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The Overstory and Bamboo

The Overstory #137 - Bamboos
By Soejatmi Dransfield and Elizabeth A. Widjaja


: --> Building material
: --> Baskets
: --> Vegetables
: --> Paper
: --> Musical instruments
: --> Handicraft
: --> Hedge, windbreak, ornamental
: --> Other uses



Bamboos, commonly grown as woody bamboos, belong to the Gramineae,
and form the tribe Bambuseae of the subfamily Bambusoideae. They
often have a tree-like habit and can be characterized as having
woody, usually hollow culms, complex rhizome and branch systems,
petiolate leaf blades and prominent sheathing organs. Moreover, all
members possess similar anatomical features in the leaf blades, i.e.
fusoid cells and arm cells, which set the bamboos apart from grasses.
In tropical Asia and America, several members of this tribe grow into
giant bamboos, which are a familiar sight in rural South-East Asia.

Bamboo is frequently confused with rattan and its derived product
cane. Bamboo furniture is often referred to as rattan or cane
furniture, and vice versa. However, the products are very different.
Bamboos, with very few exceptions, have hollow stems which cannot be
bent easily unless split. Rattans and canes are always solid and
flexible, and belong to the Palmae.


Bamboos occur in the tropical, subtropical and temperate regions of
all continents except Europe and western Asia, from lowlands up to
4000 m altitude. Most, however, occur at low to medium elevations in
the tropics, growing wild, cultivated or naturalized in a great
variety of habitats. Because bamboo classification is far from
complete and most genera are still not well understood, it is
therefore impossible to provide precise information on their origin.
There has been some speculation, however, on possible centres of
diversity of bamboos, such as tropical America, Madagascar, and the
region including southern China and northern Burma (Myanmar),
Thailand and Vietnam. The genera in tropical America (about 20,
reasonably well defined) are not found outside the region (McClure,
1973; Soderstrom & Ellis, 1987), whereas all known native species in
Madagascar are endemic. The geographical distribution of bamboo is
greatly influenced by human activities (Holttum, 1958). Forest
destruction, e.g. by logging and building of new roads, has
encouraged the spread of native bamboos, which subsequently become
abundant and form mixed or pure bamboo forests.

Bambusa is the most widespread genus of bamboos in tropical and
subtropical Asia. There are about 37 species in South-East Asia. Of
these, 16 species grow wild, each with a limited distribution; 6
species are only found in cultivation (B. balcooa Roxb., B. multiplex
(Lour.) Raeuschel ex J.A. & J.H. Schultes, B. oldhamii Munro, B.
tuldoides Munro, B. utilis Lin and B. vulgaris Schrader ex Wendland).
There are, however, two species with a wide distribution. Bambusa
vulgaris, for example, is pantropical, planted or naturalized in all
kinds of habitats, but particularly along river banks; its origin is
not certain. The hedge bamboo B. multiplex is widely planted in the
tropics, subtropics, and even outdoors in temperate regions as an
ornamental or a hedge since it can withstand low temperatures.

Dendrocalamus and Gigantochloa are also native to tropical Asia. They
comprise some species which are found solely in cultivation, and some
which have limited distribution or are endemic to relatively small
areas. There are about 29 species of Dendrocalamus growing in
South-East Asia, mainly occurring in the lowlands from the Indian
subcontinent to Indo-China and Peninsular Malaysia. D. asper
(Schultes f.) Backer ex Heyne is planted throughout in the region,
from the lowlands up to about 1500 m altitude; its origin is not
known. Gigantochloa, with about 24 species, is mainly confined to the
area from Burma (Myanmar), Indo-China to Peninsular Malaysia. It has
been recorded that only one species of Gigantochloa in Java is
native; the others are believed to have been introduced from the
Asian mainland during the migration of people from the north.

Cephalostachyum, Melocanna and Thyrsostachys are mainly found on the
mainland of Asia from the Indian subcontinent to Thailand, Vietnam
and Laos.

Cephalostachyum is an interesting but poorly known genus of about 11
species, 5 of which occur from the Himalaya to northern Burma
(Myanmar), whereas the others are found from Burma (Myanmar) to
Vietnam, mostly growing in the lowlands, and one species is found in
Mindoro (the Philippines). Melocanna seems to have one species only,
M. baccifera (Roxb.) Kurz, which is found in Bangladesh, Assam
(India), Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand. It has been introduced
elsewhere in the tropics. Thyrsostachys is native to Thailand and
Burma (Myanmar) and consists of two species. T. siamensis Gamble is
one of the most useful bamboos in Thailand. It has been introduced
into other countries in South-East Asia.

Schizostachyum is distributed throughout South-East Asia, extending
into the Pacific Islands, with its centre of distribution in Malaysia
and western Indonesia. There are about 30 species, most of them
having a limited distribution.

The genus Phyllostachys is native to China, comprising about 50
species. Some species have been introduced and cultivated in Japan,
Europe, North America and the tropical highlands. P. aurea A. & C.
Rivi้re has become naturalized in many parts of the tropics.

Dinochloa, comprising about 20 species, is found from the Andaman
Islands and southern Thailand throughout Malaysia, western Indonesia
and the Philippines. Species are found scattered in lowland and hill
dipterocarp forest, but they become weeds in logged and disturbed

Racemobambos is confined to Malesia including the Bismarck
Archipelago and the Solomon Islands, but so far has not been found in
Sumatra, Java or the Lesser Sunda Islands. It consists of about 16

Nastus is found mainly in the southern hemisphere from Madagascar to
the Solomon Islands, although it has been recorded in the northern
hemisphere in Sumatra. It consists of about 15 species.


Bamboo is one of the natural resources of the tropics, and because of
its wide distribution, availability, rapid growth, easy handling and
desirable properties, has been used widely in the daily life of the
local community as a sustainable resource. Bamboos are utilized
intensively for a wide range of purposes. 'No plant is known in the
tropical zone which could supply to man so many technical advantages
as the bamboo. The strength of the culms, their straightness,
smoothness, lightness combined with hardness and greater hollowness;
the facility and regularity with which they can be split; the
different sizes, various lengths and thickness of their joints make
them suitable for numerous purposes to serve which other material
would require much labour and preparation' (Kurz, 1876). Even in this
mechanical age, their usefulness continues and is likely to continue,
because they are a necessity of life in South-East Asian communities
(Holttum, 1958). In recent years bamboos have entered the highly
competitive world market in the form of pulp for paper, parquet,
plybamboo, and as a canned vegetable.

The most significant uses in South-East Asia are for building
material, for making various types of baskets, and as a vegetable.
Other important uses are as a source of raw material for making
paper, for musical instruments and handicrafts.

--> Building material

Bamboo culms have many characteristics that make them suitable for
numerous construction purposes (Kurz, 1876; McClure, 1953). Some
species are used only for building material (pillars, walls, roofs
and floors). When used for pillars, bridges or scaffolding, culms
should have a large diameter with thick walls and relatively short
internodes. In South-East Asia species suitable for this purpose
belong to Bambusa (e.g. B. bambos (L.) Voss, B. blumeana J.A. & J.H.
Schultes, B. tulda Roxb. and B. vulgaris), Dendrocalamus (e.g. D.
asper) and Gigantochloa (e.g. G. apus (JA. & J.H. Schultes) Kurz, G.
atter (Hassk.) Kurz, G. levis (Blanco) Merrill, G. pseudoarundinacea
(Steudel) Widjaja, G. robusta Kurz and G. scortechinii Gamble).

Species with culms of medium diameter and with relatively thin walls
are suitable for the construction of walls, floors and roofs (e.g.
Schizostachyum brachycladum Kurz, S. zollingeri Steudel, Gigantochloa
levis). In South-East Asia there are several methods of preparation.
The commonest and easiest way to make walls is to cut the culms to
appropriate length, split them on one side only and then flatten them
out; they are either used as such and joined together vertically, or
they are woven into a large piece. In the most elaborate method, the
culms are split into very thin long strips which are plaited into
larger pieces with attractive motifs. This kind of plaited bamboo is
also used for partitions and ceilings. In houses with floors raised
above the ground, the floor is often made of split bamboo culms of
about 5 cm wide, joined together and secured with strips of bamboo
culms or other material. In roof construction the culms are split in
two and laid in such a way that they resemble corrugated iron. In
Bali, bamboo tiles, 30 cm x 5 cm, are used for roof construction.
Locally, bamboo culms are used to reinforce cement/concrete
structures in China, India, Japan, the Philippines and Indonesia.

--> Baskets

Bamboo species with culms of smaller diameter, relatively thick walls
(e.g. Gigantochloa apus, G. scortechinii, Schizostachyum zollingeri),
and which split easily are used for making various types of baskets
(Widjaja, 1984; Wong, 1989). In many parts of East and South-East
Asia, local people still prefer baskets made from split bamboo rather
than from plastics for carrying vegetables and fruits, poultry or
pigs, because braided bamboo 'breathes'. Although plastics are used
ubiquitous, simple carrying baskets and boxes of bamboo are still
being produced. In some parts of Indonesia, local people prefer to
use thin-walled bamboos (such as Bambusa atra Lindley, B. forbesii
(Ridley) Holttum, Schizostachyum brachycladum) for making a fine
basket, as this saves having to split the bamboo beforehand.

--> Vegetables

Bamboo shoots ('rebung') are an important vegetable in East and
South-East Asia. A shoot is the new growth of the rhizome apex into a
young culm and consists of young internodes protected by sheaths.
After removing these sheaths, the shoot is cut into small pieces or
shredded and then cooked in boiling water.

The pieces are then used as a vegetable ingredient for various dishes
such as pickles, fried meat or vegetables, meat or vegetables cooked
in coconut milk. In general the shoots emerge during the rainy season
and the desired shoot is the one which grows from the rhizome buried
deep in the soil. In many parts of South-East Asia, shoots are
consumed locally, but in Thailand a large-scale canned bamboo-shoot
industry has developed.

In general, young shoots of many bamboo species are edible, but only
a few bamboos produce superior shoots, i.e. Dendrocalamus asper,
Gigantochloa levis, G. albociliata (Munzo) Kurz and Thyrsostachys
siamensis. In China, superior bamboo shoots are produced by
Phyllostachys pubescens Mazel ex H. de Leh., Dendrocalamus latiflorus
Munro and Bambusa oldhamii.

--> Paper

For centuries the Chinese have used bamboo in paper making (e.g.
Phyllostachys pubescens). In South-East Asia (e.g. Indonesia, the
Philippines and Thailand) paper mills have been established using
some bamboo species as raw material, such as Bambusa bambos, B.
blumeana and Dendrocalamus strictus (Roxb.) Nees). In India, the
principal species used is D. strictus.

--> Musical instruments

Bamboo musical instruments have been developed by most tribes in
South-East Asia. There are 3 types, i.e. idiophones (percussion or
hammer instruments), aerophones (blown instruments) and chordophones
(stringed instruments). Apparently, bamboo musical instruments have
been known in South-East Asia for a long time, because flutes are
known to every tribe. Filipinos, Indonesians and Thais have stringed
instruments, although the number of strings varies. Species of the
genus Schizostachyum are the most suitable for making aerophones
(like 'kan' or 'sompotan'), because of small diameter culms, long
internodes and thin walls. The main species used for making
idiophones (e.g. 'angklung') and chordophones are Gigantochloa
atroviolacea Widjaja, G. atter, G. levis, C. pseudoarundinacea and G.
robusta; sometimes Dendrocalamus asper and Gigantochloa apus are also
used. The large-diameter culms of G. atroviolacea are used for making
bass drums and bass horns.

--> Handicraft

Another important use of bamboo is in the handicraft industry. Table
mats, handbags, hats and other woven bric-a-brac can be made of
bamboo. The best developed bamboo handicraft industry is the weaving
of bamboo splits. In weaving the bamboo splits, many different
patterns have been created. However, there are some handicrafts made
of unsplit bamboo. Usually this kind of handicraft consists of
engravings on the outer part of the culm or the rhizome. The species
employed in woven handicrafts are mostly species with long and
flexible fibres such as Bambusa atra, Gigantochloa apus, G.
scortechinii, and Schizostachyum latifolium Gamble. Species that are
easily engraved are Bambusa vulgaris, Dendrocalamus asper and
Schizostachyum brachycladum.

People of South-East Asia living in bamboo-rich areas have long used
bamboo culms to make their furniture. Recently, bamboo furniture has
become popular, and elite bamboos are sought after. A number of
species of Bambusa, Dendrocalamus and Gigantochloa are commonly used
in the furniture industry (Widjaja, 1980). Two of the favoured
species are Gigantochloa atroviolacea and Dendrocalamus asper, whose
culms are straight and smooth.

--> Hedge, windbreak, ornamental

Some bamboos are used as a living hedge or wind-break when planted
close together such as Thyrsostachys siamensis and Bambusa multiplex.
Several species (e.g. Bambusa multiplex, B. vulgaris, Schizostackyum
brachycladum) are planted as ornamental. The thorny bamboos (e.g.
Bambusa bambos) are often planted around fruit orchards, vegetable
fields, smallholdings or villages to protect them from intruders
(e.g. wild animals).

--> Other uses

Culms of Dendrocalamus asper, for instance, are also used as
containers for collecting water or palm juice, for pipes and troughs,
etc. Unsplit internodes, e.g. of Schizostachyum brachycladum, are
used as pots for cooking vegetables, meat, rice or glutinous rice.
The internode is usually lined with banana leaf before being filled
with uncooked food, and is placed over a fire. Glutinous rice with
coconut milk cooked in a bamboo internode ('lemang') is a popular
dish in South-East Asia.

Forest destruction has allowed some bamboo species to become
abundant; they are a major source for native people to develop
cottage industries of chopsticks, satay sticks and incense sticks
(e.g. Gigantochloa scortechinii).Fish traps are made of split bamboo
joined together with either rattan strips or bamboo strips.
Bamboo rafts are usually made from culms with medium diameter and
relatively thin walls.

Bamboo leaves are often used as fodder. Large and smooth leaf blades
are used for wrapping food (e.g. Chinese 'bak chang' made of
glutinous rice). In Indonesia, large leaves are also used to make
'tangerang' hats for working in rice fields or tea plantations.
Bamboo culms are used for various poles, e.g. carrying poles,
vegetable and fruit props, fishing rods, outriggers, boating poles,
posts and fences.


Since time immemorial, bamboos have exerted profound influence on the
life and cultures of Asian people. For example, bamboos always
figured in local paintings, legends, songs, folklore, etc. Since
prehistoric time, bamboo has been used as one of the weapons for
hunting and fighting. In Peninsular Malaysia, the Temiar and Semoi
make their traditional hunting weapons such as blow-pipes from two
internodes of bamboo. For both peoples, the blowpipe has both a
symbolic and a practical value: the possession of a blowpipe is a
sign that a man has reached adult status so that he is able to join
hunting parties and become a full member of the community. In Irian
Jaya, people make their arrowheads from small bamboo species of
Racemobambos and of Nastus, and the arrow shafts from small,
straight, thin bamboo culms of Schizostachyum species. Bamboo is also
employed in traditional ceremonies; for example, in Bali the yellow
variety of Schizostachyum brachycladum is used during the burial
ceremony because yellow is considered the sacred colour of Hinduism.
The roof of traditional houses and rice barns in Toraja, Sulawesi
(Indonesia) is made from the green variety of the same species.
'Garong' baskets are made of several internodes of another
Schizostachyum species tied together with split bamboo or rattan; the
baskets are filled with rice wine during the Gawai festival in
Sarawak, Malaysia (Sandin, 1963).


Holttum, R.E., 1958. The bamboos of the Malay Peninsula. The Gardens'
Bul-letin, Singapore 16: 1‹135.

Kurz, S., 1876. Bamboo and its use. The Indian Forester 1: 219‹269,
p1. I‹Il, 335‹362, p1. III‹IV.

McClure, F.A., 1953. Bamboo as a building material. United States
Depart-ment of Agriculture, Foreign Agricultural Service, Washington,
D.C. 52 pp.

McClure, F.A., 1973. Genera of bamboos native to the New World
(Gramineae: Bambusoideae). Smithsonian Contributions to Botany 9:

Sandin, B., 1963. 'Garong' baskets. Sarawak Museum Journal

Soderstrom, T.R. & Ellis, R.P., 1987. The position of bamboo genera
and allies in a system of grass classification. In: Soderstrom, T.R.
et al. (Editors): Grass systematics and evolution. Proceedings of the
international symposium on grass systematics and evolution,
Washington, D.C., 27‹31 July 1986. Smith-sonian Institution Press,
Washington, D.C. pp. 225‹238.

Widjaja, E.A., 1984. Ethnobotanical notes on Gigantochloa in
Indonesia with special reference to G. apus. The Journal of the
American Bamboo Society 5(3‹4): 57‹68.

Wong, K.M., 1989. Current and potential uses of bamboo in Peninsular
Malaysia. The Journal of the American Bamboo Society 7(1‹2): 1‹15.


This excerpt was reprinted with the kind permission of the authors
and publisher from:

Dransfield, S. & Widjaja, E. A. (Editors), 1995. Plant Resources of
South-East Asia No 7. Bamboos. Backhuys Publishers, Leiden. 189 pp.

Publisher contact information:
PROSEA Foundation  and


Developed countries: A hardcopy, luxury edition (blue cover) and a
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available for purchase from Backhuys Publishers, P.O. Box 321, 2300
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Developing countries: A paperback, medium-price edition (green cover)
and a low-price edition (green cover) are also available from the
PROSEA Network Office, P.O. Box 332, Bogor 16122, Indonesia; E-mail: Prices: US$ 22.00 excluding mailing cost
(medium-price edition) and US$ 8.00 excluding mailing cost (low-price


Dr Soejatmi Dransfield is a plant taxonomist specializing in bamboos,
who gained her first degree in Plant Taxonomy from Academy of
Agriculture, Ciawi, Bogor, Indonesia. Born in Nganjuk, Indonesia, she
began her botanical career as a staff of Herbarium Bogoriense, Bogor,
Indonesia, and gained her PhD from Reading University, United Kingdom
(UK), in 1975 with her thesis the 'Revision of Cymbopogon
(Gramineae)'. After she moved to UK in 1978, she continued her
research on bamboo taxonomy including the generic delimitation of the
Old World tropical bamboos, and has described seven new genera (four
from South-Eat Asia, three from Madagascar) and many new species. She
is currently Honorary Research Fellow at the Royal Botanic Gardens,
Kew, UK, writing the account of the bamboos from Malesia, Thailand
and Madagascar.

Elizabeth A. Widjaja is a research professor on bamboo taxonomist at
the Herbarium Bogoriense, Botany Division, Centre Research for
Biology, Indonesian Institute of Sciences at Bogor, Indonesia. Her
interest is in the  taxonomy of the Indonesian bamboo especially and
Malesian bamboo  generally. She is also doing some studies on
molecular systematics to understand the phyllogenetic analysis of the
Malesian bamboo as well as studies on the genetic diversity of
Dendrocalamus asper in Indonesia.  Her work has included the
population density of the natural bamboo vegetation as well as the
community bamboo gardens. Dr. Widjaja has always promoted bamboo for
the cultivation to prevent the erosion; because of that she received
the World Biodiversity Day from the State Ministry of Environment in
1999 and also got an Indonesian President Award in 2000. She is an
author of over 75 articles and scientific papers and three books on
bamboo. The field guide on bamboo is a widely used handbook for
identification purposes. Beside taxonomy, she is also doing some
ethnobotanical  studies, which won her the Harsberger Medal
given by the Society of the Ethnobotanist, India in 2001. Her
email address is


Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas' "Bamboo: A
Multipurpose Agroforestry Crop" is an excellent introduction to
bamboo agroforestry, particularly in temperate environments such
as the mainland US:

The International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR) Bamboo
and Rattan Information:

American Bamboo Society is a rich source of general information
and links on bamboo, bamboo organizations and species

The Bamboo Society of Australia:

European Bamboo Society's links page:


The Overstory #110- Bamboo for Development
The Overstory #98- Integrating Forestry into Farms
The Overstory #73- Buffers-Common Sense Conservation
The Overstory #60- Trees as Noise Buffers
The Overstory #45--Vegetative Erosion Barriers in Agroforestry
The Overstory #38--Live Fences
The Overstory #32--Multipurpose Windbreaks
The Overstory #30--Bamboo Agroforestry


Publisher: Permanent Agriculture Resources
Editor: Craig R. Elevitch

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