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The roots of a passion for Giant Bamboo

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My great interest in giant bamboo has distant origins. When I was little, my father had a plant nursery near Sanremo with one hectare of air-conditioned iron and glass greenhouses and after school, I spent the whole summer in my father’s flower nursery. In 1966 we participated as exhibitors in the first international edition of Euroflora horticulture in Genoa.

On the last day of the fair, a colleague of ours, also an exhibitor, gave us a large vase containing a beautiful specimen of giant bamboo – probably Phyllostachys viridis.

That pot was placed at the entrance of a greenhouse and, during the daily check-up of the crops with my father, there was also a frugal look at those lush green reeds, better known as culms. The thing that intrigued me the most was the incredible speed of growth of the new shoots, typical of this plant.

The Chinese giant bamboo

It was the 1980s when I went as head of the Montedison S.A. -Advanced Agricultural Technology Promotion Company – at the 1st International Agricultural Fair in Beijing. During my stay I had the opportunity to see some examples of protected crops: vineyards, planted perhaps by Jesuit monks already present in China around 1600 and vast bamboo plantations.

Some estimates by the American Department of Agriculture report a current extension of about 7 million hectares of giant bamboo, making China the world’s largest exporter of bamboo shoots and semi-finished products.

Giant bamboo in China has multiple uses as a yarn, to produce paper, various objects, furniture. But perhaps the most rooted use, as an April 2020 article in the South China Morning Post reminds us, is for building scaffolding.

It is not uncommon, wandering around Hong Kong, to see buildings even of several floors, wrapped in a dense network of bamboo stalks on which, with incredible dexterity, Chinese masons and carpenters climb.

Chinese construction, according to the Hong Kong newspaper, uses two types of bamboo: one is called gaozhu, coming from a species called Bambusa Peravariabilis, while the other is maozhu, which is thicker and longer and is obtained from Phyllostachys Edulis.

The meeting with Davide Vitali

Between 2016 and 2017 I lived in Ghana, in Accra. During these two years I have visited, as a consultant to the Ghanaian Ministry of Agriculture, several oil palm plantations and bamboo groves. In fact, traveling to the north it is not difficult to come across these giant bamboo, a bit like it happens here in Italy to see vast fields of corn.

The culms are, once a year, collected, left to dry and placed in containers to be shipped to Europe. It was on my return from Central Africa that I met Davide Vitali a person, like me, deeply in love with this wonderful plant: Phyllostachys Edulis.

He talked to me at length about the potential of this species also on the national territory and, on several occasions, I joined him and making available my knowledge and experience. When Davide Vitali, a few years later, told me about his Prosperity Bamboo project, I immediately decided to embrace the cause, renewing my willingness to take a broader approach, focused not so much on cultivation but also on its uses.

Bamboo and the current scenario

The applications of bamboo are innumerable and are well suited to a closer link with different sectors of the industry.

It should be noted that the bamboo groves in Italy, with a few exceptions, are of modest  surface: 2-3 hectares. To supply industry with abundant material, larger extensions are needed which, with an adequate agricultural policy, could easily be found.

Today we have thousands of hectares of abandoned agricultural land available because they do not give enough agricultural income to justify its cultivation.

In 2020, the year scourged by the Covid-19 pandemic, we realized at a high price how dangerous it is to depend excessively on imported products: the emblematic case is the Chinese masks.

The bamboo and semi-finished products that we find on the Italian market are mainly of Chinese origin, including the tasty pickled sprouts that we find in ethnic restaurant dishes and of which we absolutely do not know where and how they were grown. I therefore fully agree with Davide Vitali’s statement which I am pleased to report here: “whoever produces the raw material is at the top of the pyramid of a new industrial chain”.

Final thoughts

Those who know the agricultural world are well aware that the strawberries we eat today are different cultivars from those of even just 5 years ago, well, even if on a smaller scale, the giant bamboo made in Italy has made progress.

Great nursery farms have limited themselves to importing seeds from China and placing on the market all that has germinated, others perhaps smaller, have made a certain selection of mother plants by marketing better and already adult plants -1.80-2.00 meters in height.

The planting method has also changed, adapting to the needs of the Italian territory and latitudes. I wanted to condense a basis of these notions in a manual: Earning with giant bamboo.

A bamboo plantation for at least a century produces enormous quantities of precious wood, food and oxygen, exactly what humanity needs. For this reason, from a far-sighted perspective, there can be no doubt about the validity of the economic return on the investment and the benefits for the environment of which so much is said but little, in practice, is realized.

Author: Massimo Somaschini – Agronomist & Consultant

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