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What is Bamboo?

By Ann MacDonald
Updated May 21, 2024
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Bamboo is a type of grass with a hard, woody, hollow stem. It is a perennial evergreen, meaning it grows every year and stays green year round. Hundreds of kinds grow in different regions of the world, and people have used them in everything from construction to medicine. Preferring well-watered, mildly acidic soil in most cases, it has significant cultural and religious connotations such as the need to remain morally straight.


This kind of grass appears as a round, hollow, fibrous stalk, which is green and grows straight up. The plants do have leaves, but they do not put much energy into growing them until they are nearly fully mature. When the leaves do appear, they grow from the top of the stalk.


There are dozens of varieties of bamboo, with experts asserting that there are over 1,400 different types. Some are under 12 inches (30.48 cm). The “giant” kinds are the largest members of the grass family. Some plants might reach as high as 100 feet (30.48 meters). A more common height is around 30 feet (9.114 meters). The root structures vary, so root type sometimes is used to classify different species.

Botanists also classify species by general growing arrangement. Some types are clumping, meaning they form tight sections of multiple stems that are hard to walk through. Others are spreading or open, meaning they grow far enough apart to allow movement. These are also known as runners, because they send rhizomes underground, producing new plants a few feet from the parent. The running variety can be difficult to control and has a poor reputation with gardeners, but a person can keep it from growing too wildly by putting it in pots rather than directly in the ground.

Growing Environment

The large number of bamboo species means that these plants are found in many different areas of the world, ranging from the tropics to chilly mountain regions. Generally, they occur between latitudes of 50 degrees N and 50 degrees S. They are common to Asia but also grow in areas such as South Africa, India, the mid-Atlantic United States and Chile. One area that is not known to have native species is Europe.

Bamboo does best when it has plenty of water but isn’t saturated, such as in an area around a pond. It will tolerate different soils, but the type of soil in which the plant grows determines how often it has to be watered. A slightly acidic soil between 5.5 and 6.5 works for most species, although some species that are more drought resistant do a little better in soil with a higher pH. Depending on the variety and landscaping effect desired, people usually cultivate it between 1.5 and 5 feet (0.4572 and 1.524 meters) apart.


Bamboos do flower, but they rarely bloom. They feature a mechanism that still baffles scientists in which all the bamboo of the same stock flowers at the same time. This happens no matter where the plants are in the world or the climate they are in, which suggests that the trigger for the mass flowering event is internal, not part of the environment. The flowering interval can be more than 100 years long.


This material is commonly used as a food source. It has a crisp texture and light, sweet flavor. It generally assumes the flavor of ingredients it is combined with, however, so cooks often use the shoots as filler in Asian cuisine. While some kinds can be eaten raw, other varieties must be cooked to remove some toxic elements. Some animals that eat it include pandas, lemurs and chimpanzees.

This plant is also used as a construction material. It is an extremely hard substance, although it should be chemically treated to prevent insect infestation and rot. A quickly growing grass—sometimes growing up to 3 to 4 feet (0.9114 to 1.2192 meters) a day—it can grow in dense conditions, so it is considered one of the best renewable resources on the planet. It was used to create the earliest suspension bridges in China, and today, it is used in a variety of building projects. It has also been used to craft boats, zeppelins and airplanes.

Bamboo is also a material in a variety of household goods. Consumers can find furniture, dinnerware, sporting goods, jewelry and handbags comprised of it. It also makes up flooring, cutting boards, wind chimes and nearly any other good that is commonly made of wood.

Some musical instruments are made from or use this material, as well. Perhaps the best example is the reeds of the double reed family, which includes the oboe, English horn, bassoon and related instruments. People make sounds on these instruments by blowing through a mouthpiece formed of two hard, shaped pieces of cane, which vibrate as the performers play.

Some types have found their way into martial arts. Hardened stems serve as weapons for fighters. The stems can be used to block blows or to deliver them. Writing paper and medicine are two other uses.

Cultural Meanings

In many Asian cultures, bamboo is associated with multiple positive qualities. It reminds people to open their hearts, as the shoots are hollow and receptive. It also shows that being rigid in body or behavior can cause a person to break; it is more important to be strong on the inside, standing tall in what a person says and does. It is often called one of the four “gentlemen” for this reason, with orchid, chrysanthemum and plum blossom being the other three.

More broadly, the plants have the spiritual connotation of protection. They are supposed to keep evil away. People often position them around religious buildings or other sacred places as a result.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is bamboo?

Bamboo is a perennial grass belonging to the family Poaceae, which includes over 1,400 species across various climates. It's known for its rapid growth, with some species growing up to 91 cm (36 inches) within a 24-hour period. Bamboo plays a crucial ecological role, serving as a habitat and food source for numerous animals, and is also valued for its versatility in construction, textiles, and culinary uses.

Is bamboo a tree or a grass?

Despite its towering, tree-like appearance, bamboo is actually a grass. It's the largest member of the grass family and is distinguished by its woody, hollow stems called culms. This classification is based on its growth patterns, reproductive biology, and the fact that it has a jointed stem structure typical of grasses.

How fast does bamboo grow?

Bamboo is one of the fastest-growing plants on Earth. Certain species, such as the Moso bamboo (Phyllostachys edulis), can grow up to 91 cm (36 inches) in just 24 hours under optimal conditions. This rapid growth rate is due to a unique rhizome-dependent system that allows multiple shoots to emerge from the ground and grow to full height in a single growing season.

Why is bamboo considered eco-friendly?

Bamboo is hailed as an eco-friendly material because it grows quickly, requires no fertilizer and self-regenerates from its own roots, so it doesn't need to be replanted. When compared to trees, bamboo absorbs carbon dioxide and releases 35% more oxygen into the atmosphere. Its sustainability and biodegradability make it a popular choice for eco-conscious consumers and manufacturers.

Can bamboo be used as a food source?

Yes, bamboo can be used as a food source. The young shoots of certain bamboo species are edible and are a staple in many Asian cuisines. They are rich in nutrients, low in calories, and have a crunchy texture with a subtly sweet flavor. Bamboo shoots must be cooked to break down their natural toxins before consumption.

What are the main uses of bamboo?

Bamboo has a myriad of uses, ranging from construction material for scaffolding, flooring, and furniture to the production of textiles like bamboo fiber clothing. It's also used in paper manufacturing, as a food source in the form of shoots, and as an ornamental plant. Its strength, flexibility, and sustainability contribute to its popularity in various industries.

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Discussion Comments

By cloudel — On Nov 01, 2012

@GlassAxe – To me, bamboo is a lot like pasta. It doesn't have a flavor of its own really, but it will taste like whatever sauce you choose to cook it in.

I put bamboo shoots in my chicken stir fry to beef it up. The chicken and vegetables alone are not always enough to make a full meal, but the bamboo gives it bulk and makes several more servings out of one pot.

By JackWhack — On Oct 31, 2012

Lucky for people who grow bamboo, it grows back even after you cut it. Unlike a tree, which dies if you cut it, bamboo shoots right back up from the point you cut it at. I sometimes forget that it is a grass, since it looks so much like a tree, but this property reminds me.

By Perdido — On Oct 30, 2012

I was impressed by how massive bamboo canes actually are. I saw a photo of a guy with a blade cutting into a stalk of bamboo, and it towered over him like a tree!

For some reason, I had always thought of bamboo like sugar cane. I've seen sugar cane growing in my parent's garden, and though it did get pretty tall, it never mimicked a tree or got very thick.

So, this photo shocked me. Bamboo is truly more treelike than the grass it actually is.

By BAU79 — On Oct 30, 2012

Can bamboo grow anywhere? I live in St. Louis, could I grow it in my backyard?

By kylee07drg — On Oct 29, 2012

All this time, I thought I had been growing bamboo out of my fish bowl. It's disappointing to learn that it's actually Dracaena.

By vigilant — On Oct 29, 2012

@chicada - I have been thinking of putting bamboo floors in my own home. I like the look and the cost, but for me the most impressive feature is their sustainability.

Bamboo is bountiful and grows incredibly quickly. Compared with some of the other hard woods that are traditionally used for hard wood flooring, bamboo is a renewable resource that leaves very little footprint. It is nice when you can enjoy the bounties of nature knowing that you are not diminishing it.

By chicada — On Oct 28, 2010

I installed sustainably produced Bamboo flooring in my home last year, and it is the best flooring material I have ever had. The pattern is beautiful, and there is a slight texture to the flooring; almost a wave as the flooring slightly follows the curvature of the bamboo.

Probably my favorite thing about my bamboo floors is the fact that it is so durable. I hardly have to worry about scratches like other wood floors (which is great considering I have two 95-pound Cane Corsos that run through the house). If anyone were looking to replace their wood floors, I would highly recommend that they take a look at bamboo flooring. You can even find them at mainstream home improvement retailers like Lowes and Home depot.

By GlassAxe — On Oct 28, 2010

I buy fresh bamboo shoots at my local Asian market and add them to my miso soup. It is really easy to prepare bamboo shoots and they make a great addition to many different Asian dishes.

If you peel and boil the bamboo shoots for about a half hour, then you will have sweet crisp bamboo shoots and no bitter flavor. The bitter form bamboo is not necessarily poisonous, but eating most bamboo shoots raw is like eating wood. As you can imagine, it does not settle well in the stomach.

By mentirosa — On Apr 07, 2010

Bamboo is indeed a fast growing grass. It can grow as much as half a meter in one day.

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