Indians call the bamboo ‘green gold’ because it is of such great importance. The bamboo is called the poor man’s timber’ because it is cheap and available in plenty. Bamboos are lightweight, being hollow, ramrod-straight, strong and long-lasting. Whole houses are built in the tropics with bamboo.
City dwellers are familiar with the bamboo scaffolding that is set up to paint or repair tall skyscrapers. Tribals build large suspension bridges using only bamboo and cane. Even the great inventor, Thomas Edison, used the carbonized filament of bamboo in his early electric lamps.
The Indian paper industry demands heavily on cultivated bamboo. Tender bamboo shoots contain a poison called hydrocyanic acid when raw, but are a delicacy when cooked.
The bamboo is actually a type of grass, not a tree. It is called the ‘big brother’ of all grasses, because it grows to a huge size, with one species, the Giant bamboo of Myanmar, reaching a height of 37m and girth of 30cm. A few species are mere shrubs with stems no thicker than a pencil. Bamboos grow very quickly, reaching full size in about three months. Some large species add a meter a day!
There are about a 1000 species of bamboo and they are native to the warm and tropical regions. The largest number is found in Southeast Asia, which is called ‘the continent of bamboo groves’. Around 150 species are found in India. India has perhaps the world’s biggest reserves of bamboo.
The bamboo has an extraordinary flowering cycle. It flowers just once in a long while and at fixed intervals. Some species flower once in 60 years, some in 120 years. Only a few species produce flowers annually.
All the bamboos of a particular species flower at the same time wherever they are, even a thousand kilometers apart. The spectacle is breathtaking and it occurs only once in the bamboo’s lifetime.