Creating a Culture of Bamboo

This is the first in a series of articles, supported in part by the Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program of Utah State University, celebrating the beauty, usefulness and strength of bamboo. Articles will be posted to our websites with additional photos for future reference. We will also produce slide show presentations for large landowners and offer field-day demonstrations this spring, at our 18 acre pilot project site in Kipahulu.

"Creating a Culture of Bamboo" is an educational outreach project coordinated by bio-dynamic farmer, Rich von Wellsheim of Whispering Winds Bamboo, Kipahulu, and technical advisor, Dean Johnston M. Arch. of Johnston•Cassel Design Studio, Paia. The aim of this project is to promote an understanding of bamboo as an agricultural alternative that is restorative, and sustainable while creating jobs here on Maui. Bamboo, the fastest growing, annually renewable crop, has been feeding, sheltering, and supplying a wealth of applications from musical instruments to scaffolding for thousands of years. Bamboo can also be used to prevent erosion, remediate fumigated soil and to help restore Hawai'i's watersheds.

Here on Maui the very first "to-code" bamboo houses are being constructed, and with this comes the optimism that we can open our minds to a new timber that can be grown here, processed here and used to replace our reliance on imported wood. In five years you can "Grow Your Own House" as shown in a book of the same name. If the hills were alive with the sound of bamboo, we would never need to see burning crops OR the tilling of the soil. Bamboo once planted, does not need to be tilled, thus we will not lose any more of our precious soil.

Mention the word "bamboo" in a casual conversation about planting in your backyard, and you are likely to be shrieked at with "It will TAKE OVER!" This is especially true in conservation minded circles where bamboo has gotten an ill deserved notorious reputation based on the bad boys of bamboo… "the RUNNERS". Running, monopodial bamboos originate in temperate climates, have indeed taken over extensive land areas in Hawai`i, and this is a problem.

Our friends "the CLUMPERS" are an entirely different family of mild mannered, and well-behaved citizens who know how to stay in their place and hang comfortably with each other. They value participating in a diverse landscape; mostly from vanity, where they are convinced their beauty will surely attract the most attention. Among the several hundred species of clumping types there is a wide range of clump habits and heights from tight clumpers which will remain within a 4–6 foot base diameter their entire life to open clumpers which unmanaged may reach a base clump diameter of 20-30 feet in as many years.

Some bamboo IS invasive and people are wise to be concerned. The important thing to remember is that not all bamboo is invasive and there many clumping non-invasive species available to match as many different landscape and structural requests. An informed homeowner can have very specific demands in terms of size, rate of growth, degree of maintenance required and be able to meet his requests with the right species.

Whispering Winds Bamboo has a species list of 41 non-invasive clumping varieties to suit almost any landscape need. Some species are known widely to be an excellent windbreak and "good neighbor" fence, and others are exquisitely beautiful and used as a centerpiece in a garden setting……..this series of articles will focus on some specific species but keep in mind that the bamboo world is rich and vast and we are only beginning the exploration.

This week's spotlight species, Bambusa vulgaris "Vittata" also known as, Painted Bamboo or Jade-Striped Golden Bamboo is one of the most common bamboos in the Hawaiian landscape. "Vittata", is a large open clumping, tropical bamboo that grows to four inches in diameter and up to fifty feet tall. Vittata is a treasured ornamental in southern China as well as many southern regions of the mainland U.S.

Due to it's relatively large size (some other large tropical bamboos grow from 60' to 100' tall) and branching to the ground, it can be an excellent, inexpensive windbreak. The golden yellow culms (with thinner green stripes) are a striking visual statement of color, which can break up a predominantly green background or be selected to compliment with other lavish colors of our Hawaiian palette.

Under ideal growing conditions: full sun and more than 35" of rain, 'Vittata' can produce from 15-25 new shoots each year, which will reach their full 50' height in a blazing 4–6 months. Unfortunately for some here in Hawaii, clumps of Vittata have been left unmanaged for long periods of time, resulting in unruly tangles. To fully maximize your relationship with your clump of Vittata, it is important that you are clear what you are looking for. If you prefer a dense clump, which would act as a visual barrier to a neighbor, then you need to simply select the older culms for removal. Older culms are distinguished by the accumulation of mossy growths and lichens as well as a fading from bright yellow to dingy beige. Sorry, but no potion yet exists for maintaining the bright colors after cutting. When removing the older culms be sure to cut squarely through a ringed node to prevent a little cup from holding water. With an artists eye, pruning shears and a small saw, removing lower branches highlights the verticality, while removing young shoots can create pathways through a large clump to a secret grotto. Very young shoots of "Vittata" can easily be harvested and though bitter, are edible after several changes of boiling water.

If you are interested in learning more about bamboo or sharing your own bamboo experiences, please come to a program hosted jointly by the Hawai'i Bamboo Society, the International Bamboo Foundation and Whispering Winds Bamboo, January 20th at the Haiku Community Center from 6:30 to 8:00 pm. Dean Johnston will present a brief PowerPoint slide show of his research and testing of bamboo, titled The Structural Bamboo Project, and Sam (Jericho) Stringer will present slides from the recent Colombian Guadua Symposium held in September 2004 which focused on the elite timber bamboo species Guadua angustifolia.