Editors: ECHO will be offering a Tropical Agriculture Development (TAD) course on bamboo basics in February, 2017. This article covers a sampling of the content that will be taught.
Bamboo’s reputation is largely based upon intrinsic peculiarities of certain varieties. The plant can grow a meter a day and is the staple diet for giant pandas; though a grass, it can grow to 30 meters tall with hollow wooden stems which are stronger than steel; and bamboo has a reproductive cycle in which all plants of the same species flower and then die simultaneously…worldwide. These sound like qualities conjured up for a fantasy novel.
Though the aforementioned qualities are true for some varieties, bamboo exists with a wide array of sizes, shapes, and palatability, and with varied growth and reproductive patterns. With diverse characteristics comes diverse functionality; bamboo is commonly used as food, fodder, fiber, fencing, furniture, and construction timber, all without sacrificing the life of the plant! Bamboo has many impressive and amazing characteristics, but its most important quality is the impact that its use can have on the life of a smallholder family.
Like many plants, bamboo produces edible shoots (Figure 1); but unlike many plants, each bamboo shoot that is harvested can weigh 1-4 kg (Cusack 1999)! One shoot can provide a meal, but a bamboo shoot is mostly water and is low in carbohydrates (4-6%), protein (2-4%), and fat (0.3-0.5%) (Cusack 1999). However, bamboo shoots are rich in vitamins and minerals, including thiamin, niacin, calcium, iron, and vitamins A, E, and B6 (Cusack 1999). The leaves and hollow portions of the culm are useful for preparing food, as they can be used as wrappers and containers to cook rice, seafood, etc. Bamboo leaves can also be used as fodder, and contain roughly 15% crude protein.
Bamboo varieties are of two main types: leptomorph (running) and pachymorph (clumping). Although running bamboo will disobey a fence and pop up in the neighbor’s yard, clumping bamboo can act as your fence and create a strong barrier between two areas. Clumps planted close together in a row can provide a beautiful living fence to provide privacy, windbreaks, and noise barriers. Bamboo can be harvested and used to build a small garden fence, partition, or privacy screen, although in outdoor applications bamboo can deteriorate rather quickly. It will last longer when located indoors, protected from insects and moisture—one of the reasons it is often used to make furniture. Other reasons to select bamboo for furniture making are its lightness, strength, and aesthetic appeal.
Initially, bamboo can be challenging to use as construction material. It is not uniform in any dimension; it splits very easily; it seems difficult to join; and it is susceptible to insect damage and rot. But each of these challenges can be dealt with. Non-uniform construction materials can be difficult to use if you are accustomed to everything being square and true, but can give rise to beautiful, organic shapes and curves (Figure 2). In a way, non-uniform materials can be simpler to construct with; as you learn to transpose measurements and test-fit pieces, you will need fewer layout tools and math skills. Bamboo’s ability to split easily is either a blessing or a curse, depending on whether you are trying to split it or not, but adequate planning can reduce unwanted splitting. Basic bamboo joinery is rather simple and can actually be accomplished quite easily with only a few basic hand tools. And as far as susceptibility to insect damage and rot, postharvest curing or chemical injection can be used to preserve and protect bamboo, so that it will stay strong for many years.
Bamboo’s tensile strength and strength/weight ratio make it attractive to the engineer, its simple joinery makes it attractive to the builder, its beauty and unique shape make it attractive to the designer, its perpetual productivity make it attractive to the grower, and its shoots make it attractive to the cook. All of these attributes make it appropriate for the smallholder farmer! Consider joining us at our Fort Myers campus in February for “TAD: Bamboo Basics,” a more in-depth and hands-on introduction to bamboo.
Cusack, V. 1999. Bamboo World: The Growing and Use of Clumping Bamboos. Kangaroo Press.