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The Flexible Bamboo


"Among the Indo-Chinese nations the staff of life is a Bamboo.” - Sir Henry Yule, Mission to Ava (1855)

Bamboo – more properly, bamboos, because the botanical subfamily Bambusoideae is divided by scientists into more than 75 genera and over a thousand species – are giant, fast-growing grasses that have woody stems. Indigenous to much of the world, from tropical and sub-tropical to mild temperate regions, there are species native to the Americas, to Europe and to Africa. But the greatest concentration and most spectacular flowering of bamboos by far is to be found in the Far East and Southeast Asia.

Bamboos come in many sizes. The smallest species rise little more than 10 to 15 cms above the ground, whilst the largest – found, invariably, in the warm, wet tropics – may attain heights of more than 40 metres. Yet despite this difference in size, they share certain common characteristics. The hollow, woody stems, known as culms, grow in branching clusters from a thick underground rhizome. Mature bamboos sprout horizontal branches that bear sword-shaped leaves on stalked blades. Though the culms of some species grow quickly (as much as 30 cms a day), most bamboos grow at a more leisurely pace. They flower and produce seeds just once in their lifetime, which may be anything between 10 and 120 years.

The etymological origins of the word "bamboo" are obscure. Some authorities claim it derives from the Kannada language of South India, and that it is onomatopaeic, representing the crackling, explosive sound made by the culms when they burn. Others find the origin in an obscure Malay dialect of the west coast of Sumatra. Be this as it may, the name bamboo – a relatively new term, not found in English before the 16th century, was first brought to Europe by the Portuguese, and then adopted by other languages. Amongst the earliest references is that of Ralph Fitch, the first English visitor to Southeast Asia, who reported in 1586 that “all the houses are made of canes, which they call Bambos, and bee covered with strawe.” Twenty years later the Dutch voyager Linschoten, on a visit to the East Indies, marvelled on seeing “a thick reede as big as a man's legge, which is called Bambus.”

What impressed these early European travellers was not just the ubiquitous nature of bamboos in the tropics – they seemed to be everywhere – but the extraordinary range of uses to which they were put. Many writers comment on this, but none, perhaps, as concisely as Sir Henry Yule, who led a British mission to the court of King Mindon of Burma in 1855. In his report Yule notes:

“When I speak of bamboo huts, I mean to say that post and walls, wall-plates and rafters, floor and thatch and the withes that bind them, are all of bamboo. Scaffolding and ladders, landing-jetties, fishing apparatus, irrigation wheels and scoops, oars, masts and yards, spears and arrows, hats and helmets, bow, bow-string and quiver, oil-cans, water-stoups and cooking pots, pipe-sticks, conduits, pickles, preserves, and melodious musical instruments, torches, footballs, cordage, bellows, mats, paper, these are but a few of the articles that are made from the bamboo.”

And so it is today, at least in most of rural Southeast Asia. In the remote Wa Hills of the Burma-China frontier, for example, bamboo remains the staff of life. Houses, tools and weapons are made of bamboo, water is brought to the home by bamboo conduits or in bamboo containers and families dine on fat bamboo shoots prepared in many different ways. The Wa's dependence on bamboo is a mixed blessing, however. Once every fifty or so years the bamboo flowers and dies – not individually, but en masse, denuding huge areas of food supplies, whilst prompting forest fires and plagues of starving bamboo rats!

The Wa Hills are indeed remote. But what of the cities? When Joseph Conrad first visited Bangkok more than a century ago, he wrote: “There it was... an expanse of brown houses of bamboo, of mats, of leaves... It was amazing to think that in those miles of human habitations there was not probably half a dozen pounds of nails.” How things have changed. Today Bangkok, in common with all the great cities of the eastern Pacific Rim, is founded on ferro-concrete, held rigid by thousands of tons of steel. And yet... bamboo still has its place, and not just on the dinner table or in the ornamental garden. Look closely at the sledgehammers being wielded on those countless building sites. Many have bamboo handles which combine strength and flexibility, permitting more forceful blows. Even the scaffolding may be of bamboo, rising precariously for dozens of stories up the latest gleaming tower block!

Even in the late twentieth century, the uses of bamboo remain immensely diverse. The seeds are eaten as grain, and the cooked young shoots of some species are eaten as vegetables, especially in East Asian cuisines. The raw leaves are used as fodder for livestock. The pulped fibre of several bamboo species are used to make high quality paper. A fine-grained silica known as tabasheer, produced from the joints of bamboo stems, has been used as a medicine in the orient for centuries. There's no doubt the bamboo is a very useful plant indeed.

But that's not all. Bamboos are beautiful to look at, too. Celebrated for centuries by painters, poets and epicures, few people can fail to be moved by the quiet elegance of ornamental bamboos in a Japanese garden, nor remain unstirred by the swish and clack of forty metre giants as the sway and bend – but never break – lashed by the sudden violence of a tropic storm.


Text by Andrew Forbes; Photos by David Henley & Pictures From History - © CPA Media