Over the years, we have incrementally learned more about the bamboo plant's eco-friendliness and high renewable potential. Subsequently, more and more people are now replacing plenty of their household items and kitchenware with bamboo products, others going even as far as building their homes from bamboo. But have you ever wondered how this marvel of a plant finds its way into our homes?
So, where does bamboo grow? Generally, bamboo is mostly considered a Southeast Asia plant, and, as a matter of fact, Asia has more native bamboo species than any other continent. But the reality is, bamboo can grow just about anywhere on the planet. It's actually indigenous on every continent other than Europe and Antarctica.
Let's explore the widespread domain of one of the most remarkable plants on God's green earth.
The Origin of "Bamboo"
In our current understanding, the word 'Bamboo' originated from the Malay word "Mambu"; Malay is Malaysia and Indonesia's national language. Around the turn of the 17th century, the Dutch called it "Bamboes", leading to its Neo-Latin name "Bambusa".
There have been claims that the original Malayan name was "Bambu", an ideophone-esque term that resembled the sound bamboo makes when it explodes in an open fire. It's hard to verify such a claim, but for what it's worth, bamboo does explode in a "bam-boom" sound when the air in the sealed hollow internode chambers expands under heat.
But before we get into the endemic populations for various species of bamboo, there's a long-standing question:
Is the Bamboo Plant a Tree or a Grass?
The bamboo plant belongs to the Bambusoideae subfamily of the perpetually evergreen grass family, Poaceae (Gramineae). German botanist, Charles Kunth, was the first to publish these taxonomic findings in 1815. This makes bamboo the largest grass and the only species that can diversify into a forest.
Despite being a grass, most of the larger woody bamboo species have tree-like appearances and are frequently called 'bamboo trees'. However, bamboos don't have a vascular cambium layer as well as meristem cells at the top of the culm (stem). Therefore, bamboos cannot grow wider and taller. Additionally, bamboos also lack a bark; instead, they have protective leaves around the culm, known as culm sheaths, in the early development stages.
How Can Bamboo Grow That Fast?
Some bamboo species can attain full maturity in just 90 days, although most take a few years. In fact, some species have been reported to grow an impressive 35 inches per day, translating to 1.5 inches every hour! So how do they achieve this?
A bamboo plant develops all the cells necessary for growth when they're still tiny buds. These cells stretch out while growing, unlike in animals, where they have to split. The cells are usually filled with water, which causes them to expand quickly like a balloon would on a faucet.
It's practically the same for all grasses, which is exactly why you have to mow your lawn every week. A bamboo plant is somewhat similar to a slinky; it's small when you first see it, but you'd be astounded at how far it extends when stretched out. How about that for an image the next time you walk through a bamboo grove?
The Diversity of the Bamboo Species
Bamboo grows natively on 5 continents; Asia, Africa, North America, South America and Australia. Naturally, it's found as secondary vegetation in forests but there are cases where it's the dominant vegetation type. In northeast India and the mountainsides of Eastern Africa, for instance, bamboo forests cover several thousands of square kilometers.
The Bambusoidae subfamily can be split into three distinct tribes:
- Bambuseae (tropical woody bamboo)
- Arundinarieae (temperate woody bamboo)
- Olyreae (tropical herbaceous bamboos)
Among these three tribes, botanists recognize somewhere between 90-120 different genera, consisting of around 1400 different species.
This astonishing diversity is largely due to the bamboo's tolerance to extreme conditions that most plants simply can't. For example, certain species can grow at sea level while others grow at up to 4000m altitudes in the Andes and Himalayas, withstanding temperatures well under -20°C.
So how did the plant get here?
As mentioned earlier, bamboo grew on every continent apart from Europe and Antarctica before the vast urban sprawl. In Southeast Asia, bamboo had been growing there natively for millions of years. In fact, the first people to populate the region relied on bamboo rather than stone as the primary building material.
Bamboo from All Over the World
Native bamboos grow almost anywhere, depending on what a particular species can withstand. Most commonly nevertheless, bamboo is found in regions that are classified as tropical, subtropical or temperate zones, including Southeast Asia, Africa, Central & South America and northern Australia.
Some bamboo species are also known to grow well indoors, particularly in less temperate parts of the world. These are mostly the hardier woody bamboos that flourish in temperate climates, around Zones 4 to 8 in gardening terms.
Over time, several bamboo species have become staples in gardens, especially for landscaping, with gardeners aiming for unique aesthetics. This is largely thanks to the unique bamboo growth habit since it reaches its full potential in spring, even before other plants have budded. Furthermore, the bamboo plant returns each year until its life cycle ends.
The only problem with most bamboo species is the roots or the rhizome system. Bamboo grows so rapidly that it can be difficult to prevent the plant from taking over the whole garden or landscape. More so, the rhizomes are also hard to remove, mostly requiring digging up and cutting apart using gardening tools.
Given this challenge, it's also worth pointing out that bamboo in gardens equally offers high-renewable potential:
- Bamboo slats from bamboo shoots can be turned into beautiful accent pieces.
- Bamboo cane can produce excellent material for DIY projects at home.
- Others can be sold off for bamboo fiber in the textile industry.
- Bamboo strips come in handy for weaving.
- Others can be processed for bamboo charcoal, which is extremely versatile in use.
Bamboo by Climate
In classifying this incredible plant, especially for people looking to plant bamboo, the origin and distribution of both the genus and species are largely important.
Tropical Clumping Bamboos
Clumping bamboos have a compact root system characterized by sympodial or pachymorph rhizomes. That means the U-shaped rhizomes tend to grow upwards rather than outwards. Therefore, you end up with a well-contained and non-invasive bamboo plant.
Clumping bamboo is virtually synonymous with tropical climates. While there can be botanical outliers, most of them tend to be frost-sensitive, meaning they have a hard time growing in places that snow. Several species from the Bambusa genus are strictly tropical and subtropical, with only a few exceptions that can survive extremely cold climates.
Temperate Running Bamboos
Running bamboos, on the other hand, have monopodial or leptomorph root systems. That means the roots continue to spread outwards as the plant grows, which can easily become invasive.
If you're planning on planting bamboo in colder climates, you have better chances of growing running bamboos. Running bamboos are so well adapted to cooler climates that they can even grow in Canada, one of the few regions that lack native bamboo species. Most of these are cold-hardy and tend to spread incredibly fast.
Running bamboos are aggressively invasive, which can present some challenges to gardeners. Fortunately, the freezing weather tends to slow down the growth and spread considerably.
Most Widespread Bamboo
The distinction between tropical and temperate bamboo isn't always clear-cut. The genus, Chusquea, for instance, grows throughout Central and South America. It's a New World clumper with the widest distribution of any bamboo bed on latitude and altitude. It's possibly the only plant you can find at 47°S in southern Chile as well as 24°N in Sonora, Mexico; one at sea level and the other a whopping 4000+ meters in altitude.
Growing Conditions for Bamboo Plants
Knowing the right conditions for a bamboo plant is important for success in your garden. Before investing in the plants, you should ensure that you are adequately informed of the growing conditions for the specific species. This all starts with understanding the native habitat of the variety you're going for.
As for sunlight requirements, the ABS recommends growing your bamboo in full sun. Most large bamboos grow faster and yield best when exposed to proper direct sunlight. However, some species, such as Fargesias and some Thamnocalamus, do best with some shade in the hottest part of the day.
Bamboos thrive in slightly acidic soil pH. A pH reading of around 6 is pretty ideal for the plant. And when it comes to texture, bamboo plants seem to thrive in loamy soils.
It's also highly recommended to add fertilizer high in nitrogen to stimulate growth in bamboo plants. The amount of nitrogen is usually represented by the first number in the NPK sequence.
Bamboo plants also like plenty of water, but this is strictly in well-drained soil. If you're running bamboo, it's necessary to saturate the whole planting area. But for clumping bamboo, you can restrict watering to the area around the base of the plant.