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African Bamboo

By Taylor Wanket and Melissa Andrews



African bamboos have recently come into the limelight when two rare and little understood species of bamboo were found in the mountains of Cameroon, where gorillas had probably been living off them for centuries.

Since the spread of bamboo by seed is an extremely rare occurrence, it was supposed that these African mountain bamboos could be very old, possibly related to the earliest species of temperate bamboos that would have spread to Asia on shifting tectonic plates.

Nonetheless, upon further investigation, it was found that the two new African species are too different from the Asian bamboos to share a common ancestor, although perhaps their ancestors were related.

African bamboo

Discovered by one of the foremost biologists in bamboo research, Dr. Chris Stapleton, the two new bamboos are called Bergambos and Oldeania, which is their name in the local Afrikaans and Masaai respectively.

They are different from Asian bamboos in both appearance and DNA sequencing, though their uses remain much the same. In fact, about 4 percent of Africa’s forest cover is bamboo.

Bamboo is considered an eco-friendly plant as it can be grown without any irrigation in its natural habitat, and it needs no pesticides, fertilisers or insecticides.

Bamboo reaches maturity in one to three years, which makes it an even more sustainable resource when compared to trees or other wooded plants. Unlike hardwood trees, bamboo regrows after harvesting, just as grass regrows after cutting. 

After it is mature, bamboo can be harvested every single year for the life of the plant.

A forest of bamboo that is the same exact size as a grove of trees produces 35% more oxygen than the trees. Additionally, the root systems of bamboo prevent soil erosion and runoff, thanks to the net-like structure of them.

Known as “the strongest and fastest growing wooded plant on earth”, Bamboo is also becoming ever more popular as a source of lumber and fibre (to make products such as bamboo sheets).

According to the New York Times, harvesting bamboo to make durable goods is greener than not harvesting bamboo.  Here’s why: bamboo culms - the poles - do not live as long as hardwood trees, usually up to a decade. When an old culm decays, it releases carbon into the atmosphere. (The root system, which hold 30 to 40 percent of its carbon, last much longer.)

This means that an untouched bamboo forest is a poor carbon sink. Fortunately, the best way to turn bamboo into an excellent carbon sink is to make money with it - harvest the bamboo to make durable products before it starts its decay. Treated bamboo flooring or furniture will last as long as wood, storing its carbon the whole time.

Professor Chin Ong of the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi aims to prove that bamboo is useful and profitable for both urban people and smallholders in African villages - and he has some innovative ideas.

One of these is to use bamboo to clean up the wastewater from a settlement like Kibera slum on the outskirts of Nairobi, which is home to more than a million people. Given the fact that bamboo once covered huge parts of the area where Nairobi now sprawled, this isn’t such a stretch of the imagination.

Bamboo also makes charcoal that burns more efficiently and cleanly than wood and wood charcoal - Kibera slum communities are developing bamboo woodlots as a sustainable source of domestic fuel. In fact, bamboo might provide the solution to the very serious problem of deforestation in sub-Saharan Africa.

And with global trade in bamboo worth an estimated $2 billion per year - if Africa had to tap into growing demand for this resource, it could create much-needed income and jobs.

So, plant enthusiasts, when you’re planning your next trip to Africa, be sure to go somewhere where you can witness the miracle of African bamboos, while simultaneously enjoying great weather.

You may even be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the gorillas munching on a late afternoon snack of bamboo shoots.

References:

Chris Stapleton. 2013. Bergbambos and Oldeania, new genera of African bamboos (Poaceae, Bambusoideae). PhytoKeys 25: 87-103; doi: 10.3897/phytokeys.25.6026

McClure, Floyd Alonzo. The Bamboos. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1993. Print.

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