Fast-growing bamboo has a multitude of uses


Marbled fossilized bamboo plywood by CaliBamboo of San Diego was used in this room. (Courtesy of Cali Bamboo)

Published: Sunday, January 29, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 26, 2012 at 6:12 p.m.

First things first: bamboo is a grass; maybe not in the same category as the green out back, but a grass nonetheless.

That said, bamboo's strength and lightning-fast growth make it the stuff of stuff, from landscaping to flooring, bicycles and baskets to computer keyboards, from clothing to suspension bridges in China. Some can even be eaten; bamboo shoots, anyone?

"It's certainly versatile," says Dr. Sydney Park Brown, an associate professor and extension specialist with the University of Florida's Environmental Horticulture satellite in Plant City. "It has a huge number of uses."

"The bamboo goods industry is expected to be worth $25 billion around 2012," writes Jonathan Bardelline for GreenBiz.com.

"It's so sustainable," Brown adds. "Bamboo grows so rapidly, it replaces itself and can be harvested more frequently than other natural materials." Just like our lawns!

After planting, it needs nothing: no watering, no fertilizing; it's not susceptible to diseases or pests, says David Holmes, head of the UF Extension Service in Marion County. "It grows straight and strong. For landscaping, it's a good choice if you have the room."

A plant associated with Asia, it was brought to the U.S. about 100 years ago by plant explorer David Fairchild. Several varieties flourish in Florida.

"Provided you get the clumping type, bamboo makes an excellent barrier hedge for a privacy fence," Holmes says. But plant a "running variety," he adds, "and your neighbors won't be very happy with you."

Bamboo goes indoors, too, as a design element and flooring.

As a substitute for traditional hardwood flooring, "bamboo has become increasingly popular, especially given its plant fiber source," notes Ashley Katz of the U.S. Green Building Council, "and may provide natural antimicrobial and antifungal benefits."

But not everyone is enamored. "It's good for fires, but lousy for floors," says Steve Elder, owner of Gainesville Carpet and Flooring, 6510 NW 13th St. "It's pretty, but it's soft and gouges very easily. Our sales staff is not allowed to sell bamboo flooring unless they have a witness that they have warned the customer."

Bamboo flooring typically is cut strips, boiled to remove starches and sugars and then planed to form flooring planks.

He adds there's little price advantage over more-traditional hardwood flooring.

"We're not big fans of bamboo, either," says Christine Ellis of Custom Hardwood Flooring in Ocala, though through a sister company Old Country Wood Floors "we have installed our share of them. It's trendy, but may not be as green as people think" — due to epoxies and resins added "so it will stand up to the stresses."

Still, there is a promising new generation of bamboo flooring coming out, a variety known as "strand woven" bamboo flooring.

Cali Bamboo of San Diego calls this type of flooring "fossilized." Walker Hicks, a spokesman for the company, says bamboo is shredded then laminated and compressed to make planks "that are harder than Brazilian hardwoods" — as rated on the Janka scale of flooring hardness.

The company also offers "fossilized plywood," which is used as interior paneling, and last year introduced a product called BamDeck, a hybrid decking material of 70 percent recycled plastic and 30 percent bamboo pulp. "It's been getting a great response," Hicks says.

But wait, there's more.

The American Bamboo Society notes on its website that bamboo has dozens of other uses, including fly rods, animal forage, bicycles, boats, geodesic domes, art, medicine, musical instruments, toys and paper. Other websites offer bamboo flatware, sheets, hand-carved computer keyboards and mice, a case for the iPhone 4, men's boxer briefs and other types of clothing.

ASUS offers a line of laptops using bamboo for the cases, while Swiss automaker Rinspeed says its recently unveiled BamBoo uses the fiber in much of its interior components.

And best of all, we don't have to mow any of it.

Rick Allen can be reached at rick.allen@starbanner.com.

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