Bamboo Matures in 3 Years. An extremely misleading statement we come across again and again, and yet, when you talk to anyone with experience in actually growing bamboo, they’ll be far more likely to confirm that under the best of conditions the time frame to maturity of a new bamboo farm or bamboo plantation is 5-7 years for tropical clumping (sympodial) species, while our friends in the United States who have years of experience will indicate a 10+ year time frame for Moso bamboo – Phyllostachys edulis – to reach maturity and experience the emergence of larger diameter culms.
So where does this bamboo myth originate from?
The answer is from the large Moso growing area of China. China was once a land of immense tropical and temperate hardwood forests that underwent extreme deforestation in the 1400’s as a result of Emperor Zhu Di’s grandiose development of the Forbidden City, the move of the Chinese capital from Nanjing to Beijing and the construction of a massive fleet of ships embarking on global discovery. The conversion of these forests to the bamboo forests of today is a topic for another posting…. however, the resulting ecosystems are enormous areas of predominantly Moso bamboo.
Today, what these existing Moso bamboo forests provide is an endless expanse of mature parent plants that allows for a quick and easy movement of planting material from a mature parent plant, to the desired location for a new Moso bamboo plantation.
An individual Moso culm, along with its associated rhizome and root system, representing a below ground biomass with a 1.5 – 2 foot diameter, is carefully cut away from the parent plant and sold as new planting material (see photo below). This intact culm and rhizome / root structure is then transported to the new planting site, where the entire below ground structure is replanted. This new Moso bamboo plantation is therefore immediately established with a bamboo plant that has a significant advantage of (1) existing leafy material for the newly transplanted bamboo plant to quickly begin to photosynthesize, overcome any stress associated with the transplanting and build up its energy stores to prepare for new establishment and subsequent growth and (2) a root structure that can quickly adapt to new soils and begin to absorb the water and nutrients necessary.
A new Moso bamboo plantation grown in this manner take approximately a year to become re-established in its new location and for the transplanted rhizome structure to stabilize and begin its lateral below ground growth. In the second year we see the emergence of smaller diameter culms, and by the third year the Moso plant is back to a similar growth pattern as the parent plant from which it was removed, with larger culms emerging laterally from the replanted culm. With a number of intact culms having been transplanted within the area, by the 3rd year for all extents and purposes the ecosystem represents a mature bamboo plantation…. and the source of information that while accurate in this context, is not replicable across the world.
While this short time frame is great news for anyone wanting to start a new Moso plantation in China, where such planting material is abundant, it has resulted in a statement with regards to commercial bamboo farming or the development of bamboo plantations that is highly misleading. This system simply doesn’t apply to a wider context of planting material and growing contexts for a number of reasons including but by no way limited to:
(1) Similar planting material, even of Moso bamboo, is not available in the extent required in other locations, and where it does exist the sale and transport of individual culms such as described above, is cost prohibitive.
(2) Tropical clumping (sympodial) bamboo species do not behave in the same way. While replanting from vegetative material is of course feasible and a faster method to achieve maturity (other issues around using this method for the creation of new bamboo plantations discussed in another post), the below ground rhizome structure of a clumping bamboo plant does not allow for an easy or straightforward removal of a single culm with intact rhizomes. The removal of individual rhizomes from a tropical clumping bamboo is possible and is a faster way to achieve maturity, but it is incredibly labor intensive, and a far greater number of parent plants required to achieve sufficient planting material for a new bamboo plantations.
(3) Bamboo plantations planted from seed are an entirely different scenario altogether, whereby the bamboo seed has to go through multiple stages of growth and development, through bamboo nursery to a number of years of relative dormancy (depending on bamboo species and growing context) within the field while the bamboo advances towards maturity.
The result of this bamboo myth is an extremely over-rated set of expectations. In contrast, for the majority of locations around the world where bamboo is emerging as a potential alternative fiber, a much longer and extended period is required until the newly planted bamboo farm or bamboo plantations begins to yield results. And during this period, such bamboo plants require extensive management, care, treatments. Although the time frame – whether it’s 5-7 years for tropical clumping species, or whether it’s 10+ years for Moso bamboo in the United States – is still a fraction of that required for tree species traditionally grown for commercial gain, we believe that accepting a realistic time frame is critical for mainstream industry to begin to take bamboo seriously.
Individual culms removed from a mature sympodial Moso bamboo plant in China for sale to new plantations
Whole culms & intact rhizome & root structures transplanted to create a new Moso bamboo plantation