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Bamboo : A Grass for all Seasons

By Alberto C. de la Paz1

Gaint BambooBamboo is so tightly interwoven into the Asian way of life, bamboo is often used as a metaphor for flexibility and strength. Bend with the wind. Go with the flow. You can almost remember the actor David Caradine playing the part of Kwai Chang Cain in one of the Fung Fu episodes of the yesteryears learning about Asian philosophy. By bending with the wind, bamboo columns will not break unlike the rigid oak tree, which may give strong wood but is easily broken in strong wind.

Bamboo means different things to different people. For fruit and vegetable canners, tender bamboo shoots are an important food commodity exported to countries like Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore. To the construction worker in Asia, it is an irreplaceable building material used as scaffolding. It is difficult to imagine hilltribe people living without bamboo. Hilltribe people have woven bamboo so closely to their lives that they probably would not survive without this material. To others, it is merely a decorative plant used to give a garden a pleasing look.

Bamboo belongs to the grass family. During the dry season, bamboo culms lay dormant but burst into life at the onset of the rainy season sending several shoots sprouting from their base. A fast growing plant, it can grow more than a meter in height in one day as with the Giant Bamboo species Dendrocalamus giganteus or Phai Bong or Tong in Thai. Some people claim that the can actually see it grow! It only takes one month for the perfectly round, vertical stems to reach their maximum height of 30 meters. It has even been known for Giant Bamboo to soar to an impossible 39 meters high! Due to its hollow interior and amazing flexibility, bamboo is capable of supporting heavy weights, far greater than that of wood or iron. Despite providing an excellent material for all manner of construction purposes, bamboo also produces bamboo shoots, packed with vitamins A, B1, B2 and C and a delicious ingredient of many Thai meals.

Dendrocalamus giganteus, is native to Burma, Northwestern Thailand and Laos and can attain a diameter of about one-foot. I have been fortunate to be able to get hold of two specimens of giant bamboo. These are displayed at the Hilltribe Museum and Education Center at Chiang Rai but were said to have originated from Payao Province. Giant bamboo once thrived in Northern Thailand, but has been depleted off by deforestation.

In general, there are two types of Bamboo in the world (approximate 75 genera or 1,250 species). Tropical bamboo (approximate 45 genera or 750 species) usually grows in clumps which are called Sympodial Bamboos. Colder climates like China and Japan host another type of bamboo that sends long underground shoots. Individual shoots come out of these underground shoots or rhizomes. This group of bamboos is called monopodial bamboos.

Thailand is host to about half of the world's known sympodial bamboos, making the country a rich resource for biologists and plant scientists. At least 12 kinds of bamboo in Thailand are known as "Cashy Plant" for growers

  1. Phai Tong
  2. Phai Raug
  3. Phai Raug Dum
  4. Phai Paa
  5. Phai Seesook
  6. Phai Liang
  1. Phai Zaang
  2. Phai Zaang Nuan
  3. Phai Khao Laam
  4. Phai Rai
  5. Phai Bong Dum
  6. Phai Waan

A whole universe of items can be made from bamboo. Hilltribe people use it as water containers, musical instruments, in hunting, and in trapping. Some people even fashion slippers out of bamboo. It is indispensable as a building material and the list goes on and on. One only needs to go to a hilltribe village or to the Night Bazaars in either city of Chiangrai and Chiangmai to find items made from bamboo.

Bamboo is a forest product that has been utilized by people for time immemorial. Forest destruction has led to the loss of giant bamboo stands in Thailand. If we are not careful, other species of bamboo may be lost. The next time you look at bamboo, imagine how the lives of people in Asia would be affected without this poor man's timber. Bamboo is indeed a grass of awesome proportion in more ways than one.

  • This writer is the curator of the Hilltribe Museum and Education Center at Chiang Rai.

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