Bamboo and its Multiple Personalities

05 May 2011


“Big Bambu” by Doug and Mike Starn”: As I stood on the rooftop of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and inhaled this tribute to art and natural materials, my enthusiasm for its installation was matched by its enormity, May 2010.


I nominate bamboo as the next best thing in the twenty-first century. Yes, it’s a seemingly odd choice, and your doubtful reaction might be justified. So what is it that I see in its character to make this woody plant worthy of such adoration?

My passion began decades ago. I lived in a home flanked by a small bamboo grove on one of its boundaries. We contained its longing to spread, and learned about other qualities that were opposite to its invasive ability. Even though this plant is little appreciated or noticed, it is a star in my universe. Miraculously, bamboo has survived for thousands of years as more than an exotic shimmering grass.

Bamboo has found an honored place in every garden that I’ve created, year-after-year its presence never disappoints. Although I no longer grow it (It’s too aggressive.), I tap local sources that keep my needs satisfied–needs and yearnings that sprout every spring and continue throughout the summer months.

Its characteristics are noteworthy and has kept its admirers and users hoping its benefits will become more widespread. Its uses cross through cultures and is revered in Asia (e.g., a symbol of fertility in China, friendship in India, strength of character in Japan, the Buddha in the Buddhist religion). That’s no small feat for a simple stalk that is a persistent replicator wherever it is planted.

Growing on five continents, its characteristics abound. It’s accessible, adaptable, durable, flexible, light, resilient, strong (tensile strength superior to steel), sustainable, and versatile. Furthermore, bamboo is visually appealing, and changes colors as it weathers. Its growing popularity in the West is no longer limited to gardeners.

One of its advantages and disadvantages is its rapid ability to grow. That combination makes it a great natural material for building materials, but a sore point for the home gardener. Still, it can be contained. And there is a clumping variety that does behave.

In our over-the-top age of technology bamboo seems–well–low tech, but tech nevertheless. I am astonished at its staying power, but we can thank human ingenuity for discovering almost limitless uses for this plant. Its longevity in Eastern cultures has made it indispensable there. In the West its influence has been at a glacial pace, but that is changing.

It’s staggering to learn the depth and breath of its consumerism: from consumption (food for animals and humans) to technology (bicycles, foot bridges, waterwheels for hydropower, fountains) to utilitarian implements (baskets, boats, fences, fishing poles, furniture, rugs, tools, toys, umbrellas) to environmental products (floors, roofs, walls) to artistry (calligrapher brushes, musical instruments, paper for drawing and penning, sculptures, tea ceremonies, wall scrolls) to linens (clothing and sheets) to its natural state (erosion control, forest, ground cover, groves, hedges, lawns). Bamboo is recognized for other environmental qualities such as releasing a third more oxygen as compared to that released by trees. Its potential continues to be explored and noted.

In the right conditions it can grow a foot or more a day, which makes bamboo very desirable indeed. Unless of course it in your garden, and can take the breath away from surrounding plantings. Its roots are like small colonies that keep reproducing more as though their survival is at stake. They clearly do not know when enough is enough. Strangely that invasive fact is the side of its character that can make it accessible for today’s applications.

Sculptural fences and installations of bamboo make my garden playful, and provide a natural material as the instrument of my creation. I use it in so many ways (e.g., staking and trellises) that it is in constant demand each gardening season. One year my son found a fount of it, and was able to provide me with at least 50-75 pieces that took a season to cure in my garage. The entire cache was used the next year.

Although this plant is being tapped more and more as a sustainable material, I’m surprised to learn about the scores of entrepreneurs who recognize its abilities in the marketplace–a marketplace that is slowly becoming more environmentally conscious. Who would think that a world-renowned fashion house would be using bamboo in its products? Recently Gucci reintroduced its Gucci Bamboo bag that first appeared in 1947. Its pigskin (boo) body was topped by a curved bamboo handle. Its success was a result of the company’s artisans creating innovative ways to use available rationed materials post-World War II. Its popularity lasted through the 1960s. This year Gucci reintroduced the Bamboo bag with a few added perks. Along with the bamboo handle fringed bamboo tassels were added.

During the spring of 2010 the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced an upcoming site-specific installation on its roof: “Big Bambu” by the brothers, Doug and Mike Starn. I had to see this creation; it became a must on my mental to-do list. Only a few weeks after the show’s opening my daughter and I enthusiastically made our way to the MET’s rooftop in May 2010. When the elevator doors opened, we faced a web of bamboo built for a twenty-first century audience. The artists’ concept included the ideas of adaptation, interconnectedness and self-organization. To be completed in three phases (by July 2010) the final structure reached 50 feet x 40 feet. This astonishing installation was made with 5,000 poles from a bamboo farm in Georgia and plantation in South Carolina.

We could do a lot worse than groves of bamboo salt and peppered across our country’s landscapes, showcasing its practical yet eloquent and exotic character. The quotient of its possibility for a valuable renewable resource is high.

Human progress does not depend upon its applications, but it might be great food for thought: That some of our answers are right before us, waiting to be made heroes in a world that needs more of them. But it also seems to me a symbol of the dependence and interdependence between nature and human nature.

So I’m thinking that it’s not far-fetched to imagine a bamboo cover for my iPad. The material woven into an attractive, soft and tensile-strong case, which certainly would make a statement about its multiple personalities.

This entry was posted in Gardens and Gardening, Photography, Writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Bamboo and its Multiple Personalities

  1. A few years ago, my mother knitted me a jumper with wool containing bamboo. She said it was difficult to knit with. It’s not as soft as pure wool but I liked the idea. I’m thrilled to learn of yet another environmentally sound material that humans can make use of in so many ways. The trick is to actually do so.

    • Bamboo is a marvelous resource. It’s terrific that your mom knew about its versatility. Recently, I bought some bamboo socks, which are comfortable and warm. I’ve seen many more products that are made with this material: clothes, lunch bags and utensils. Many thanks.

  2. I am now a bamboo convert! Bring it on.

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