get 3 to 5 inches in diameter, reaching 50 to 60 feet tall. It grows in other parts of India, to the north and east, as well as Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand.

Sometimes called Male bamboo, Solid bamboo or Calcutta bamboo, this species is also important in building and light construction. It is used locally for everything from tents and scaffolding to frames from houses and reinforcement for concrete.

Phyllostachys heteroclada

This species is popularly referred to as solid stem bamboo and sometimes as water bamboo. As the name suggests, the culms grow solid or nearly solid, unlike most varieties of bamboo which are characteristically hollow.

Although the stems are almost solid, the roots and culms do have small air canals which help them survive in very wet soil. As its other common name indicates, this variety does relatively well in wet soil. But no varieties of bamboo can really tolerated saturates soil or grow directly in the water. This is also a very cold tolerant species, hardy down to -5 or 10º F.

A running bamboo with a vigorous growth habit, P. heteroclada makes an ideal candidate for privacy screens, especially in very cold or wet areas. The canes grow up to 15 or 20 feet tall, normally not more than 1 inch in diameter. Some nurseries list it as Phyllostachys purpurata.

If you’re looking for a solid bamboo species that you can grow in your own garden, in North America, this will probably be your best choice. The Dendrocalamus varieties may be an option if you live someplace hot and humid, like Florida or Louisiana.

Bamboo lookalike

There’s another tropical plant that looks like bamboo and has a solid stem, but it’s not. We know it from vintage furniture stores where is sold as rattan.

What is rattan?

Rattan is a woody vine that grows naturally in South East Asia. Like bamboo, there are several hundred varieties of rattan. (There may in fact be closer to 2000 varieties of bamboo, depending how you count and whom you ask.) Unlike bamboo, rattan is not a grass. It is more closely related to various palm trees in the subfamily Calamoideae.

Also, rattan is solid on the inside. It is not hollow like bamboo, most bamboo that is. And rattan vines can sometimes grow hundreds of feet long. They also have hooks, which allow them to cling and crawl up trees and other vegetation. Rattan is not considered a true wood, but instead it is classified as a liana.

In some ways, on the surface, rattan looks very similar to bamboo, especially once it’s been made into furniture. It’s very easy to confuse a bamboo table with a rattan table. But rattan furniture has a lot more curves and bends, while bamboo furniture usually consists of straight poles fastened together. In this way, rattan furniture can be more interesting and attractive. The solid nature of rattan also makes it more durable than hollow bamboo.

Most rattan for commercial use and furniture making comes from Indonesia. Bangladesh, Malaysia and the Philippines are also major rattan producers. Rattan currently faces the risk of over-exploitation because it is used so widely. On the other hand, the availability of rattan gives loggers an alternative to cutting down trees, so its use has helped to protect old growth forests.

Further reading

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PHOTO CREDIT: Solid stems of Chusquea quila (Wikipedia)

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