Bamboo—Asia’s Towering Grass
By “Awake!” correspondent in Taiwan
BEHIND my house the grass is a respectable one and a half inches high. At the side it towers twenty feet and more! Yet that twenty-foot grass is only a fraction of the height of some grass of this kind. Some varieties may stand as high as 120 feet and have stems a foot in diameter. And there is a climbing variety that grows to two hundred feet!
My house hugs the edge of a bamboo thicket, and bamboo is the tallest member of the grass family. From the upper story of my house I look out above this feathery forest of grass. Butterflies dance across these “treetops.” Birds seldom leave the muted light and shade beneath. Only their calls and songs divulge that they are there.
Bamboo is most abundant in Asia. China alone grows more than 160 varieties. But bamboo also grows in the western hemisphere, from the southern United States to northern Chile and Argentina.
On the coastal range of North Carolina beef cattle graze on bamboo. Their digestive processes destroy the poison that must be driven off by cooking if humans are to eat this grass safely. Still, in India, cows sometimes die from eating too greedily of shoots of the local varieties.
Bamboo serves for much more than food for man and animals. Its uses are so many that it has been said that the lives of Far Eastern peoples would be totally altered if bamboo did not exist.
You may have seen pictures of hundreds of Chinese towing junks through the roiling rapids of China’s mighty Yangtze River. The rope they use is bamboo. The stress it withstands is in excess of 10,000 pounds per square inch. It is nearly as strong as steel! In fact, bamboo makes an excellent reinforcement for concrete.
An Oriental may go fishing in a bamboo boat. He catches fish with a bamboo pole, puts his fish into a bamboo creel and may shade himself with an umbrella with bamboo ribs.
Back home, his fish may be prepared in bamboo containers and eaten with bamboo chopsticks. Part of his meal may be tender young bamboo sprouts. For a drink he may dip water with a bamboo dipper; the water perhaps being carried to the house through a bamboo conduit. After eating, he may pick his teeth with a bamboo toothpick, and cool off with a bamboo fan.
The man’s house may itself be made of bamboo, including the floors, walls and roof. His furniture may be bamboo, and not only the chair in which he sits, but also the vases that hold flowers from his garden. Perhaps the broom used for cleaning the house and his garden rake are also of bamboo, while bamboo grass hedges his property.
Chinese housewives commonly use bamboo leaves to wrap rice, cashew nuts and pork, or other dishes, much as a Chilean housewife uses corn husks, a Greek woman uses grape leaves and other housewives stuff various foods in cabbage leaves. Also, dry, mature bamboo leaves are used to deodorize fish oils.
There is seemingly no end to the uses of bamboo. Liquid diesel fuel may be prepared from bamboo by distillation. Pharmaceutical firms use substances from bamboo in making hormones and drugs. And the culture medium used to nurture germs taken from a patient may have had its origin in an Oriental bamboo forest!
The “Voice” of Bamboo
Bamboo is reputed to have a “voice,” having the ability to say its name in some languages. If the word for bamboo in your language has the same derivation as does the English word, then you may hear this grass speak. How so?
Well, the English word “bamboo” is imitative of the sound that it makes when burned. It bursts with a loud “BAM! BOO!” The thirteenth-century traveler Marco Polo long ago reported on the use of bamboo’s “voice.” Travelers of his day would bind green bamboo together in bundles and suspend it over a fire at night, and the loud “BAM! BOO!” was intended to ward off marauders.
Bamboo also speaks with the voice that men have given it. Bamboo is widely used in making Oriental musical woodwinds, such as the flute. In both Tokyo and Manila there are organs with bamboo pipes. In a church in a Manila suburb, Las Piñas Rizal, there is a 150-year-old organ with bamboo pipes.
Bamboo has a life-span of as long as 120 years. That is almost 44,000 days. Yet most bamboo completes its growth in its first sixty days!
Just as the blue whale is the largest living animal ever to have inhabited earth, so bamboo is noted as the fastest growing of present-day plants. It can be heard growing and it can be seen to grow. Reports have been made of four feet of growth in a single day! A bamboo forest literally crackles with vitality.
The stalk or culm never grows after that initial spurt skyward. It may then stand there, never changing size for almost the next century and a quarter.
When the sprout reaches less than a foot above the ground, it visibly contains within it all the joints that the full-grown culm will possess. One can slice the bamboo sprout, and there see compressed inside all the segments of what would have grown to be a 120-foot-high giant! It is similar with a tulip bulb. Cut it in half and you will find the complete embryonic tulip flower that would have bloomed in spring had this surgery not been performed.
Although its remarkable spurt skyward is completed in a few weeks, the bamboo still grows underground. Even if the tall jointed bamboo stalk is cut down, as often happens, this underground growth continues. There, unseen to the eye, a marvelous replacement process goes on. Each year from 200 to 1,500 new shoots per acre will be produced either in clumps or in underground runners. These form an ever-increasing kindergarten of progeny.
When the new sprouts nose their way through the soil in the spring, all energy of the growing bamboo is directed to lofting the new crop into the air. Underground growth temporarily ceases during this upward growth.
It is interesting that each succeeding year’s bamboo sprouts have one less year of potential life than their predecessors. Thus, whether they are over a hundred years old, fifty, twenty-five, five, or are only last year’s crop, all these bamboo plants die at about the same time.
As its culms bloom, the forest dies over a period of a year or two. Thus the forest flowers once in about a century and then dies. Even plants transplanted to other countries will bloom and die in the same year or two that the mother forest dies. The forest and all its transplanted offspring, though scattered the world over, respond much as salmon scattered through the seas respond to an inner clock.
Recently, for example, madake bamboo bloomed in Japan. Since three fourths of Japan’s bamboo is of this kind, Japan has entered upon a decade of great loss, since it takes some ten years for a bamboo forest to return in force.
When a bamboo forest dies, how does it return?
In some varieties it is by the seed that is produced by the fruit from the blooms. But there is another way, which is unique.
As already noted, when the bamboo forest flowers, the plants die within two years. This is not just a surface death; the underground rhizomes also die. These are the fleshy, food-storing underground stems or roots. Well, then, what is the source of the new forest?
It is the result of the underground growth of new rhizomes. In a remarkable way life is transferred over a three-year period from the old forest of bamboo to these tiny new rhizomes. It then takes another seven years for the web of rhizomes to proliferate, and for this glade to be a forest.
And so, in my backyard, I sometimes delightedly run my bare toes through the dew-drenched grass that is not bamboo, at the same time looking up in awe at the towering grass that is. My grateful heart reaches yet higher to the Grand Creator of all things—common grass, mankind and bamboo—and marvels at the ways in which His wisdom is displayed.