Earth Healing with Bamboo

Ecoservices, Bioremediation, Agroforestry

Prepared* for the 25th Anniversary Conference of the American Bamboo Society 15-17 October 2004

by Adam Turtle FLS and Susanne E. Turtle
Earth Advocates Research Farm
Summertown, Tenn., USA


In many tropical areas bamboos have a long tradition of more or less pan-tropical use, previously wild collected but now increasingly grown in both plantation and agroforestry type applications. Temperate bamboos, despite being well valued and utilized in their lands of origin, have been much less investigated or even seriously considered for applications in other similar or compatible climatic zones. The traditional uses of cut bamboo products have been enumerated often and are currently at well over 1,000. Many of the ecological services of bamboos are known, if obscure. The "high-tech" potentials are only now being explored. The senior author, an ethnobotanist with 24 years of bamboo investigation experience, will seek to make a case for the prominent inclusion of temperate bamboos in Earth healing scenarios for U.S.D.A. climatic zones 6–9. Essentially the salient fact is that bamboos can be used in any manner that tree wood can plus a number of applications utilizing its unique structure. And it can do this while performing needed ecological services and with an annual yield (after establishment) on a short-rotation cycle. From fuel to food to fiber, from re-bar to dimension lumber (composite) to houses, bamboo can save forests and farms. It can shrink our footprint, ameliorate the impact of our burgeoning organic waste stream, including that from C.A.F.O.s, and raise the water table while conserving and rebuilding the soil. Bamboo can do all this as it calms our spirits and improves rural economics. Perhaps bamboo could even improve the national economy. Certainly, its many virtues are worth considering.

*Significant portions of this paper first appeared in "Temperate Bamboos; a non-timber forest product of great value" which was presented before the First World Congress of Agroforestry in Orlando, FL on 29 June '04.

Earth Healing with Bamboo - Ecoservices, Bioremediation, Agroforestry


We, the human race collectively, and "over developed" societies in particular, are no longer living on the "yields" of natural systems. We have disrupted, degraded, and even destroyed many interrelated systems to the point that a number of essential services are no longer functioning. We are in what may be termed the "Esau Syndrome". We are trading our (and, more importantly, our children's and grandchildren's) birthright for a "mess of pottage". We are eating, that is–consuming &/or degrading not only our seed corn but also the topsoil, the clean water, even the quality of sunlight needed to produce future crops for future generations. We need to somehow disassemble the prevailing colonial paradigm, the Euro-American "success" model. We may try to salvage, in a modified form perhaps, those aspects that are fair and equitable, but we must somehow replace our consumptive and competitive behavior with a more communal and cooperative ideal our children are at peril. Remember that war is the ultimate competition as well as our most disruptive and consumptive act.

"Agroecology," "Agroforestry," "Alternative Energy," "Bioremediation," "Community- Supported-Agriculture," "Good Stewardship," "Land Reform," "Permaculture," "Plant-a-Row-for-the-Hungry," "Systems Thinking" these are some of the newer "buzz words" indicating our growing awareness that the status quo ante is not sustainable. Each and all of the above concepts or disciplines have valid contributions to make in our quest for a more equitable and mutually viable future. However, for any or even all of them to truly reverse our social and ecological decline, we must first examine and revise the underlying attitudes and assumptions that led us to our current dilemma. The deadly combination of ignorance and arrogance implicit in our cutthroat competition and business-as-usual mindset is increasingly unsupportable. We need to look into our hearts and minds seeking to find a sense of unity, realizing and acknowledging that we are all in this together. Only if so motivated are we likely to succeed in building a better future for our children.

The above awareness came to me in a vision 34 years ago. Included in that vision was the awareness that all life depends on plants. So I began my research in practical or applied ethnobotany with a focus on warm temperate climatic zones. In the late 70's I became aware that there were temperate as well as tropical bamboos so I began to study whatever literature was then to be found as well as acquiring extensive hardy taxa for field trials in USDA zone 6. In the early 90's, with a new wife and an established "palette" of over 200 candidate species and forms of temperate bamboos representing 20 plus genera, we began use and application trials. Meanwhile we acquired training in such ancillary disciplines as Erosion Control, Integrated Pest Management, Permaculture and Soil Science which broadened the scope of our investigations.

Thus far, we are persuaded that the bamboos, wherever climatically suited, possess a larger and more varied suite of benefits, uses, and virtues than any other group of plants as we will seek to demonstrate here briefly.

The Plant

Bamboos are grasses and native to all continents except Europe where they were extirpated during a recent ice age. They belong to the super tribe Bambusoideae which is composed of both herbaceous and woody tribes. We are here concerned with the largest and most widespread tribe, the Bambusae or woody bamboos, specifically, select members of the sub tribes: Arundinariinae and the closely related Shibataeinae which might be termed the hardy or temperate runners. These can vary from ankle high ground covers (many of which have more mass below grade than above) to giant tree grasses of 20 meters or more. Bamboos' natural range is from 50∫ N. latitude in the Kurile Islands to 47∫ S. latitude in southern Chile and from sea level to 4,000 meters. However, when introduced, many hardy bamboo species can semi-naturalize outside their original range in areas receiving at least 75 cm (30 inches) of rain annually. The larger and hardier bamboos are mostly found in genus Phyllostachys. Many occur naturally as forest understory and/or as edge species, although most are quite tolerant of full sun. Actual height, diameter, wall thickness, wood quality, and frost tolerance vary with both species and site conditions. These factors need to be carefully matched for successful realization of their full potential. The annually updated Species Source List published by the American Bamboo Society on their web site gives approximate growth parameters, requirements, sources, and some of the uses for over 300 bamboo taxa currently available in the U.S.


Bamboos are the fastest growing plants on earth, up to 1.07 meters in 24 hours. Being grasses they are extremely culture responsive, ie. nutrient levels that would be toxic to trees only accelerate bamboo growth rates. The new shoots in spring emerge at their finished diameter and achieve their full stature in 60 days or less. At first they are soft, made firm only by hydrostatic pressure. They need to stand "on the root" for five (5) years to become fully lignified and realize their optimal potential strength. Tropicals, with a longer growing season, mature in approximately three (3) years. Immature culms can be used for biomass, paper pulp, weaving or anywhere compressive strength or stiffness is not needed. Multiple use management is possible ie. shoots and poles, their ecoservices and ability to bioremediate compromised systems are a free, included bonus. Establishment requires five (5) to ten (10) years before first harvest, depending on end use, and is annual thereafter. Harvest can be selective, culm by culm on an annual basis, similar to "high-grading" a forest or rotated swath cutting with a mixed age yield requiring hand sorting for various applications.

Benefits, Uses, & Virtues

Benefits or Services

Bamboos' function in the hydrologic cycle is of particularly great value for future ecoservices applications as there is essentially no rain runoff except in the most torrential downpours. What little does seep out of the grove tends to be clear. Thus, both natural and managed bamboo groves can minimize erosion as well as providing an ideal ground water recharge cover and/or watercourse protection. Tall bamboos on high ground comb moisture and airborne soil from the atmosphere much as trees do, but bamboos tend to have a greater leaf surface area. On flood plains they slow the water and harvest silt. Their continuous high nutrient leaf drop makes them self-mulching and quantitatively increases topsoil while improving its moisture holding ability. Bamboos accumulate, improve, and protect soils as well as cleaning the air and raising the water table. And they can do all this on a diet of municipal or feedlot effluents or any nutritious organic waste providing a truly renewable or sustainable resource base.

Bamboo groves provide habitat for birds, small animals, invertebrates, and fungi Ö and are a great playground for children of all ages. The ecology of a bamboo grove can be quite diverse. Even large animals will bed or seek shelter in Bamboo.

Management strategies vary with type of bamboo, site conditions, and intended product yield or end use.


Bamboo-based cultures have evolved not only in Asia but also in South America and Africa. The pre-European Indians of the southeastern U.S. made extensive use of "cane" (Arundinaria gigantea) our only native North American bamboo.

What can't be made with bamboo might provide a shorter list than what can. For instance, symbiotic edible fungi can be cultured in the grove. The new shoots are a healthy, nutritious and currently pricey human food. The foliage furnishes a very palatable high-protein feed (up to 22%) for livestock which, by the way, must be excluded from growing areas especially during the shooting season. The cut culms are a good source of pulp for papermaking and according to joint studies by the USDA, Champion Paper, Scott Paper and Auburn University can out-yield pine 6 to 1. Studies from trial plots in Germany, Ireland, and Brazil have indicated bamboo can yield a high BTU biomass for low emission energy generation. Up to 37 tons per hectare annual biomass production have been reported. Mature bamboo wood quality is similar to other medium density woods and is superior to pine in strength. Dr. Andy Lee at Clemson University in South Carolina has found that when sawn and laminated, bamboo can be used in place of tree wood in many applications. When used in the round, bamboos' unique form and its strength to weight ratio offers many advantages both architecturally and in applications such as water and gas piping for use in low cash flow remote areas or even ganged as stiffeners in recycled plastic-encapsulated utility poles. When treated with borates in a modified Boucherie treatment, bamboo is resistant to insects as well as fungi. Gary Young in Hawaii, working with woven bamboo mat impregnated with an organic epoxy and vacuum molded, found it could assume almost any shape, with strength and weight comparing favorably to fiberglass. A high quality, knitted fabric has recently been developed directly from bamboo fiber in China. Bamboo fibers can be substituted for carbon fibers in some applications. Bamboo plywood or "plyboo" as well as bamboo O.S.B. or oriented-strand-board and laminated bamboo flooring are now being marketed. When used for durable applications, ie. furniture, architectural materials, concrete reinforcement, etc., bamboos can provide significant carbon sequestration. Even when burned for fuel there is still a benefit in that it is contemporary carbon rather than fossil carbon that is released.

The U.S. currently has a tremendous negative balance of trade even as we import over 50 million dollars a year worth of bamboo shoots, poles and other products. We also have: massive unemployment, many abandoned small farms, overburdened land fills, organic waste disposal issues, receding water tables and diminishing water quality, severe soil erosion, material shortfalls, inequitable land distribution, worsening air pollution, etc., etc. Domestic production and use of bamboo could favorably address many of these interrelated issues; and if given subsidies and incentives similar to the timber and mining industries, a "bamboo industry" could be very competitive and beneficial on many levels.

International bamboo trade is presently estimated at over 10 billion U.S. dollars annually. Internal or domestic uses are estimated to be as much as an additional 50 billion. These figures are for current use levels and do not reflect the potentials possible with new applications from bamboo substitution or use in new technologies. Nor do they put a value to environmental services or social benefits. As a quick growth, short cycle feedstock for industrial applications, bamboo is peerless. And being a high-annual yield, short-rotation crop, bamboo could give small farms and rural economics a renewed viability.

Projects like the Bamboo of the Americas (B.O.T.A.) can be effective in encouraging the conservation of native habitat, which includes the native bamboos of an area, while offering profitable economic uses (such as construction and furniture, etc.) for low income areas. BOTA sponsors projects throughout the Americas so that farmers and rural communities as well as local and national governments will see the potential economic and environmental value of saving their native stands of bamboo. Margaret Cirtain at the University of Memphis in Tennessee and others are addressing canebrake restoration in the Southeastern U.S. We need to encourage and support these kinds of efforts.

Sensibly grown and utilized, bamboo can greatly reduce our dependence on tree wood and to some extent it can substitute for and/or be co-fired with coal. It is even used like mild steel for concrete reinforcement and "Ferro-cement" type applications.


The seven sages of Chinese lore are said to have valued life in a bamboo grove as it provided the tranquility needed for their contemplations. Part of the explanatory rationale for this lies in the gentle susurration or white noise made by the leaves. In addition to inducing emotional tranquility, a virtue in short supply in our hurried and harried society, bamboo is intellectually stimulating as any child fortunate enough to have played in a grove can attest. There are also subtle symbolic attributes. Bamboo is known as "the gentleman", upright but able to bend and always willing to serve. Bamboo is hollow, lightweight and resilient illustrating that mass and rigidity are not the only paths to strength. Bamboo is also known as "the brother" available to comfort or help. Its evergreen beauty and calming effect where known are highly appreciated. As a colony organism, bamboos offer a model of mutual support and cooperation, as well as multiple benefits to their "guests" and neighbors.

The Future

In the 1890's the first modern (well, western anyway) wave of bamboo prophets put forth their vision of a bamboo sourced society. Among them were such luminaries as Frederick Law Olmsted who designed bamboo into the Biltmore Estate, the site of the first scientific school of forestry in the U.S. Thomas Edison's use of bamboo (selected out of over 6,000 materials tested) for the first commercial light bulb filament is well known. Others included David Fairchild, E.H. McIlhenny, Barbour Lathrop all of whom subscribed to Ben Franklin's admonition that "The greatest service a man (or woman) can provide their country is to introduce a useful new plant." I believe that still holds true today, but I would add that besides "introducing" the plant, we need to explore and promote its virtues Ö again and again as necessary.

Most of the above came to naught, except horticulturally, due largely to Europeans (and us as their cultural heirs) lacking any bamboo tradition except in their colonies where it was viewed as a "native" resource, and to our entering what might be termed a corporate neo-colonial period of wasteful resource exploitation. Now as our various follies catch up to us, we may at last have no choice but to reconsider and accept the manifold gifts of the bamboos.

Worldwide there are pockets of exploration and research. Tissue culture protocols have been developed for a number of species. Induced flowering techniques now allow the creation of hybrid forms with elite characteristics. New plantation management strategies are increasing potential yields. INBAR (International Network of Bamboo and Rattan) does a good service in coordinating/informing but could use more participation from both individuals and organizations such as the ABS. As a wealthy nation, we should be leading the world in research and information sharing to improve conditions for all people. So why is the U.S. non-signatory to the INBAR treaty? Ask your congresscritter or representative.

If we had just one George Washington Carver and some research funding, imagine what we could do with bamboo. Imagine what the ABS could do. What each of us members could do. The U.S.D.A. bamboo Germplasm collections are neither active in new accessions nor adequately curated, nor are enough climatic zones even represented. ABS could begin to redress this situation. It could also make promotional and research materials available to encourage university students to pursue a bamboo career. We also need more bamboo programs in elementary, middle, and high schools. Carol Stangler and others have already begun some programs, and we need more.

What can you do? More informed contact with other groups/disciplines/professions can be very helpful in raising bamboo consciousness, speak to your Rotary or Lions or whomever. Write articles for your local paper do check your facts–there's enough mis-information already published! Invite your local TV or even radio station to come visit and do a piece on your bamboo, be sure to mention ABS and put in a plug for bamboo's uses and earth healing aspects. If you are an alumnus, ask your alma mater to include bamboo studies. If you've also been blessed financially, consider a contribution or scholarship earmarked for bamboo studies. Or with less expense you could donate bamboo books and/or an ABS magazine subscription to your university or high school and/or the town's public library. Many ABS members just like the looks of bamboo, but we also have some awareness of its virtues and so we have important information to share. We need to get "proactive" in spreading bamboo awareness and soon!


Bamboos contribute needed ecological services, manifold agro-industrial advantages, desirable socio-political virtues and can do this while providing a soothing and evergreen beauty. If bamboos had no directly harvestable aspect, they would still be worth planting extensively if only for their ecoservices. Fortunately we get both. If our desire for healing the Earth is to be validated, we can no longer afford to ignore the many gifts and advantages of the bamboos. We need every ally we can find.

Acknowledgement of the cumulative negative synergies of our extractive and wasteful practices would insist that we step off the treadmill of unsustainable economic growth which is made possible only by externalizing true costs, suppression of "others," not cleaning up our mess, etc. Perhaps then we can jointly and mutually begin an integrated and holistic age of enlightened siblinghood. Toward and within this scenario we believe the temperate bamboos have gifts to offer, lessons to teach and a prominent role to play.

Adam and Sue Turtle, co-Directors of Earth Advocates Research Farm, own and operate 'Our' Bamboo Nursery whose web site is For discussion they prefer live voice mode, ie. telephone and can be reached at 1-931-964-4151 7 am–5 pm Central time.