Plant 363

Subfamily Bambusoideae (Poaceae)


Bamboos are familiar to many as effective screening plants in gardens, for the canes that support runner beans and as the preferred food of giant pandas. Strips of dried, planed and glued bamboo have also become popular as hard-wearing wood substitutes for flooring and carpentry.

There are approximately 1,500 bamboo species worldwide. These species comprise a distinct subfamily of perennial grasses that is distributed in tropical and warm temperate regions. Within these regions, bamboos occupy habitats extending from sea-level to 4,500 metres, on the snowline of the Andes, in the case of Neurolepis aristata.

Below ground, a bamboo plant comprises a branched, underground stem (rhizome) from which vertical shoots (culms) arise. Culms grow rapidly, in some species tens of centimetres per day, and can reach more than thirty metres in height. Strap-like leaves, which arise from the culms, may reach five metres in length and over thirty centimetres in width in the Ecuadorian bamboo Neurolepis elata. Bamboos flower rarely, often only once in their lifetime. Moreover, bamboos may display a mass-flowering phenomenon, where all the individual plants in an area produce flowers. After flowering. individual bamboos may produce millions of small, dry fruits. In contrast the Indo-Burmese pear bamboo (Melocanna baccifera) produces edible, fleshy fruits, approximately every half century, which are about the size and shape of a small avocado.

Bamboos have been used by peoples across the globe for thousands of years. Bamboo culms are rich in silica which makes them very tough and, when they are split, very sharp. Furthermore, culms resist forces of compression, tension and torsion but are easily split, woven, twisted and bent. Culms, bent and lashed, are the bases of traditional architecture in South and East Asia and the South Pacific, whilst twisted culms have been used to make cables for suspension bridges. Large bamboo culms make excellent water pipes if the walls, which divide the culm at the nodes, are broken. When the walls are left intact, fire- and water-proof cooking pots are produced.

In China, bamboo, one of the ‘Four Gentlemen’, denotes virtues of tenacity, integrity and elegance. Bamboo culms have been used to make writing surfaces and musical instruments. Bamboo fibres, which are very short, have been used for centuries in paper manufacture. More recently, cellulose in the fibres has been used as the raw material for the synthetic fibre, rayon. Bamboos also useful environmental engineers, as their rhizomes stabilising soils.

Further reading

Lucas, S (2013) Bamboo. Reaktion Books.

Stephen Harris