Bamboo is a type of grass with a hard, woody, hollow stem. It is a perennial evergreen, meaning it grows every year and stays green year round. Hundreds of kinds grow in different regions of the world, and people have used them in everything from construction to medicine. Preferring well-watered, mildly acidic soil in most cases, it has significant cultural and religious connotations such as the need to remain morally straight.
This kind of grass appears as a round, hollow, fibrous stalk, which is green and grows straight up. The plants do have leaves, but they do not put much energy into growing them until they are nearly fully mature. When the leaves do appear, they grow from the top of the stalk.
There are dozens of varieties of bamboo, with experts asserting that there are over 1,400 different types. Some are under 12 inches (30.48 cm). The “giant” kinds are the largest members of the grass family. Some plants might reach as high as 100 feet (30.48 meters). A more common height is around 30 feet (9.114 meters). The root structures vary, so root type sometimes is used to classify different species.
Botanists also classify species by general growing arrangement. Some types are clumping, meaning they form tight sections of multiple stems that are hard to walk through. Others are spreading or open, meaning they grow far enough apart to allow movement. These are also known as runners, because they send rhizomes underground, producing new plants a few feet from the parent. The running variety can be difficult to control and has a poor reputation with gardeners, but a person can keep it from growing too wildly by putting it in pots rather than directly in the ground.
The large number of bamboo species means that these plants are found in many different areas of the world, ranging from the tropics to chilly mountain regions. Generally, they occur between latitudes of 50 degrees N and 50 degrees S. They are common to Asia but also grow in areas such as South Africa, India, the mid-Atlantic United States and Chile. One area that is not known to have native species is Europe.
Bamboo does best when it has plenty of water but isn’t saturated, such as in an area around a pond. It will tolerate different soils, but the type of soil in which the plant grows determines how often it has to be watered. A slightly acidic soil between 5.5 and 6.5 works for most species, although some species that are more drought resistant do a little better in soil with a higher pH. Depending on the variety and landscaping effect desired, people usually cultivate it between 1.5 and 5 feet (0.4572 and 1.524 meters) apart.
Bamboos do flower, but they rarely bloom. They feature a mechanism that still baffles scientists in which all the bamboo of the same stock flowers at the same time. This happens no matter where the plants are in the world or the climate they are in, which suggests that the trigger for the mass flowering event is internal, not part of the environment. The flowering interval can be more than 100 years long.
This material is commonly used as a food source. It has a crisp texture and light, sweet flavor. It generally assumes the flavor of ingredients it is combined with, however, so cooks often use the shoots as filler in Asian cuisine. While some kinds can be eaten raw, other varieties must be cooked to remove some toxic elements. Some animals that eat it include pandas, lemurs and chimpanzees.
This plant is also used as a construction material. It is an extremely hard substance, although it should be chemically treated to prevent insect infestation and rot. A quickly growing grass—sometimes growing up to 3 to 4 feet (0.9114 to 1.2192 meters) a day—it can grow in dense conditions, so it is considered one of the best renewable resources on the planet. It was used to create the earliest suspension bridges in China, and today, it is used in a variety of building projects. It has also been used to craft boats, zeppelins and airplanes.
Bamboo is also a material in a variety of household goods. Consumers can find furniture, dinnerware, sporting goods, jewelry and handbags comprised of it. It also makes up flooring, cutting boards, wind chimes and nearly any other good that is commonly made of wood.
Some musical instruments are made from or use this material, as well. Perhaps the best example is the reeds of the double reed family, which includes the oboe, English horn, bassoon and related instruments. People make sounds on these instruments by blowing through a mouthpiece formed of two hard, shaped pieces of cane, which vibrate as the performers play.
Some types have found their way into martial arts. Hardened stems serve as weapons for fighters. The stems can be used to block blows or to deliver them. Writing paper and medicine are two other uses.
In many Asian cultures, bamboo is associated with multiple positive qualities. It reminds people to open their hearts, as the shoots are hollow and receptive. It also shows that being rigid in body or behavior can cause a person to break; it is more important to be strong on the inside, standing tall in what a person says and does. It is often called one of the four “gentlemen” for this reason, with orchid, chrysanthemum and plum blossom being the other three.
More broadly, the plants have the spiritual connotation of protection. They are supposed to keep evil away. People often position them around religious buildings or other sacred places as a result.