Bamboos are grasses, though they present characteristics that set them apart from other grasses. Bamboo is segmented, having typically hollow woody stems which in turn sprout (or shoot) from underground stem portions known as rhizomes. They also have a highly complex branching and flowering system.
Woody bamboos share characteristics with some herbaceous (non-woody) grasses, like the leaf blades that have a distinctive internal organization of the tissues (including “arm cells” and “fusoid cells” not found in other grasses) and which are basally narrowed to form a stalk-like connection with the leaf sheath or a “pseudostalk”.
Different species of the bambusoid grasses (both woody and herbaceous) are grouped into genera on the basis of similar characteristics, and further as subtribes and tribes. The various tribes then comprise the bamboo subfamily (Bambusoideae) of the Grass family.
There are two main categories of rhizomes: monopodial and sympodial. Monopodial rhizomes grow horizontally, often at a surprising rate, thus earning them their nickname of ‘runners’. The rhizome buds develop either upward, generating a culm (or cane), or horizontally, with a new tract of the rhizomal net.
Monopodial bamboos (see image at right) generate an open clump with culms distant from each other and can be extensive (rather than invasive). They are usually found in temperate regions and include, for example, the genera Phyllostachys and Pleioblastus. Culms of these "running" varieties are often valued for their heartiness, strength, durability, and versatility in applications. To appreciate and honor their behavior (growth characteristics), bamboo requires relationship.
Sympodial rhizomes (see image at left) are often shorter, offering culms of various widths and heights, and the culms above ground are close together in a compact clump, which expands evenly around its circumference. Their natural habitat is tropical regions (though temperature varieties are popular) and they are not extensive in their growth patterns. A common genus is Bambusa in tropical locales, while Fargesia species are popular in temperate locales.
Bamboos can be cultivated and also grow wild in the forest. The distribution of bamboos about the planet generally falls within the range of 46 degrees north and 47 degrees south latitude and to elevations of 4000 meters (Soderstrom & Calderon, 1979), forming a “bamboo belt” that circuitously touches multiple continents, countries and cultures. The following charts outline species distributed across countries of the Asia Pacific Region, Africa, and the Americas. Note that this distribution continues to evolve and so data may vary.
Bambusa vulgaris (which, as its Latin name implies, is the “common bamboo”) probably originated in Southeast Asia and is now pan-tropical, commonly planted as an ornamental and for household uses in many towns and villages. Some bamboos do in fact, border on being weedy, but it is not accurate to paint the entire subtribe with that one brushstroke.
Some species are rare because their distribution is restricted to isolated localities, such as mountain peaks or specialized substrates, including limestone hills or swamps. Such places are “ecological islands”, having very different conditions from the surrounding landscape, which engender the establishment of unique or specially adapted species. Some bamboo species can be possibly endangered, too. For example, in Peninsular Malaysia, the clambering small bamboo, Schizostachyum terminale was once more common, growing in seasonally inundated sites along slow-moving streams and within mosaics of freshwater and peat swamps. It is now no longer seen or easily found in Peninsular Malaysia’s west coast, which has undergone tremendous changes in natural landscape during development that spanned more than a century.
Structure of Bamboo
Have you ever seen a bamboo root up close?
The underground root system of bamboo is called the rhizome network, and an emergent portion is called the culm. If we examine the rhizome, the culm and its branches, we can see that they are segmented, i.e., there is a series of nodes (appearing as rings along the culm, where the sheaths, buds and branches arise) and intervals between the nodes that are simply called internodes. The internal space within the bamboo culm is compartmentalized into a series of hollows by each node bearing a transverse plate. It is this basically hollow cylinder-like structure with cross-walls placed at regular intervals along the culm that gives bamboo its inherent strength and flexibility.