What’s that, towering overhead? It’s a grass, it’s a tree, it’s … super bamboo! No, it’s not an urban legend or the stuff of fairy tales. This is the real thing. And it’s a plant — actually a whole group of plants — unlike any other.

Bamboo has long been revered for its striking combination of properties: it is strong, flexible, and hollow. And each of these characteristics deserves some praise and recognition.

Phyllostachys nigra boryana banner
Phyllostachys nigra ‘Boryana’ exhibits the finest qualities of bamboo. (Photo by Fred Hornaday)

The strength of bamboo

Unsurpassed in strength, bamboo makes an excellent substitute for hardwoods like maple and oak, an ideal material for flooring, cutting boards, and kitchen utensils. Throughout the world, we’ve seen bamboo used in housing and for scaffolding, to build bridges, and to prop up towers.

The history of bamboo goes back as far as history itself. Humans have been using bamboo for as long as they’ve had the need for weapons, musical instruments, food, and shelter.

Bamboo has always been there. And yet, unlike stone or iron, it breaks down relatively quickly, therefore leaving few traces in the archaeological record. Still, we know that in places like the Far East and the Pacific Islands, this mighty grass was being put to good use thousands of years ago.

Over time, these traditional societies came to look down on bamboo as the “poor man’s timber.” It’s everywhere, and it’s free. So how could it be of any real value?

And so they began to crave the advanced materials of Western Civilization. Concrete, aluminum, and steel were lifted onto a pedestal of permanence and solidity. But today we understand that those long-lasting products also leave a long-lasting footprint, contributing around 40% of the greenhouse gasses that drive Climate Change, placing us firmly on the threshold of existential crisis.

Fused Bamboo exterior 1
Fused bamboo for exterior use by Dasso.

So now, we are rediscovering the iron-like strength of bamboo. While those other materials emit dangerous quantities of CO2, bamboo, with its explosive growth rate, actually draws carbon out of the atmosphere, storing it in its roots and its woody fibers.

This new age of bamboo puts an end to the pejorative of the poor man’s lumber. Indeed, it can offer an affordable alternative for modular housing, as projects in Ecuador, the Philippines, and elsewhere have demonstrated. But, at the same time, engineers around the world are developing new innovations to make bamboo as structurally robust and aesthetically stunning as anything on the market.

The flexibility of bamboo

The strength of bamboo is not simply the raw strength of a muscle-bound weightlifter, but rather the indefatigable resilience of a tai chi master. Its unique ability to bend in the breeze and flex under extreme pressure makes bamboo a natural survivor. The best demonstration of strength includes a willingness to compromise rigidity without sacrificing integrity.

Rimfors bamboo ski pole demo
Bamboo ski pole demonstration by Rimfors.

In the 21st century, we’ve learned that brute strength is no longer enough to carry the day. Simple military supremacy is no match for an agile, information-based economy. The #MeToo movement and other awareness campaigns have shut down the primacy of the bully, the ogre, and the Alpha male.

There is a new respect for suppleness and pliancy, for the feminine sensibility. Few things capture that like bamboo. Like water, which carved the Grand Canyon with its softness, bamboo now takes the lead with its adaptability. And as Climate Change advances, we’ll all need to grow a little more adaptable.

Bamboo’s unusual emptiness

Beyond that, strength and flexibility, most bamboo grows hollow. While many top-ranked athletes and celebrities suffer from over-developed egos and over-inflated opinions of themselves, the graceful victor remains empty inside, always ready to receive, learn and improve.

Bamboo Poetry Haiku Hornaday
Original Haiku, by Fred Hornaday

Be like the bamboo, let your roots run deep and wide, and you too will survive the harshest winds and the deadliest storms.

Up, up and away, with bamboo

Read about more of our favorite bamboo superheroes in these articles about Bamboo Mythology and Bamboo Wisdom. Visual learners will also enjoy our gallery Bamboo Infographics.

NOTE: This article first appeared in November 2008. The latest updates were made in March 2024.