by Steve Diver, NCAT Agriculture Specialist
The bamboos are gaining increased attention as an alternative crop with multiple uses and benefits. These long-lived, woody-stemmed perennial grasses are usually evergreen in climates to which they are adapted; those of temperate regions grow a complete set of new leaves each spring, the old ones falling away as the new ones develop. Worldwide, approximately 87 genera and over 1,500 species of bamboo exist, with roughly 100 species comprising those of economical importance. Two species of bamboo are native to the United States. Arundinaria gigantea — commonly known as giant bamboo, canebrake, or rivercane — occurs along rivers and streams in southern Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma, and other states to the south. A. tecta — switch cane — is a smaller form confined to the Atlantic and Gulf coastal regions from Maryland southward. Bamboos are also native to Central America, South America, and the Caribbean Islands. Most of the commercial and ornamental bamboos grown in the U.S. have been introduced from China and Japan.
Bamboo consists of two general types: clumping and running. The clumping types are typically of tropical or subtropical origin and therefore have limited geographical suitability in the United States since they cannot withstand freezing temperatures. An important exception among the clumping types is the Panda bamboo from the Himalayas, Fargesia spp., which is cold hardy to -25° F. Running bamboo, which includes the most important genus of temperate climate species, Phyllostachys, can withstand occasional low winter temperatures between -10° and +15° F. The running types are typically top-hardy in sections of the Lower South, Southwest, and Pacific Coast, and root-hardy in northern climates (i.e., plants re-grow from roots even if the exposed canes are winter-killed). Cold hardiness is an important characteristic of temperate bamboo species, along with height of cane, diameter of cane, and intended use.
Bamboo Genera Distinguished by Growing Type: Clumper or Runner
|Source: Modified from “The World of Bamboo” by Gib Cooper, Tradewinds Bamboo Nursery (www.bamboodirect.com)|
Bamboo has three principal uses: 1) domestic use around the farm (e.g., vegetable stakes, trellis poles, shade laths); 2) commercial production for use in construction, food, and the arts (e.g., concrete reinforcement, fishing poles, furniture, crafts, edible bamboo shoots, musical instruments); and 3) ornamental, landscape, and conservation uses (e.g., specimen plants, screens, hedges, riparian buffer zone).
Bamboo canes intended for strength and durability — furniture, flutes, crafts, fencing — should be harvested at three to five years of age. Prior to the end of the third year, cane tissue is still filled with sap and comparatively soft. Thus, marking and selecting canes is a regular part of grove management. Of course, bamboo canes serve many utilitarian purposes around the farm — bean poles, pecan nut tree limb shakers, vegetable trellises and stakes — and these latter uses can be made of any canes that are available. Products made from U.S. grown bamboo include fishing poles, flutes, furniture, and crafts. Much of this bamboo is harvested from stands in southern Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida, and the West Coast. Most Americans are probably more familiar with bamboo as an ornamental plant or living screen, and opportunities exist for bamboo as a niche nursery plant.
Though bamboo acreage has historically been limited in the United States, there is renewed interest in bamboo as a commercial crop with many uses. The Temperate Bamboo Quarterly, published since 1993, features useful bamboo species and developments, and bamboo has been explored as an agroforestry crop through several conferences and workshops in the Pacific Northwest. The Pacific Northwest states of Oregon and Washington have evolved into a center of commercial bamboo activity in the U.S. On-farm research trials with bamboo in Washington resulted in a report that summarized growth parameters (number of culms, average culm diameter, diameter of plant spread, and maximum plant height) for 26 bamboo species1. Reports from on-farm trials like this are helpful because they provide useful data on bamboo species adapted to different agro-climatic zones in the temperate U.S.
Mark Meckes, a bamboo advocate with the non-profit organization Stepping Stones that promotes underutilized plant resources, outlined five steps in developing a successful bamboo venture:
- identification and selection of varieties most suitable for desired end uses
- grove management procedures (planting, maintenance, and harvesting)
- materials processing (grading, cleaning, and drying)
- product manufacturing (equipment, materials, tools, dyes, paints, varnishes)
- marketing (customer identification, distribution, advertising)
Potential Bamboo Markets
Potential markets and bamboo products in the United States are summarized below. In most circumstances, bamboo should be viewed as a complementary crop that fills a niche market or serves a purpose on the farm, rather than a primary cash crop.
- Plant Material: Landscape nursery plant material; zoos; botanical gardens
- Food: Fresh bamboo shoots
- Construction Material: Concrete reinforcement; bamboo fencing; housing
- Musical Instruments: Flutes; wind chimes; pan pipes; xylophones
- Tools: Bamboo leaf rakes
- Furniture & Crafts: Toys; wood working inlay; trim work; paneling; basketry weaving; frames; jewelry; fishing poles; floral stakes; garden stakes; trellis poles
- Conservation: Living screens; agroforestry; riparian filter strips; constructed wetlands; wildlife habitat
Agroforestry is the integration of woody plants with other ag enterprises such as crop or livestock production. The idea behind agroforestry is to derive both economic and ecological benefits, two key goals of sustainable agriculture. Bamboo as a woody grass plant is uniquely suited to agroforestry. Some of the many uses of bamboo in agroforestry are summarized in the table below.
|Agroforestry Function Primary Use||Agroforestry Products Value-Added|
|Riparian vegetation filter||Craftwood|
|Constructed wetlands||Fiber crop|
|Living screens||Livestock forage|
Bamboo Shoots as a Commercial Food Crop
Each spring, ATTRA gets phone calls on cultivation of bamboo shoots as a specialty food crop. Bamboo shoots are a popular item in Asian stir fry and as a pickled condiment. The most important genus for bamboo shoot production in the temperate U.S. is Phyllostachys, which consists of about 60 species, all of which are edible. Important food species include P. dulcis, P. edulis, P. bambusoides, P. pubescens, P. nuda, and P. viridis. An early USDA bamboo researcher recommended boiling fresh bamboo shoots prior to use for about 18-20 minutes. Bamboo shoots from species imparting a bitter taste should get a change of water after the first 8-10 minutes of cooking. Daphne Lewis, author of Bamboo on the Farm, notes that the United States imports 30,000 tons of canned bamboo shoots each year from Taiwan, Thailand, and China. Lewis wrote “it would take 30,000 acres of badly managed bamboo to produce 30,000 tons or 3,000… superbly managed acres.”2
Small-scale growers are remarkably successful in creating demand for fresh, locally grown produce through niche marketing. Local markets for bamboo shoots include Asian restaurants, farmers’ markets, and health food stores, especially in towns with ethnic populations that relish bamboo shoots. Harvesting shoots is also a convenient method of controlling the spread of running-type bamboos.
In 1998, Tim Ogden of the Oregon Bamboo Co. in Myrtle Creek, OR, was featured in an article on Bamboo farming.3 He said, “Bamboo comes into production in 3 to 4 years and reaches maximum productivity in 7 to 8 years, producing 2 to 10 tons of bamboo shoots per acre. We sell everything we can produce off our mature 3-acre grove and we’ll be able to sell all the production from our second 3-acre grove, too, when it comes into production.” Ogden said distributors pay up to $2 per pound for his bamboo shoots, which retail for about $6 per pound. Ogden plants varieties that originated in Southwestern China. The plants are spaced every 10 ft. in rows spaced 20 ft. apart. Oregon Bamboo Co. sells an informational packet titled American Bamboo Agriculture, which includes a 35-minute video and a hardbound book.
Sue Turtle, co-editor of Temperate Bamboo Quarterly, explained that bamboo shoots should be harvested as soon as you can feel the tip of the bamboo shoot in the ground with the bottom of your feet. “Once the shoots emerge from the ground, they quickly become tough and bitter.” In the following excerpt from the Spring-Summer 1995 issue of Temperate Bamboo Quarterly, she notes:
Studies in China on the changes in nutrient content of bamboo shoots of different ages show there is a definite advantage to harvesting the shoots while they are still underground with sheaths just appearing above ground. Tests were done, using Phyllostachys pubescens, by harvesting at three different stages: underground, 5 days above ground, and 10 days above ground. It was found that protein and amino acid content are highest when shoots are still underground. In fact the author stated that protein content of a bamboo shoot (P. pubescens) underground is higher than any other vegetable.4
Bamboo shoot production in perspective:
- It does not seem likely that large-scale bamboo shoot production will become a common agricultural enterprise in the United States. Countries that export this product have decided advantages over American farmers with respect to climate, labor, and processing costs.
- This should not deter market farmers from exploring bamboo cultivars, growing methods, and harvesting techniques to sell fresh bamboo shoots to niche markets, but it does give pause to great expectations that bamboo shoots are an easy cash crop or even the primary reason to raise bamboo.
Bamboo Plant Material
A list of bamboo species and their characteristics (e.g., growth habit, cold hardiness, size) and uses (e.g., bamboo crafts or conservation purposes) is certainly one of the first things potential bamboo growers need information on. In this respect, prior issues of Temperate Bamboo Quarterly and The Journal of the American Bamboo Society are invaluable (see Periodicals below).
Since bamboos are vegetatively propagated, nurseries ship live plants. Consequently, some plant material may be available only during certain months of the year. A complete listing of bamboo species and suppliers in the U.S. is available in print through the American Bamboo Society (see Periodicals below). Other sources include: “Bamboo Under Cultivation” at “Our Nursery” (see address in Periodicals below). Adam and Sue Turtle, editors of Temperate Bamboo Quarterly, also run “Our Nursery” which offers an extensive collection of hardy bamboo species. Their “Bamboo Under Cultivation” list provides an especially helpful summary of bamboos adapted to temperate growing conditions, with species, height, diameter, and hardiness temperature categories.
Other publications of interest that address bamboo species adapted to U.S. growing conditions, include:
Hardy Bamboos for Shoots & Poles by Daphne Lewis (see Books & Proceedings below).
The Gardener’s Guide to Growing Temperate Bamboos by Michael Bell (see Books & Proceedings below).
Bamboo in the Future. 1995. By Sue and Adam Turtle (eds.). Temperate Bamboo Quarterly. Spring-Summer. pp. 29, 54-58.
Bamboos. 1979. By John R. Dunmire, et al. (ed.). Sunset New Western Garden Book, 4th Edition. pp. 194-197. Lane Magazine and Book Company, Menlo Park, CA.
Plant Evaluation Notes. 1996. By Richard G. Hawke. Perennial Plants. Vol. 4, No. 2. (Spring). pp. 29, 31, 33-37.
Sources of Information
The American Bamboo Society publishes a magazine and journal, Bamboo Science and Culture. Of particular interest is the Society’s Bamboo Species Source List.
The American Bamboo Society
Michael Bartholomew, Membership
750 Krumkill Road
Albany, NY 12203-5976
Temperate Bamboo Quarterly, published by Sue and Adam Turtle, is an indispensable popular journal on bamboo. The Turtles operate the bamboo nursery, “Our Nursery” and have established a bamboo park reported to be the largest collection of bamboo — 200 species from 22 genera — east of the Mississippi River. TBQ publishes original and obscure information on bamboo and contains numerous book reviews.
Temperate Bamboo Quarterly
Sue and Adam Turtle
30 Myers Road
Summertown, TN 38483
Books & Proceedings:
BAMBOO in the United States: Description, Culture, and Utilization is USDA Agriculture Handbook No. 193, published in 1961. This 74-page handbook provides a good introduction to bamboos with economic or ornamental potential in the United States. Sections on cultivation, harvesting, pests, and utilization are included. Reprints are available through the American Bamboo Society bookstore (see Periodicals above).
The Bamboos by Floyd A. McClure, 368 pages, is the classic treatise on bamboo in U.S. literature, with sections on the vegetative phase, the reproductive phase, elite bamboo species, and propagation methods. The historical notes, photos, and illustrations may be worthy of purchase alone.
P.O. Box 17949
Seattle, WA 98127
(The Bamboo Gardener carries an extensive listing of books, catalogs, newsletters and reprints on bamboo and Japanese gardening. An excellent source for hard-to-find materials and back issues of newsletters and journals.)
The Book of Bamboo: A Comprehensive Guide to This Remarkable Plant, Its Uses and Its History by David Farrelly, 340 pages. Probably the most interesting and comprehensive book on bamboo, with information on the history and culture of bamboo, varieties, cultivation, harvesting, curing, and utilization. Richly illustrated with an extensive bibliography.
Sierra Club Books
85 Second. St., 2nd Floor
San Francisco, CA 94105
Bamboo on the Farm by Daphne Lewis, is a 48-page primer on the potential uses and cultivation of bamboo in the U.S. Design illustrations show how a farm is transformed by the introduction of bamboo. Available from the Bamboo Gardener (see address above).
Hardy Bamboos for Shoots & Poles: Thirty Varieties of Bamboo for Farms in USDA Zones 7,8,9 is a 28-page follow-up pamphlet by Daphne Lewis. Thirty varieties of bamboo are presented largely in chart form to help farmers compare and decide which ones to plant. Available from the Bamboo Gardener (see address above).
The Gardener’s Guide to Growing Temperate Bamboos by Michael Bell, has become a highly recommended garden guide to selecting and growing bamboos in the temperate climatic zones of North America and Europe. With rich color photography, this 160- page book addresses history, uses, propagation, and cultivation of bamboos, with tips on finding and growing the more unusual species.
133 SW 2nd Ave., Suite 450
Portland, OR 97204-3527
Proceedings of the 1997 PNW Bamboo Agroforestry Conference is a 139-page book featuring bamboo in sustainable agriculture; building products made from Moso bamboo; temperate bamboo species as forages for livestock; building a bamboo farm; bamboo polyculture; architecture; shoot yields; and more.
2014 SE 57th Ave.
Portland, OR 97215-3411
Bamboo and the Pacific Northwest: Proceedings of 1994 Pacific Northwest Bamboo Agroforestry Workshop is a 97-page spiral-bound book featuring history of bamboo in the U.S.; bamboo potential in the Pacific Northwest; bamboo on the farm; bamboo agroforestry; pulp; paper; timber; and more.
PNW Bamboo Agroforestry Workshop
c/o Tradewinds Bamboo Nursery
28446 Hunter Creek Loop
Gold Beach, OR 97444
(Tradewinds Bamboo Nursery also sells bamboo books, journals, and technical reports. See their online book catalog at www.bamboodirect.com).
1) Blethen, Caitlin, and Carol Miles. March 2000. Investigating bamboo as an alternative crop in the Maritime Pacific Northwest. Pacific Northwest Sustainable Agriculture. pp. 4-6. http://agsyst.wsu.edu/bambooarticle.htm
2) Lewis, Daphne. 1996. Bamboo shoots: Delicious to eat; easy to sell. Washington Tilth. Autumn. pp. 7-9.
3) Editors. 1997. Bamboo farming: New market waits to be tapped. Farm Show. Vol. 21, No. 2. p. 21.
4) Turtle, Sue. 1995. Bamboo shoots = good food. Temperate Bamboo Quarterly. Vol. II, No. 1-2 (Spring-Summer). pp. 8-11.