Is bamboo considered wood?

Bamboo forest in Japan

By Lee Zhuomin

You will be surprised to know—or not—that bamboo is not a tree. It is a type of grass. This evergreen, hardy plant grows very quickly. Some species can shoot up four feet in 24 hours.

The plant rarely flowers, only once in about 50 to 120 years. When they do, it is said that they mass flower across the world, regardless of climate, location or species. Nobody knows why.

Bamboo is native to warm tropical and warm temperate climates but can be found in almost every part of the world, even in sub-Saharan Africa.

Its presence and popularity is as ubiquitous in Asia as in popular culture; in Ang Lee’s Oscar Award-winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; in Disney’s Mulan; in Kungfu Panda and Memoirs of a Geisha.

Bamboo is valued for its versatility and known health benefits. In much of Asia, bamboo is commercially harvested and made into furniture, flooring, beauty products, musical instruments, kitchenware and writing materials.

Taking advantage of a new wave of eco-conscious consumers, the fashion industry has also turned to bamboo fibre for clothing, marketing it as a climate-friendly and healthier option.

Bamboo’s strength and lightness also mean it can be used as construction scaffolding, boats, houses and pavilions.

In La tortue rouge, one of the Oscar shortlists for Best Animated Feature Film this year, an unnamed man shipwrecked on an island harvests extensively from what looks like a bamboo forest to build a raft for his escape.

Bamboo is delicious too. This is not just the pandas’ take, but the opinion of Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese and so many other cultures that depend on this grass for food and medicine.

Bamboo is fast-growing, renewable and easy-to-grow. But are regulations governing its forestry enough to ensure its sustainability? One opinion points out that China is still the only country that grows bamboo on a commercial scale. Given the enormous value bamboo has, its forests may be cleared faster than can be naturally replaced.

Furthermore, razing natural vegetation for bamboo farming not dissimilar to clearing land for infrastructure or agriculture—all are equally bad for wildlife and water resources.

In lieu of bamboo, there are organic, renewable, sustainable alternatives available for use. These come from legal, certified and sustainable forests in Finland, Sweden, Germany, America, Canada, Malaysia, Indonesia and some parts of the African continent.

So you won’t find bamboo covered anywhere in the Panels & Furniture Group of wood magazines because, well, it is not wood. Still, bamboo may one day turn out to be one of the most important plant species in future. We are, after all, all for living well and sustainably.