Bamboo shoots, those Asian culinary delicacies, are really the beginnings of the bamboo plants, the culms (new growth) that culminate in a full-grown bamboo plant. Though it may seem obvious, I had thought that bamboo shoots were in the same company as oyster mushrooms, buffalowings, cherry tomatoes, horseradish, bread an d butterpickles, and other misnamedfoods. I guess that you learn something new every day.
There are many reasons to be impressed by bamboo — its appearance on a Chinese menu only begins to tell the story. Besides the delicately sweet shoots, some varieties have edible leaves, too, and the ripe seeds are eaten as grain in Asia. Don’t dig out the root and take a bite, though: there are rules. The shoots must be harvested before the plant is two weeks old or one foot tall. Then — please note — it is a must to peel and cook the root properly, or else this plant can be toxic. At the plant’s joints, a sugar called Tabasheen is extracted and used as a remedy for coughs. In Tanzania, a wine is made from bamboo.
It is not only people that eat bamboo (or drink bambooze). The giant panda couldn’t live without it. Almost 95 per cent of this animal’s diet is exclusively bamboo leaves.
Beyond food value, builders and crafters love this plant’s wood. It is incredibly strong, having the same tensile strength as steel, and can also be used to reinforce concrete. Its flattened strips and hollow segmented tubes can be used to build houses and to make furniture, instruments, paper, flooring, and many other things. In fact, it is estimated that about one half of the world’s population uses bamboo in some way, shape or form every day!
The functionality of bamboo was not lost on Thomas Edison. He successfully developed an incandescent lightbulb that used bamboo filament. This bulb was manufactured until 1910.
It is hard not to love this plant, right? Well, actually it is easy, when you consider the invasive nature of bamboo and its profusion in places that it doesn’t belong. Here on the Island, there are pockets of bamboo (innocently planted by individuals) that have outcompeted other native plants, creating a dense monoculture. It creates a very un-Vineyard-like landscape. And once it gets a foothold, it is very difficult to manage.
Divide and conquer is its modus operandi. Bamboo procreates profusely, spreading by runners or underground rhizomes and multiple shoots that come off of a single plant. Its other advantage is speed. Bamboo grows fast — really fast. It is the fastest-growing woody plant in the world, jolting upwards at lengths of four feet or more per day! Bamboo can reach its full height potential in only one three- to four-month growing season. This may be good for pandas, but not for those of us trying to keep invasive plants at bay.
Bamboo can also flower, but it does so at infrequent intervals. In one species, a mass flowering occurs every one hundred or so years.
There are more than 1,000 species of bamboo, many of which are native to Asia. There is, however, one species that is native to the U.S., but that is not the variety found most often. Bamboo is not a tree, but biologically a woody grass that hails from the Poacea family of plants. This family is diverse and includes annual bluegrass, which illustrates the sheer variety of plants in this group.
In my mind the case is closed on bamboo. It is an incredible plant with incredible value — but only in certain places should this plant thrive. There are many folks that disagree, as evidenced by its proliferation all over the Vineyard. No matter what your stand on a stand of bamboo, I will always advise not to plant it, as removal, and even control, is almost impossible.
Even if you disagree strongly, in the case of bamboo, just don’t “shoot” the messenger.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.