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11 december 2018

Susanne Lucas, author of Bamboo for the Reaktion Botanical series, is Executive Director of the World Bamboo Organization. Bamboo thus reads to some extent like an extended pamphlet for such an organization. "The implication here is not that bamboo will save the planet," Lucas says (23), but at times it's pretty close.

Bamboo is a sustainable resource that provides construction material, fiber, food, habitat, and many another blessing. Perhaps most important, it is according to Lucas a carbon sink, excellent at scrubbing CO2 from the atmosphere and binding it in useful form. One might ask why the whole world isn't using bamboo for everything. Though somebody recently gave me some dental floss made out of bamboo, and I swear by the stuff now. So maybe the day is coming soon.

Bamboo seems to be one of those natural resources that is too good to succeed: too clean, too cheap, too abundant, too versatile. There isn't enough money to be made from it. It notoriously grows everywhere unbidden, at frightening speed. It's durable as heck – heck, I bought a bamboo cutting board 15 years ago and it still looks new; I assume it will outlive me by decades. And despite its durability (and strength, greater than that of wood, steel, or concrete by some measures), bamboo is biodegradable. If everybody used bamboo for the full range of its possible applications, we'd all be living in a panda's paradise, but we would not be generating the kinds of profits that scarcer, dirtier resources like timber and plastic provide. Perhaps capitalism and ecological soundness are incompatible. Perhaps??

Lucas gives a brief tour through bamboo taxonomy, and a brief look at the history of bamboology. There was an uncomfortable tendency for Western gurus of bamboo like Wilhelm Kurz and Floyd McClure to die before completing their studies – whether this is because they move to unhospitable tropical climates, or whether there's just too much bamboo to catalogue, is unclear. Poor Kurz, in particular, I imagine deep in a thicket of bamboo mumbling "The horror! the horror!" It's the romantic in me.

Lucas is far more sanguine about her favorite plant. She says of Alexander Lawson's book Bamboos (1968) that "it was exactly the book so many gardeners and plant enthusiasts needed" – using a generous connotation of the word "need." Most gardeners, in fact, only have a need to get rid of bamboo once they've misguidedly planted the stuff. "Cultivated bamboos rarely flower or seed, and do not jump spatial boundaries," says Lucas, but even she must immediately admit that some varieties are "amazingly aggressive" (60).

There are pictures of bamboo dishes in Bamboo, but unfortunately no recipes. There is a fascinating few pages on sports and games played with the help of bamboo, from fly fishing and pole vaulting to kendo and chinlone, which seems to be an elaborate Burmese version of hacky-sack. There are even bicycles constructed from bamboo, which makes a lot of sense given the material's strength, lightweight nature, and resilience.

Bamboo is native to every continent but Antarctica (seriously, why even include Antarctica in these lists) and Europe – though it ranged into Europe in prehistoric times. North American bamboo, the stuff of canebrakes, was once common in southern U.S. wetlands but largely, and perhaps foolishly, removed from most of them as a nuisance. Meanwhile, Europeans have been fascinated with restoring some of their lost bamboo groves. Lucas recommends a bamboo garden in the Cévennes national park in the south of France, which features a gift shop called the Bamboutique and a lunch counter called the Bambousnack. I'm seriously thinking about a trip there next summer.

Lucas, Susanne. Bamboo. London: Reaktion, 2013.