I had only seen bamboos with round culms, or canes, so when the late Dioscoro Umali, former regional representative for Asia and the Pacific of the United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organisation, told me that he had a square bamboo in his collection, I thought he was pulling my leg. "Yes, there is a square bamboo," he said with a laugh when I expressed disbelief. "I got my square bamboo from Bhutan."
SOIL SAVER: Bamboos do a better job than a concrete wall in preventing soil erosion from river banks. Inset, bamboos generally reach their full height in 60 to 90 days.
Before his tenure with the FAO, Umali was dean of the University of the Philippines' College of Agriculture, where he was named the "father of plant breeding" in the Philippines for producing high-yielding varieties of rice, corn and legumes, as well as the beautiful Mussaenda hybrids named after the wives of Philippine presidents and Her Majesty the Queen of Thailand, among many others.
His lifelong passion was collecting plants, and several species he had collected during his foreign travels are now grown in many parts of the Philippines. However, I have yet to see a live square bamboo, but I have seen pictures.
Bamboo is close to my heart because behind our primary school building were clumps of bamboo, under which we schoolchildren played during recess. I can still remember how our teacher taught us to "be resilient like the bamboo, which sways with the wind during a storm. When the storm is over, it is standing there, as beautiful as ever, while the unbending tree is toppled to the ground, its branches blown away by the wind."
In typhoon-prone Philippines where I grew up, that lesson could be literally observed after every storm. What the teacher actually meant, however, was for one to be flexible and to be able to adapt to changing situations to emerge unscathed from life's tests and difficult situations.
We all know the many uses of bamboo _ as food and food containers, as musical instruments, and as material for the construction of houses, fences, furniture, kitchen utensils, farm implements, bridges and rafts, among many others. Without bamboos fashioned as scaffolding, developers in Thailand and elsewhere would have difficulty building modern high-rises.
Bamboo is a part of my family's life. In Bangkok, we have a clump of bamboo in front of our house facing the street to screen the upper windows from the gaze of passers-by as well as pollution from passing cars. On our farm, we have bamboos to serve as windbreaks and to mark property boundaries. Mature bamboos are harvested for the construction of greenhouses for our ever-growing collection of plants.
What most people are not aware of, however, is the role of bamboo in preventing soil erosion. I have read stories of houses originally built quite a distance away from a river, but after many years raging waters constantly eroded the river banks so that the houses are now in danger of collapsing into the river. Had the river banks been planted with rows of bamboo, the soil erosion would have been arrested.
Noppadon Na-ngern, owner of the Tanawasri Fern Garden in Ang Thong, grew up by the Chao Phraya River in Pak Nam, and he said that as a young boy he caught large river prawns and sold them for pocket money. He observed that the prawns laid their eggs upriver among the decaying leaves that had fallen into the river from the bamboo groves along its banks. The leaf detritus also served as food and a nursery ground for the small crustaceans, which swam downriver and reached their adult stage in Pak Nam.
"Even small boys like me could lay down bait and catch large prawns for food as well as pocket money," he recalled. Increase in human population and river pollution have contributed to the disappearance of the crustaceans from Thailand's natural waterways, he said, "but another major contributing factor is the loss of the bamboo groves from river banks. Without leaves falling into the river, the prawns have lost their breeding grounds."
The prawns may never return, but if you have a property facing the river, you may avoid losing your land to erosion by planting the river bank with bamboos. Native species such as phai ruak (Thyrsostachys siamensis), phai pah or phai nam (Bambusa bambos, also known as Bambusa arundinacea), phai srisuk (Bambusa blumeana), phai lam malok (Bambusa longispiculata) and phai bong nam (Bambusa burmanica) all do a better job of holding the soil in place than a concrete wall, which can be easily toppled by surging waters.
A good source of bamboo to plant is Chatuchak's midweek plant market, in the soi to your right if you come from the Weekend Market exit at Kamphaeng Phet MRT station. This section of the market sells balled and burlapped trees, so called because they have been dug from the ground and their root balls are wrapped with burlap or plastic bags. If there are no bamboos when you go, place an order and get them the following week.
Although they do not mind having their roots occasionally submerged by floodwaters, bamboos actually do not like too much or too little water, so plant them in well drained soil well above the waterline, six to eight metres apart. Mix the soil with compost and animal manure, and keep them well watered when they are newly planted until they are well established, and during the dry summer months.
Bamboos are fast growing, and generally reach full height in 60 to 90 days. However, the cane must be three to five years old before it can be harvested. Young canes are mostly water and will shrink as they dry if cut prematurely.
DOWN THE CHUTE: Far left and left, balled and burlapped bamboos at Chatuchak’s midweek plant market.
About the author
- Writer: Normita Thongtham