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Bamboo – an ancient alternative

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By Donna Porter

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No one can dispute the exquisite elegance, beauty and allure of a masterfully-crafted and finely-finished piece of wood. Its brilliance and warmth, glass-like texture and intricately-designed natural grain are one of the most revered architectural elements known to man. It has graced castles and palaces of royalty and mansions of the rich and famous around the world, and will continue to do so at all expense. Tropical hardwoods such as Red and Cuban Mahogany, Primavera, Cocobolo, Teak, Purpleheart and Brazilian Cherry will forever be admired and cherished in the building and wood craft industries – unlikely to ever be fully replaced or forgotten. 


But, with “sustainability” being the “buzz” of the 21st century, another plant that has played a major role in ancient cultures of our civilization is making a comeback in the modern world, gaining recognition and award as the more intelligent, eco-friendly alternative to wood and wood products, especially in the construction and woodworking arenas. That plant is Bamboo/Bambu in Spanish. 

Bamboo has been a part of Chinese culture for an eternity.

The oldest archaeological finds of bamboo were unearthed in China from the remains of a primitive society that existed some 7,000 years ago. Its versatility and utilitarian uses have been understood in China for over 5,000 years for making paper, as food and for its use in construction and furnishings. In China, it too graces some of the greatest palaces of the Emperors. An ancient book entitled “Bamboo” written between 265 to 316 AD lists 61 species and varieties of bamboo in detail, including descriptions of their botanical characterizations as well as cultural information. It’s one of the oldest publications in history.  The ancient wisdom of the Chinese regarding the extensive use of Bamboo still prevails today as it does in other parts of the world. 

Bamboo is one of the fastest growing plants on earth with record growth of 39 inches (100cms) in 24 hours. This is dependent on climatic conditions, soils and species. Bamboo is considered a perennial evergreen and is a member of the true grass family of Poaceae. It grows by modified, underground stems called rhizomes, and can be classified as a clumper, a runner or an open clumper. The stems (called “culms”) arise from the ground at the same diameter in which they will continue to grow, and do not increase in width, only height. Some bamboos reach their amazing, mature heights in less than one year and can be harvested for construction use in another 4-5 years, such as  Dendrocalamus giganteus, which grows to 100 feet tall with a 12” diameter.   

There are 90 genera and over 1200 Bamboo species existing in the world, with 39 native species occurring in Costa Rica and over 400 native species in China. Due to their great adaptability, bamboos have a wide geographical range, which covers three large and well-defined regions: the Asian Pacific, Africa and the Americas. Bamboo grows naturally on all continents, with the exception of Europe, from 51° north to 47° south latitude, and from sea level to 4,300 meters (14,000 feet) in elevation. Most bamboos prefer the humid habitats of the cloud forests and lowland tropical jungles, although some grow in dry but never desert habitats. 

This re-discovered, user-friendly and environmentally sustainable building material offers superior earthquake protection compared to wood or cement block due its structural tissue composition that differs from that of wood. It is strong and durable as well as being highly flexible and beautiful – a winning combination.  Improper (or lack of) preservation practices or incorrect harvesting has contributed to the misconception that bamboo is inferior to wood.  It is critical to harvest bamboo when its starch/sugar content is at its lowest concentration. The more starch that remains in the stems, the more prone it will be to insect and disease problems. According to bamboo experts, the best time to harvest bamboo is at the end of the rainy season/beginning of the dry season. Research has also proven that harvesting bamboo during Menguante (the week after the full moon) is also when concentrations of starch in the culms are at their lowest. Proper preservation of the stems, whether using chemical or non-chemical methods, is absolutely essential for long-term life. Immersing or “leaching” bamboo in water is a preservation method used by indigenous communities and is still used today for storage of bamboo.  Leaching displaces the stem’s starch with water. 

Modern and elegant, 21st century-style homes and buildings are now being innovatively- designed and sustainably- built using bamboo as structural beams, siding, rafters, flooring, plywood, wall dividers, and laminate. Additionally, beautifully-crafted home furnishings including sofas, desks, tables, chairs, beds, dressers, shelves and cabinets for kitchen and bath, plus an array of other household items such as lamps, baskets and vases are enriching the environments of higher-end clients world-wide. Bamboo is also currently being utilized in the garment, paper, automotive and pharmaceutical industries and is being cleverly-designed into musical instruments, bridges and fences. Aside from these uses, bamboo shoots are also edible and used abundantly in Asian cuisine and the plant, in its raw state, is the main staple of the diet of the Chinese Panda. 

Here in Costa Rica, Guadua angustifolia ‘Kunth’ (considered one of the 20 best bamboo species in the world) and Phyllostachys aurea are the two major species being grown and used for the majority of construction and furniture designs. The genus Guadua (pronounced ‘gua-du-a‘) contains the largest bamboos in Tropical America. Their stems can reach up to 30m (98 feet) in height and to 20cm (8”) in diameter.  Both of these bamboos are locally grown on plantations and are harvested in a sustainable manner. Guadua and Phyllostachys are also two of the world’s strongest bamboos.  Guadua has a higher tensile strength than steel and is therefore often referred to as “vegetal steel/vegetable steel. All bamboo, but particularly Guadua, has a rapid growth rate and much higher productivity when compared to trees.  Usually, the growth cycle of bamboo is 1/3 that of a “tree of rapid growth ” and has double the productivity per hectare. Compared to oak, Guadua produces up to four times more wood. 

Bamboo may  one day surpass wood in the construction and furniture industry due to its versatility, lightness, flexibility, endurance, hardness, strength, climatic adaptability, seismic-resistance, rapid growth, easy handling and visual warmth. Its cost and ease of cultivation, harvest, preparation and transport are lower than that of wood, as is the amount of waste generated by its harvest, damage to the surrounding environment and expenditure of energy in its preparation for use. In terms of sustainability, bamboo is king. It is quickly becoming a noteworthy, future competitor to the beloved tropical hardwoods. Bamboo also converts about 35% more CO2 into oxygen than a regular tree. 

We can’t change our consumption based economy, but we can certainly change the resources that we choose to use and to promote. Exhibiting, utilizing and advocating alternative and sustainable construction concepts, techniques and materials will be a priority at the future botanical garden in Quepos. 

Donna is a Horticulturist and has been living and working in Manuel Antonio for 8 years.  She consults, designs, installs and maintains gardens for private homes and hotels and also develops botanical trails. Donna is the founder and was the first Director of the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks and is pursuing the development of a botanical garden in, and for, the Quepos area.   dpdreamer@yahoo.com,  2777-5149


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