Overstory #30 - Bamboos in Agroforestry
Many of the most useful bamboo species can occupy much the same ecological niche as trees, and are well suited for agroforestry. Bamboo has many advantages over trees such as a relatively short time from planting to harvest, the ability to sustainably provide building materials and edible products for many years or even decades, and versatility of use which outmatches most tree species. For its ecological adaptability, and wide range of uses, bamboo can be an essential component of many agroforestry systems.
Bamboo belongs to the grass family (Gramineae), subfamily Bambusoideae. There are over 1500 bamboo species recorded, ranging in height from a few inches (cm) to over 100 ft (30 m), with stem (culm) diameters of 1/8 inch (3 mm) to over 10 inches (25 cm). Bamboos are found in a very wide range of habitats from tropical to temperate, arid to humid and coastal to montane.
Along with the palm family (Palmae, Overstory #6) members of the bamboo family are some of the most useful and versatile plants on earth. Due to bamboo's desirable properties, materials harvested from bamboo lend themselves to low-technology processing for use as farm or community resources. Likewise, industrial manufacturing techniques can produce a wide range of long lasting, strong and inexpensive goods from bamboo.
The many products of various bamboo species include:
- Durable materials for structural building, flooring, trim, and plybamboo (similar to plywood)
- Light and strong materials for crafts, handicrafts and furniture.
- Fiber for woven goods such as paneling and baskets
- Pulp for paper and other fiber products
- Raw materials for agricultural uses such as fencing, tools, rafts, trellises, water pipes, etc.
- Fodder for domestic animals such as cattle, sheep and goats
- Edible shoots for food
- Ornament in the landscape or as cut foliage
Examples of integrated agroforestry systems using bamboo:
- Erosion control
- Stream and pond bank stabilization
- Hedge, screen and windbreak
- Wastewater treatment
- Livestock fodder systems
- Wildlife habitat
There are two main categories of bamboo: clumping (sympodal) and running or open (monpodal). The clumping type of bamboos spread slowly at a rate of 1-4 feet (0.5 -1 meter) per year, and are easy to control. The running types can spread up to 100 feet (30 meters) in a single year, and readily spread into areas where they are unwanted. For most agricultural uses especially in tropical systems, clumping types of bamboo are recommended, and rarely, if ever, should spreading types be planted due to the severe rampancy problems, and extreme difficulty of removal.
Although the status of bamboo has been elevated to a luxury building and ornamental in many countries (such as the US and Australia), bamboo has received an undeservedly negative reputation of "the poor man's wood" in so-called developing countries. As the many superior properties of bamboo are rediscovered and agroforestry systems are developed, there is no doubt of bamboo's potential value to people and healthy ecosystems.
The Book of Bamboo by David Farrelly. 1995. An introduction to the biology, history and myriad use of bamboo.
Bamboos by Christine Recht et al. 1992. A technical guide to growing bamboo, including descriptions of many tropical and temperate species.
Building With Bamboo--A Handbook by Jules J.A. Janssen, et al. 1995. A rare resource for techniques of building with bamboo.
Bamboo Rediscovered by Victor Cusack. 1998. Practical advise for selecting and using bamboo species on the small farm.
Related Editions to The Overstory
- The Overstory #73- Buffers-Common Sense Conservation
- The Overstory #60- Trees as Noise Buffers
- The Overstory #45--Vegetative Erosion Barriers in Agroforestry
- The Overstory #38--Live Fences
- The Overstory #32--Multipurpose Windbreaks