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Exhibit Displays Versatility of Bamboo

By Hank Becker
June 10, 1997

Bamboo is the fastest-growing plant on earth, shooting up as much as 3 feet in a single day. As the only woody group of the grass family, bamboo also has other unique characteristics, both as a plant and as a fiber.

An exhibit at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., highlights bamboo's amazing versatility. "Bamboo: Art and Fact" features the arboretum’s unique collection of handmade bamboo objects ranging from hair combs and cricket cages to food graters and scissors. The exhibit continues until Sept. 30 at the arboretum's Mary E. Mrose International Pavilion of the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum.

The arboretum is part of USDA’s Agricultural Research Service. The exhibit’s artifacts were acquired mostly between 1929 and 1935 by scientists collecting bamboo in China and Japan for establishment and study.

Although bamboo is a woody grass, you can't cut it with a lawnmower. Nor is it advisable to wait for bamboo to flower to collect its seed; that could take up to 60 years. When the rare flowering does occur, entire bamboo groves do so simultaneously, then plants die. New shoots--called culms--sprout from the seed and from underground stems or rhizomes.

Bamboo likes warm climates. Most species are native to tropical Asia. Some are colossal, growing to 130 feet high with 1-foot-thick stems. ARS has one of the world's largest collections of bamboo germplasm in Mayaguez, P.R.

Aside from the unusual items shown in the exhibit, bamboo is used in many common products: plant stakes, baskets, window shades and leaf rakes, to name a few examples. In Asia, a broader range of goods from bamboo is commonplace, including industrial materials such as fiber for plywood and pulp for paper.

The U.S. National Arboretum, located at 3501 New York Avenue, NE, Washington, D.C., is open to the public from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Christmas Day. Admission is free.

Scientific contact: Janet G. Walker, ARS U.S. National Arboretum, Washington, D.C., phone (202) 245-4532,