Overstory #137 - Bamboos
What is a bamboo?
Bamboos, commonly grown as woody bamboos, belong to the Gramineae, and form the tribe Bambuseae of the subfamily Bambusoideae. They often have a tree-like habit and can be characterized as having woody, usually hollow culms, complex rhizome and branch systems, petiolate leaf blades and prominent sheathing organs. Moreover, all members possess similar anatomical features in the leaf blades, i.e. fusoid cells and arm cells, which set the bamboos apart from grasses. In tropical Asia and America, several members of this tribe grow into giant bamboos, which are a familiar sight in rural South-East Asia.
Bamboo is frequently confused with rattan and its derived product cane. Bamboo furniture is often referred to as rattan or cane furniture, and vice versa. However, the products are very different. Bamboos, with very few exceptions, have hollow stems which cannot be bent easily unless split. Rattans and canes are always solid and flexible, and belong to the Palmae.
Origin and geographic distribution
Bamboos occur in the tropical, subtropical and temperate regions of all continents except Europe and western Asia, from lowlands up to 4000 m altitude. Most, however, occur at low to medium elevations in the tropics, growing wild, cultivated or naturalized in a great variety of habitats. Because bamboo classification is far from complete and most genera are still not well understood, it is therefore impossible to provide precise information on their origin. There has been some speculation, however, on possible centres of diversity of bamboos, such as tropical America, Madagascar, and the region including southern China and northern Burma (Myanmar), Thailand and Vietnam. The genera in tropical America (about 20, reasonably well defined) are not found outside the region (McClure, 1973; Soderstrom & Ellis, 1987), whereas all known native species in Madagascar are endemic. The geographical distribution of bamboo is greatly influenced by human activities (Holttum, 1958). Forest destruction, e.g. by logging and building of new roads, has encouraged the spread of native bamboos, which subsequently become abundant and form mixed or pure bamboo forests.
Bambusa is the most widespread genus of bamboos in tropical and subtropical Asia. There are about 37 species in South-East Asia. Of these, 16 species grow wild, each with a limited distribution; 6 species are only found in cultivation (B. balcooa Roxb., B. multiplex (Lour.) Raeuschel ex J.A. & J.H. Schultes, B. oldhamii Munro, B. tuldoides Munro, B. utilis Lin and B. vulgaris Schrader ex Wendland). There are, however, two species with a wide distribution. Bambusa vulgaris, for example, is pantropical, planted or naturalized in all kinds of habitats, but particularly along river banks; its origin is not certain. The hedge bamboo B. multiplex is widely planted in the tropics, subtropics, and even outdoors in temperate regions as an ornamental or a hedge since it can withstand low temperatures.
Dendrocalamus and Gigantochloa are also native to tropical Asia. They comprise some species which are found solely in cultivation, and some which have limited distribution or are endemic to relatively small areas. There are about 29 species of Dendrocalamus growing in South-East Asia, mainly occurring in the lowlands from the Indian subcontinent to Indo-China and Peninsular Malaysia. D. asper (Schultes f.) Backer ex Heyne is planted throughout in the region, from the lowlands up to about 1500 m altitude; its origin is not known. Gigantochloa, with about 24 species, is mainly confined to the area from Burma (Myanmar), Indo-China to Peninsular Malaysia. It has been recorded that only one species of Gigantochloa in Java is native; the others are believed to have been introduced from the Asian mainland during the migration of people from the north.
Cephalostachyum, Melocanna and Thyrsostachys are mainly found on the mainland of Asia from the Indian subcontinent to Thailand, Vietnam and Laos.
Cephalostachyum is an interesting but poorly known genus of about 11 species, 5 of which occur from the Himalaya to northern Burma (Myanmar), whereas the others are found from Burma (Myanmar) to Vietnam, mostly growing in the lowlands, and one species is found in Mindoro (the Philippines). Melocanna seems to have one species only, M. baccifera (Roxb.) Kurz, which is found in Bangladesh, Assam (India), Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand. It has been introduced elsewhere in the tropics. Thyrsostachys is native to Thailand and Burma (Myanmar) and consists of two species. T. siamensis Gamble is one of the most useful bamboos in Thailand. It has been introduced into other countries in South-East Asia.
Schizostachyum is distributed throughout South-East Asia, extending into the Pacific Islands, with its centre of distribution in Malaysia and western Indonesia. There are about 30 species, most of them having a limited distribution.
The genus Phyllostachys is native to China, comprising about 50 species. Some species have been introduced and cultivated in Japan, Europe, North America and the tropical highlands. P. aurea A. & C. Riviére has become naturalized in many parts of the tropics.
Dinochloa, comprising about 20 species, is found from the Andaman Islands and southern Thailand throughout Malaysia, western Indonesia and the Philippines. Species are found scattered in lowland and hill dipterocarp forest, but they become weeds in logged and disturbed areas.
Racemobambos is confined to Malesia including the Bismarck Archipelago and the Solomon Islands, but so far has not been found in Sumatra, Java or the Lesser Sunda Islands. It consists of about 16 species.
Nastus is found mainly in the southern hemisphere from Madagascar to the Solomon Islands, although it has been recorded in the northern hemisphere in Sumatra. It consists of about 15 species.
Bamboo is one of the natural resources of the tropics, and because of its wide distribution, availability, rapid growth, easy handling and desirable properties, has been used widely in the daily life of the local community as a sustainable resource. Bamboos are utilized intensively for a wide range of purposes. 'No plant is known in the tropical zone which could supply to man so many technical advantages as the bamboo. The strength of the culms, their straightness, smoothness, lightness combined with hardness and greater hollowness; the facility and regularity with which they can be split; the different sizes, various lengths and thickness of their joints make them suitable for numerous purposes to serve which other material would require much labour and preparation' (Kurz, 1876). Even in this mechanical age, their usefulness continues and is likely to continue, because they are a necessity of life in South-East Asian communities (Holttum, 1958). In recent years bamboos have entered the highly competitive world market in the form of pulp for paper, parquet, plybamboo, and as a canned vegetable.
The most significant uses in South-East Asia are for building material, for making various types of baskets, and as a vegetable. Other important uses are as a source of raw material for making paper, for musical instruments and handicrafts.
Bamboo culms have many characteristics that make them suitable for numerous construction purposes (Kurz, 1876; McClure, 1953). Some species are used only for building material (pillars, walls, roofs and floors). When used for pillars, bridges or scaffolding, culms should have a large diameter with thick walls and relatively short internodes. In South-East Asia species suitable for this purpose belong to Bambusa (e.g. B. bambos (L.) Voss, B. blumeana J.A. & J.H. Schultes, B. tulda Roxb. and B. vulgaris), Dendrocalamus (e.g. D. asper) and Gigantochloa (e.g. G. apus (JA. & J.H. Schultes) Kurz, G. atter (Hassk.) Kurz, G. levis (Blanco) Merrill, G. pseudoarundinacea (Steudel) Widjaja, G. robusta Kurz and G. scortechinii Gamble).
Species with culms of medium diameter and with relatively thin walls are suitable for the construction of walls, floors and roofs (e.g. Schizostachyum brachycladum Kurz, S. zollingeri Steudel, Gigantochloa levis). In South-East Asia there are several methods of preparation. The commonest and easiest way to make walls is to cut the culms to appropriate length, split them on one side only and then flatten them out; they are either used as such and joined together vertically, or they are woven into a large piece. In the most elaborate method, the culms are split into very thin long strips which are plaited into larger pieces with attractive motifs. This kind of plaited bamboo is also used for partitions and ceilings. In houses with floors raised above the ground, the floor is often made of split bamboo culms of about 5 cm wide, joined together and secured with strips of bamboo culms or other material. In roof construction the culms are split in two and laid in such a way that they resemble corrugated iron. In Bali, bamboo tiles, 30 cm x 5 cm, are used for roof construction. Locally, bamboo culms are used to reinforce cement/concrete structures in China, India, Japan, the Philippines and Indonesia.
Bamboo species with culms of smaller diameter, relatively thick walls (e.g. Gigantochloa apus, G. scortechinii, Schizostachyum zollingeri), and which split easily are used for making various types of baskets (Widjaja, 1984; Wong, 1989). In many parts of East and South-East Asia, local people still prefer baskets made from split bamboo rather than from plastics for carrying vegetables and fruits, poultry or pigs, because braided bamboo 'breathes'. Although plastics are used ubiquitous, simple carrying baskets and boxes of bamboo are still being produced. In some parts of Indonesia, local people prefer to use thin-walled bamboos (such as Bambusa atra Lindley, B. forbesii (Ridley) Holttum, Schizostachyum brachycladum) for making a fine basket, as this saves having to split the bamboo beforehand.
Bamboo shoots ('rebung') are an important vegetable in East and South-East Asia. A shoot is the new growth of the rhizome apex into a young culm and consists of young internodes protected by sheaths. After removing these sheaths, the shoot is cut into small pieces or shredded and then cooked in boiling water.
The pieces are then used as a vegetable ingredient for various dishes such as pickles, fried meat or vegetables, meat or vegetables cooked in coconut milk. In general the shoots emerge during the rainy season and the desired shoot is the one which grows from the rhizome buried deep in the soil. In many parts of South-East Asia, shoots are consumed locally, but in Thailand a large-scale canned bamboo-shoot industry has developed.
In general, young shoots of many bamboo species are edible, but only a few bamboos produce superior shoots, i.e. Dendrocalamus asper, Gigantochloa levis, G. albociliata (Munzo) Kurz and Thyrsostachys siamensis. In China, superior bamboo shoots are produced by Phyllostachys pubescens Mazel ex H. de Leh., Dendrocalamus latiflorus Munro and Bambusa oldhamii.
For centuries the Chinese have used bamboo in paper making (e.g. Phyllostachys pubescens). In South-East Asia (e.g. Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand) paper mills have been established using some bamboo species as raw material, such as Bambusa bambos, B. blumeana and Dendrocalamus strictus (Roxb.) Nees). In India, the principal species used is D. strictus.
Bamboo musical instruments have been developed by most tribes in South-East Asia. There are 3 types, i.e. idiophones (percussion or hammer instruments), aerophones (blown instruments) and chordophones (stringed instruments). Apparently, bamboo musical instruments have been known in South-East Asia for a long time, because flutes are known to every tribe. Filipinos, Indonesians and Thais have stringed instruments, although the number of strings varies. Species of the genus Schizostachyum are the most suitable for making aerophones (like 'kan' or 'sompotan'), because of small diameter culms, long internodes and thin walls. The main species used for making idiophones (e.g. 'angklung') and chordophones are Gigantochloa atroviolacea Widjaja, G. atter, G. levis, C. pseudoarundinacea and G. robusta; sometimes Dendrocalamus asper and Gigantochloa apus are also used. The large-diameter culms of G. atroviolacea are used for making bass drums and bass horns.
Another important use of bamboo is in the handicraft industry. Table mats, handbags, hats and other woven bric-a-brac can be made of bamboo. The best developed bamboo handicraft industry is the weaving of bamboo splits. In weaving the bamboo splits, many different patterns have been created. However, there are some handicrafts made of unsplit bamboo. Usually this kind of handicraft consists of engravings on the outer part of the culm or the rhizome. The species employed in woven handicrafts are mostly species with long and flexible fibres such as Bambusa atra, Gigantochloa apus, G. scortechinii, and Schizostachyum latifolium Gamble. Species that are easily engraved are Bambusa vulgaris, Dendrocalamus asper and Schizostachyum brachycladum. Furniture
People of South-East Asia living in bamboo-rich areas have long used bamboo culms to make their furniture. Recently, bamboo furniture has become popular, and elite bamboos are sought after. A number of species of Bambusa, Dendrocalamus and Gigantochloa are commonly used in the furniture industry (Widjaja, 1980). Two of the favoured species are Gigantochloa atroviolacea and Dendrocalamus asper, whose culms are straight and smooth.
Hedge, windbreak, ornamental
Some bamboos are used as a living hedge or wind-break when planted close together such as Thyrsostachys siamensis and Bambusa multiplex. Several species (e.g. Bambusa multiplex, B. vulgaris, Schizostackyum brachycladum) are planted as ornamental. The thorny bamboos (e.g. Bambusa bambos) are often planted around fruit orchards, vegetable fields, smallholdings or villages to protect them from intruders (e.g. wild animals).
Culms of Dendrocalamus asper, for instance, are also used as containers for collecting water or palm juice, for pipes and troughs, etc. Unsplit internodes, e.g. of Schizostachyum brachycladum, are used as pots for cooking vegetables, meat, rice or glutinous rice. The internode is usually lined with banana leaf before being filled with uncooked food, and is placed over a fire. Glutinous rice with coconut milk cooked in a bamboo internode ('lemang') is a popular dish in South-East Asia.
Forest destruction has allowed some bamboo species to become abundant; they are a major source for native people to develop cottage industries of chopsticks, satay sticks and incense sticks (e.g. Gigantochloa scortechinii).Fish traps are made of split bamboo joined together with either rattan strips or bamboo strips. Bamboo rafts are usually made from culms with medium diameter and relatively thin walls.
Bamboo leaves are often used as fodder. Large and smooth leaf blades are used for wrapping food (e.g. Chinese 'bak chang' made of glutinous rice). In Indonesia, large leaves are also used to make 'tangerang' hats for working in rice fields or tea plantations. Bamboo culms are used for various poles, e.g. carrying poles, vegetable and fruit props, fishing rods, outriggers, boating poles, posts and fences.
Since time immemorial, bamboos have exerted profound influence on the life and cultures of Asian people. For example, bamboos always figured in local paintings, legends, songs, folklore, etc. Since prehistoric time, bamboo has been used as one of the weapons for hunting and fighting. In Peninsular Malaysia, the Temiar and Semoi make their traditional hunting weapons such as blow-pipes from two internodes of bamboo. For both peoples, the blowpipe has both a symbolic and a practical value: the possession of a blowpipe is a sign that a man has reached adult status so that he is able to join hunting parties and become a full member of the community. In Irian Jaya, people make their arrowheads from small bamboo species of Racemobambos and of Nastus, and the arrow shafts from small, straight, thin bamboo culms of Schizostachyum species. Bamboo is also employed in traditional ceremonies; for example, in Bali the yellow variety of Schizostachyum brachycladum is used during the burial ceremony because yellow is considered the sacred colour of Hinduism. The roof of traditional houses and rice barns in Toraja, Sulawesi (Indonesia) is made from the green variety of the same species. 'Garong' baskets are made of several internodes of another Schizostachyum species tied together with split bamboo or rattan; the baskets are filled with rice wine during the Gawai festival in Sarawak, Malaysia (Sandin, 1963).
Holttum, R.E., 1958. The bamboos of the Malay Peninsula. The Gardens' Bul-letin, Singapore 16: 1—135.
Kurz, S., 1876. Bamboo and its use. The Indian Forester 1: 219—269, p1. I—Il, 335—362, p1. III—IV.
McClure, F.A., 1953. Bamboo as a building material. United States Depart-ment of Agriculture, Foreign Agricultural Service, Washington, D.C. 52 pp.
McClure, F.A., 1973. Genera of bamboos native to the New World (Gramineae: Bambusoideae). Smithsonian Contributions to Botany 9: 1—148.
Sandin, B., 1963. 'Garong' baskets. Sarawak Museum Journal 11(21—22):321—326.
Soderstrom, T.R. & Ellis, R.P., 1987. The position of bamboo genera and allies in a system of grass classification. In: Soderstrom, T.R. et al. (Editors): Grass systematics and evolution. Proceedings of the international symposium on grass systematics and evolution, Washington, D.C., 27—31 July 1986. Smith-sonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C. pp. 225—238.
Widjaja, E.A., 1984. Ethnobotanical notes on Gigantochloa in Indonesia with special reference to G. apus. The Journal of the American Bamboo Society 5(3—4): 57—68.
Wong, K.M., 1989. Current and potential uses of bamboo in Peninsular Malaysia. The Journal of the American Bamboo Society 7(1—2): 1—15.
This excerpt was reprinted with the kind permission of the authors and publisher from:
Dransfield, S. & Widjaja, E. A. (Editors), 1995. Plant Resources of South-East Asia No 7. Bamboos. Backhuys Publishers, Leiden. 189 pp.
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About the authors
Dr Soejatmi Dransfield is a plant taxonomist specializing in bamboos, who gained her first degree in Plant Taxonomy from Academy of Agriculture, Ciawi, Bogor, Indonesia. Born in Nganjuk, Indonesia, she began her botanical career as a staff of Herbarium Bogoriense, Bogor, Indonesia, and gained her PhD from Reading University, United Kingdom (UK), in 1975 with her thesis the 'Revision of Cymbopogon (Gramineae)'. After she moved to UK in 1978, she continued her research on bamboo taxonomy including the generic delimitation of the Old World tropical bamboos, and has described seven new genera (four from South-Eat Asia, three from Madagascar) and many new species. She is currently Honorary Research Fellow at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, UK, writing the account of the bamboos from Malesia, Thailand and Madagascar.
Elizabeth A. Widjaja is a research professor on bamboo taxonomist at the Herbarium Bogoriense, Botany Division, Centre Research for Biology, Indonesian Institute of Sciences at Bogor, Indonesia. Her interest is in the taxonomy of the Indonesian bamboo especially and Malesian bamboo generally. She is also doing some studies on molecular systematics to understand the phyllogenetic analysis of the Malesian bamboo as well as studies on the genetic diversity of Dendrocalamus asper in Indonesia. Her work has included the population density of the natural bamboo vegetation as well as the community bamboo gardens. Dr. Widjaja has always promoted bamboo for the cultivation to prevent the erosion; because of that she received the World Biodiversity Day from the State Ministry of Environment in 1999 and also got an Indonesian President Award in 2000. She is an author of over 75 articles and scientific papers and three books on bamboo. The field guide on bamboo is a widely used handbook for identification purposes. Beside taxonomy, she is also doing some ethnobotanical studies, which won her the Harsberger Medal given by the Society of the Ethnobotanist, India in 2001. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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