Is Bamboo a Wood? Everything You Need to Know About Bamboo

Bamboo is a wood source however, it is not a tree. Bamboos are overgrown grass with unique characteristics. In many countries, bamboo is a source of wood used to build houses, fences, and general construction. Bamboo is also useful in making furniture and various decors.

So is bamboo a wood? Let’s find out more about bamboo especially its many great qualities and some of the types of bamboo you may want to use for your next projects.

What is Bamboo?

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Bamboo is a name for a diverse group of flowering plants that are part of the Bambusoideae subfamily under the Poaceae grass family. Yes, bamboo is not a tree but grass.

The largest types of bamboo are giant bamboo while smaller and least prominent ones are still available. No one knows where the word “bamboo” comes from but experts say that it is part Dutch or Portuguese and was originally from Kannada or Malay.

The way bamboo grows and its qualities make it a unique plant. Bamboo has intermodal regions found along its stem. These are hollow with vascular bundles found at the cross-section of each stem being found across the stem in a cylindrical pattern. There is no secondary wood growth and thus the stems and the palm develop a columnar way of growth.

Bamboos are fast-growing because of their rhizome-dependent system. There are many species of bamboo and some can grow to heights of 91 cm in just 24 hours. This is about 40 mm an hour growth! Bamboo can grow rapidly and tolerates changes in environments. These qualities have made bamboo the best plant to control afforestation, climate changes, and issues in carbon sequestration.

Bamboo is a versatile plant and has amazing contributions to the economy in countries found in South Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia. Bamboo is commonly used to build homes and various structures. Bamboo has a lovely appearance and is a source of inspiration in artistic projects and paintings.

Bamboo has many impressive qualities making it one of the best building materials. It is a high strength-to-weight ratio and thus, a good material for building all kinds of structures. Bamboo has an almost similar strength-to-weight ratio as timber and is as strong as hardwood or softwood lumber.

Where Does Bamboo Grow?

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Bamboo is native to countries with warm and moist-tropical climates. Various bamboo species grow in diverse climates from hot tropical places to cold mountainous areas with cloud forests.

Bamboos that grow in the Asia-Pacific are found mostly in East Asia from Sakhalin to northern Australia, India, and the Himalayas. Bamboo is also found in small populations in sub-Saharan Africa, Senegal, Madagascar, and Mozambique. This wood is also found in southern Argentina, central Chile, Ecuador, and in Central America, and Mexico. There are no bamboo species in Canada and Europe.

Many people love to grow bamboo as garden plants. Growing bamboo commercially is being done in east-central Africa, Rwanda, and the United States.

In some areas, bamboo has become an invasive species. The International Bamboo and Rattan Organization has found out that bamboo that has become invasive species grows via rhizomes than clumping. The Phyllostachys species are invasive and are illegal to grow in many areas in the United States.

What are the Characteristics of Bamboo?

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Bamboo is available in many species belonging to the Poaceae family or grass family. Bamboo grown as timber are from the Phyllostachys and Bambusa genera.

Bamboo has a unique growth pattern as it grows at full width and will not taper or development of horizontal growth. In many species, bamboo can grow up to three feet daily and in one year, it will reach its full height.

After the first year, the stem will harden. Bamboo strength continues to grow for the next two to four years. Mature bamboo trees are about two to three years. At this point, mold may attack the stem and reach the interior part of the plant. Bamboo will eventually decay and die.

Many people prefer the aesthetic aspects of bamboo. It’s unique, simple, and has an Asian style. Bamboo is also strong however, it is difficult to quantify its strength because of the many species and varieties. There is no standard testing for the strength of bamboo.

Possibly the main weakness of bamboo is that hardness and strength are not uniform across the stem. Some parts are soft while some are hard. There are many ways to process bamboo and thus, it is difficult to assure the strength and durability of bamboo products.

  • Distribution: almost all bamboo comes from south Asia
  • Tree Dimensions: large bamboos can grow from 50 to 100 feet high and 3 to 6 meters wide
  • Average Dried Weight: 31 pounds per cubic feet
  • Specific Gravity: .38, .64, .50, .85
  • Janka Hardness: 1,410 pounds-feet
  • Color and Appearance: Bamboo has a pale yellow to white appearance. The color is uniform across the wood. Almost all live bamboo plants that are left standing or growing too long will develop decay due to fungal attacks. This decay will change the wood to brown or black. Patches of decay will be present all over the wood.
  • Grain and Texture: Bamboo is a monocot under the grass family. It does not have heartwood, sapwood, or growth rings. The wood has a uniform texture and a medium to fine density. When processed into lumber, bamboo will have varying fiber in every node of the stem.

The end grain of bamboo is similar to the palm which is another monocot. Bamboo can be differentiated from palm and other wood through its hollow stem, absent rays or pores, and pale color wood.

  • Resistance to Rotting: Bamboo used to construct external structures will rot and deteriorate in just a few years. Bamboo has a very short life cycle. It will quickly reach its full maturity in just a few years and then suffer from mold and fungus attacks. As this happens, bamboo will collapse and rot. Also, bamboo may look strong but it is very prone to insect attacks including termites, marine borers, and powder-post beetles.
  • Workability: Bamboo is not difficult to work with. Depending on the bamboo species, some may need care when cutting while others are easy to cut. Experts use practical methods to prevent splitting bamboo during cutting. Some apply masking tape on the cutting line to avoid splitting.

Bamboo is rich in silica and most of the silica deposits are found in the outermost parts of the stem. This is why extra care should be observed when processing it. The best cutters for bamboo are carbide-tipped cutters.

Surface sanding is more effective than thickness planing using steel cutters. Bamboo accepts glues and finishes well.

Bamboos are also used to make turning objects but care is again important as your tools will easily dull and end-grain tear outs can happen. You can sand the end grain and the face grain easily to achieve a smooth overall finish.

  • Presence of Odor:  Bamboo has an earthy smell that’s unique to its species when it is being worked.
  • Toxicity: Some people have reported skin irritation while working with bamboo. It is not clear if the bamboo material caused the irritation or if the fungi that cause decay have caused the irritation.
  • Availability: When buying bamboo, you’ll find that it is available in many forms. You can purchase bamboo as hollow turning blanks which are from large bamboo species. It is also available in glued-up flooring boards and sheets. You can also purchase bamboo as paper-backed veneer wood.

The bamboo price is low and is referred to as “poor man’s timber.” You can buy bamboo locally and the price can be very affordable.

  • Common Uses: Bamboo is useful in many industries. It can be processed to make veneer, paper, fiber, and decorative items. Bamboo is also used as scaffolding, building material, flooring, ladders, and musical instruments. 

What are the Types of Bamboo Available?

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Bamboo is a useful plant but it can also be invasive. If you want to grow bamboo in your garden, make sure to consider the following types.

Bamboo types according to growth

Clumping Bamboo

Clumping bamboo is a type of bamboo that grows as a big clump. These are clumps of grass that remain on the area where you placed them. This is the most common type of bamboo grown in gardens and landscaping.

With clumping bamboo, you don’t need to worry about bamboo that will invade your other garden plants. This bamboo will only grow taller and higher.

Running Bamboo

As the name suggests, running bamboo will run and spread no matter where it is grown. This bamboo propagates through underground runners or rhizomes. These rhizomes will send new bamboo shoots all over your garden and even to your neighbor’s yard.

Bamboo rhizomes can travel for more than 100 feet and then sprout. Therefore, you must never use running bamboo in your garden.

Some gardeners contain running bamboo to keep it from spreading. This can be done using metal sheets, root barriers, or concrete. These materials must be buried at least 2 feet from the ground and extend 4 inches above the ground. The bamboo roots are very shallow and these dimensions will stop runners from spreading. Another way to control running bamboo is to plant it in a large container. This will prevent its rhizomes from escaping and spreading.

Bamboo types according to environment

Bamboo is evergreen grass and can tolerate different environmental temperatures. You must learn about the different bamboo varieties according to temperature to ensure you’re growing the right species in your backyard.

Cold bamboo

Here are cold-running bamboo varieties

Golden Groove – Phyllostachys aureosulcata

The Golden Groove bamboo is huge, quick-growing, and evergreen bamboo. It has upright, brown canes that are mostly 5 meters tall. These canes are zigzag at the base and come with pink and cream stripes. The leaves are mostly green, tapered, and narrow up to 17cm long. Another name for Golden Groove is Yellow Groove Bamboo

Golden Groove is considered an invasive species. These can grow up to three feet a day and thus, must be contained in a large growing pot. This bamboo species is native to China in the Zhejiang Province. It grows in areas with an average winter temperature of above -15 degrees Celsius.

Black Bamboo – Phyllostachys nigra

Black bamboo or purple bamboo is a species that’s native to Hunan Province, China. It is also cultivated in many places around the world. This bamboo species can grow up to 82 feet tall and can form clumps of very slender canes that can become black after three seasons. The leaves are lance-shaped and are around 2 to 5 inches long.

There are many cultivars or forms of black bamboo and these have earned a Royal Horticultural Society Award of Garden Merit. Black bamboo is commonly used as timber, woodwind musical instruments, and food.

Kuma Bamboo – Sasa veitchii

Kuma bamboo is dwarf bamboo with deep-green leaves that develop two colors, white and green, during autumn. This is a sight to see when in clumps as these can easily cover a large woodland garden. Kuma bamboo can grow 2 to 3 feet tall but can reach up to 5 feet tall in the shade.

Kuma bamboo is from Southeast Asia and grows in moist and deep woodlands. These plants may spread up to a foot every year so it’s best to curb growth by using a deep barrier. This plant is susceptible to slugs and snails as well as rotting.

Here are cold clumping bamboo varieties

Chinese Mountain – Borinda boliana

The Chinese Mountain bamboo is a species that grows in higher areas of the Andes, Himalayans, China, India, and Central America. The Chinese bamboo variety was the first plant collected in Sichuan, China. This plant has pale-blue culms and reaches a very tall height.

Umbrella Bamboo – Fargesia murielae

Umbrella bamboo is a long-cultivated bamboo species. This is an elegant, clumping, and evergreen bamboo with a tall and slender frame. This plant has bright yellow-green canes that arch when the foliage becomes too thick.

Umbrella bamboo is short and narrow while the leaves are green along the surface. This type of bamboo grows fast and tolerates the cold really well. The stems sway even in the slightest breezes but do not break even when holding snow.

Umbrella bamboo is easy to grow and is non-invasive. It is the best bamboo if you want a tall hedge or backyard screen.

Warm Bamboo

Here are warm clumping bamboo varieties

Chinese Goddess – Bambusa multiplex

Chinese Goddess bamboo has solid culms and small leaves. This is best for landscaping and for a backyard hedge. This is dwarf bamboo with leaves that look like ferns. The culms become yellow when exposed to the sun. This is a favorite garden plant that’s also grown in pots or soil.

Chinese Goddess bamboo can grow up to 3 meters tall and 10 mm wide. It can withstand temperatures up to -12 degrees Celsius and it’s originally from China.

Hedge Bamboo

Hedge bamboo is the term used for different bamboo species used as hedges. One of the most popular is Japanese Hedge Bamboo. This is a variety of clumping bamboo which can achieve a height of 3 meters. This bamboo variety has a graceful appearance that makes it the best choice as an ornamental plant or a feature in a Japanese garden.

Japanese Hedge Bamboo has a compact size making it the best for dense hedging. You can create a private space in a small or big garden with this plant as a screen. Another use of Japanese hedge bamboo is a noise barrier. This variety is one of the easiest to grow as long as the environment has a lot of moisture and is not subjected to prolonged cold temperatures.

Fernleaf – Bambusa multiplex

Fernleaf is a variety of the Multiplex Bamboo. It is a common bamboo species used for front and side yards, patios, and indoor cover. It grows with graceful narrow canes at the base with long and slender foliage that looks like ferns.

Fernleaf Is compact and clumping with very little maintenance. This can thrive in any conditions as long as it is not subjected to temperature extremes. When completely mature, Fernleaf Bamboo is only 6 to 10 meters high and 4 to 6 feet wide.

Silverstripe – Bambusa multiplex

Silverstripe or Silver Stripe bamboo is the largest bamboo in the multiplex tropical family. It is tall, can tolerate the cold, and is clumping so you won’t have to worry about it spreading in your garden. It can also be grown indoors but make sure to provide at least 6 hours of sunlight.

Silver Stripe is very beautiful with the occasional stripe along its bark. The leaves can be entirely white or green or a combination of white and green. Summer time changes the leaf’s color into green.

Almost all the cultivars of multiplex bamboos can be used as screening hedges. It is a clumping bamboo variety and thus, it will spread minimally. You will notice a V-shape growth with the Silver Stripe and thus, it makes a great bamboo screen.

Here are warm running bamboo varieties

Red Margin – Phyllostachys rubomarginata

The Red Margin bamboo is tall at 60 feet when mature and can grow in temperatures -5 degrees Celsius. The name comes from the small red margins found on the bamboo’s edible shoots. The cane is olive with reddish stripes. The cane sheath borders come with red margins.

This bamboo variety is great for creating a privacy screen. It grows very dense and can produce so many canes that are close to each other. You can grow this bamboo even in deep shade. It can adapt to moisture-rich soil and also in low drainage. It is a hardy variety too as it can handle dry winds, cold temperatures, salt sprays, and other harsh environments.

The Red Margin canes are used in many crafts and art projects. The hardwood is good timber and can be used to make different woodworking projects, decorative pieces, etc.

Golden Golden – Phyllostachys aurea

Golden Bamboo is also called fishpole bamboo and belongs to the running type. It is native to Zhejiang and Fujian, China. This is an ornamental bamboo typically grown in gardens in the United States and Australia. It is an invasive species and is very difficult to beat. It can adapt to cold environments and was awarded the UK Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit because of its beauty.

Golden Bamboo can grow up to 26 feet tall and 13 feet wide. This can turn invasive if it is grown in very warm and moist gardens and growing areas. It is a prohibited bamboo species in New York, USA.  Fishpole bamboo is used mainly as privacy hedges, screening, and for making wind musical instruments.

Giant Japanese Timber – Phyllostachys bambusoides

The Giant Japanese Timber is the largest temperate bamboo species. It is very tall with upright-facing canes with long branches, drooping leaves, and thick culms. The culms are smooth and have a natural shine. Giant Japanese Timber is easy to grow and because it’s running bamboo, you need to keep an eye on its growth very well.

Giant Japanese Timber needs full sun but it can also grow in partial shade. It needs fertile, moist, and humus-rich soil. It is a very healthy bamboo species but is susceptible to slugs and snails. Although this bamboo species are known worldwide, it was first grown in China.

Final Words

Bamboo is not wood and it’s not a tree. It is overgrown grass with many varieties. Bamboo is used in many woodworking projects, furniture, and also in construction. You can also use bamboo for decorations and flooring. Bamboo is strong and versatile but it is not the strongest material.

Bamboo wood can lose its strength and start to decay. When a tree is unused, mold that causes severe decay can attack it and cause it to fall and die. Therefore, building anything from bamboo is not a long-term solution.

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