Bamboo, a type of grass, is significant on several levels. As a cultural icon and source of economic virility, the bamboo plant can sustain life by providing shelter and food to man and animals alike. The sheer diversity and fast growth of bamboos helps offset rapid population growth with dwindling resources. The thousands of years of history associated with bamboo and mankind will continue for thousands more.
There are at least 1,200 species of bamboo in the world, native to temperate, subtropical and tropical regions. These plants grow on the lowland plains to highlands and mountain habitats and range from merely a few inches tall to towering timber bamboos over 100 feet in height. There are thousands of variations in bamboo plant size, color, strength and nutrition.
Bamboo plants have been utilized by humans for centuries. Many archaeological digs have revealed bamboo-made artifacts from the Zhejiang Province of China dating back 5000 years. In the New World, bamboo walls dating to 3500 B.C. exist in Valdivia, Ecuador. The Proto-Malay peoples of Indonesia cultivated bamboo thousands of years ago. Both China and Japan's cultures regarded bamboo as a defining element: the means to sustain all aspects of human life.
Foundation of Economies
While historically both China and Japan fueled their cultures and economies with the use of bamboo for shelter, construction, tools, utensils and the like, modern economies also rely on the bamboo plant. Other Asian nations, particularly India and Indonesia, with billions of people, reduce costs by using abundant, fast-growing and less expensive bamboo to bridge the gap between traditional and modern.
Wood, Paper and Fiber
In the West, hardwood trees were often used for wood and pulp-making, while bamboos supplied these staples in the Far East. Rapid regeneration of bamboo shoots is an advantage over trees for large, sustainable production of wood and paper. The culm fibers of bamboo are strong and plentiful and can be combined with man-made products such as plastics and construction composites.
Food and Forage
The young, tender shoots of bamboo are cooked and eaten across much of southeastern Asia, including Thailand, China and Japan. They provide a source of nutrients and fiber for thousands of traditional meals. In Colombia, the shoots of one species is sweetened with sugar as eaten as a dessert. As for animals, the giant panda only eats bamboo foliage. However, the leaves are also good forage for cattle, sheep, goats and horses.