Bamboo Doesn’t Bamboozle You

by Green Deane

in Miscellaneous, Plants, Vegetable

Bamboo: The Most Versatile Grass In The World. Photo by Green Deane

Bamboo: The Most Versatile Grass In The World. Photo by Green Deane

Bambusa

Do not tell me you don’t live near bamboo.  I grew up in 50-below-zero Maine and we had bamboo in front of the house for decades.  In fact, the cooler the climate the bamboo comes from the better tasting are its shoots.

There are over 100 edible species of bamboo, and perhaps nearly all of the shoots of 1500-plus species are edible. No one really knows for sure. Most of them, even the edible ones, are bitter raw and that bitterness can vary. A few have some or no bitterness. Usually cooking the shoots in one or more changes of water reduces or gets rid of that bitterness. To prepare them remove the protective sheath, slice and boil, or chop and boil, or just boil.  Incidentally, the size of the dentrocalamus shoot when it comes out of the ground will be the diameter it will be when full grown.

Bamboo shoot

Actually there tends to be two kinds of bamboo, clumpers and runnners. Clumpers tend to be tropical and runners tend to be temperate. The temperate Phyllostachys bamboos are a leading source of shoots, among them Phyllostachys nuda, P. platyglossa, P. nidularia, P. hindsii, P. dulcis, and P. vivax. Other temperate bamboos are  Semiarundinaria fastuosa and Qiongzhuea tumidissinoda. The most common shoots harvested for food in China are P. heterocycla f. pubescens, P. praecox, P. dulcis and P. iridescens.

The following may seem worth knowing but really isn’t: The seed grain of the flowering bamboo is also edible. Boil the seeds like rice or pulverize them, mix with water, and make into cakes. Why isn’t that good to know? The bamboo, depending on the species, flowers only once every 7 to 120 years.

The bamboo, which is really a grass, is so useful several books could be written about it and have.  It’s food and building material. Without it several million people could not get by. It is probably only second to the palm in usefulness, or may even exceed palms. However, in many parts of the world it has become an invasive weed, Australia is a good example. It’s banned there in many places. The genus name, Bambusa, comes from the Malayan name for the plant.

Other Uses: Bamboo is used to build structures or to make containers (one section alone can carry water or serve as cooking pot. ) It also makes ladles, spoons, and various other cooking utensils. Bamboo is used to make tools, weapons, even a friction fire saw. You can make a strong bow by splitting the bamboo and putting several pieces together.  Through technology, it is also made into plywood, composite beams and paper. You can also wrap food in the leaves.

When I shopped around for bamboo for my backyard (Phyllostachys viridis)  I specifically bought one that was mild enough to eat raw, but I don’t make it a habit of it and here’s why. Most foraging books and various websites fail to mention that bamboo shoots have a cyanogenic glycoside, specifically taxiphyllin which is mostly responsible for the bitter taste.  In your gut that can change to hydrogen cyanid also called prussic acid. Not good. However, taxiphyllin degrades readily in boiling water so I recommend boiling any bamboo shoots you try. And if you cannot boil the bitterness out, don’t eat it.

The only problem I had raising the bamboo is that it took a few years for the stand to get established. It spent a lot of time sending up underground runners, but when it did sprout, it grew incredibly fast. Indeed, it is the fastest growing renewable resource known to man. Some can grow four feet a day. Here are a few of the more desirable edible species:

Bambusa multiplex, one of the hardiest clumping bamboos often used for a hedge or windbreak. Bambusa oldhamii , another clumping bamboo with straight stems, also used for hedges and windbreaks. Bambusa tuidoides ‘Ventricosa’ also called  Buddha’s Belly. It has pot belly type internodes. It’s a clumping bamboo or can be grown in a pot.

Bambusa Vuigaris ‘Vittata’ the Painted Bamboo, has golden stems with green stripes that vary in width. It can be grown in a pot indoors. Phyllostachys edulis, Moso, the largest of the hardy bamboos. It makes a hedge or windbreak and is used in bamboo crafts. Phyllostachys vivax ,has stems with thin walls  and white powdery bands below the nodes. It is cold hardy. Phyllostachys atrovaginata, edible raw, little bite, cold hardy. Makes a good hedge or windbreak. Phyllostachys nidularia, also edible raw, makes a good hedge or windbreak, cold hardy. Phyllostachys rubromarginata, high cold tolerance, good eating quality, can be used for hedge or windbreak or in bamboo craft.

Lastly, bamboo is tough. One stand was at ground zero at the 1945 Herioshima atomic blast. Within days it sent up new shoots.

With 70 genera and 1575 species it is difficult to identify.  Stems have nodes that are hollow in between. Growth is columnar. No branches first year, can grow up to 39 inches a day.

Pictured above is “Emerald Bamboo” or Bambusa textilis mutabilis, growing happily in Leu Gardens in Orlando, Florida.

Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile

TIME OF YEAR:

Seasonal and year round depending upon climate

ENVIRONMENT:

Bamboo can be found from cold mountains to hot deserts.

METHOD OF PREPARATION:

Many bamboo shoots have to be cooked to rid them of cyanide. The sap and shoots can be fermented. Pith of young shoots can be pickled. The seeds are edible but some bamboos only flower once every 120 years.

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Micky March 25, 2016 at 12:54

“Clumpers tend to be topical and runners tend to be temperate. ”

Don’t you mean “tropical”?

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Green Deane March 25, 2016 at 13:59

Yes, I changed it. Thanks.

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Starr August 24, 2015 at 14:59

Where can one obtain edible bamboo seeds? Does anyone know how long it takes to grow it from seed? Thanks.

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JK April 29, 2015 at 05:35

How about eating leaves, fresh or pulverized?

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Kate February 15, 2015 at 20:14

Interesting article! I am a spinner (I like making yarn) and I was just curious if you know if the type of bamboo that grows as a “weed” in the Midwest can be processed for spinning? (Sorry I don’t know the species but it grows in my friend’s yard by the boatload… maybe I could upload a photo.)
I want to learn how to process bamboo for spinning but I’m having a hard time finding resources online. Maybe I’m using the wrong search terms…. any help much appreciated! :)

-Kate

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ilona higgins November 2, 2014 at 14:22

We just cut down a LOT of bamboo.
Is there anyone that can use it?

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keith ballard February 15, 2015 at 22:00

Where is your bamboo? What kind is it? Can you tell me a little about it?

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Vicki September 9, 2014 at 09:59

Hi Deane,
I recently tried a bite (very small) of raw bamboo. The bitterness caused me to spit it out immediately and my husband said, “You better be careful. What if it’s like cassava root and must be cooked to get rid of cyanide or something?) That caused me to go up on the internet. Lo and behold, my research indicated raw bamboo is full of cyanide and toxic and/or and deadly. What are your thoughts? I’m confused, I thought if pandas ate it by the bucketful, it must be good. Thank you for your great website and newsletters. V.

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Green Deane September 9, 2014 at 12:02

What animals can eat and what we can eat (and vice versa) is often quite different. Squirrels, which we can eat, can eat stuff that would kill is in minutes. And we eat things that can kill them thus there are no rules other than finding out what we humans can or cannot eat.

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Amanda Reid November 30, 2013 at 20:14

Just letting you know that Bamboo is allowed in Australia. We have been growing Clumping Bamboo in East Gippsland in Victoria for 3 years. “BriagBamboo”. It is becoming very popular. Australians are getting excited about growing edible bamboo in their back yards along with their vegies.

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April July 21, 2013 at 21:22

Thanks for this post! We have oldhamii in the backyard and recently harvested our first stalk. Can’t wait to try it!

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Jeanne Osnas May 12, 2013 at 01:11

In my recent post about bamboo shoots (http://botanistinthekitchen.wordpress.com/2013/05/12/bamboo-shoots-the-facts-about-bracts-part-3/) I speculated that I harvested Phyllostachys. Great to get know that I was probably right! Love your blog!

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Mike Conroy December 22, 2012 at 23:18

OK, I don’t live near any bamboo…

Well, you said not to tell you that…. 😛

You didn’t mention some of the finest fly fishing poles are made of bamboo, and they were also some of the cheapest fishing rods our grandparents used. One piece or two (or more), they were sturdy, light weight, and flexible.

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Green Deane December 23, 2012 at 04:48

In Florida you can fish in the country of your residence without a license if you use a bamboo poll without a reel.

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Thomas Gegg December 22, 2012 at 13:40

I have often wondered why they don’t start planting desserts; at their edges or location of water; to get it to spread, and start a greater draw of rain, which to plant should. Espedially Equatorial areas.
Does anyone know where one could find a graph of the family tree of species of Bamboo?

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