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Bamboo can be a love-it-or-hate-it type of plant. Varieties of it grow just about anywhere, from the tropics to the cool temperate climate. It is known simultaneously to be one the most useful plants around, for building and privacy hedges, windbreaks, and food and crafts, as well as tremendously invasive because it grows so quickly.
There are nearly 1600 species of bamboo known across the world, and of that group, just over 100 are considered edible, meaning tender and tasty. Bamboo shoots are all edible, and at the same time, they contain toxic chemicals, like apricots and almonds, that must be boiled away. Bamboo can never be eaten raw.
The trick to growing bamboo for food is choosing the appropriate species, ones that are regarded as delicious and suitable for the climate. The parts that are edible are the young shoots that pop up from the ground, and while size doesn’t determine edibility, it does affect the quantity of a harvest: larger shoots equal larger harvests.
For growers in the USA or other similarly temperate climates, here are some of the best choices and some tips on how to cultivate them.
The Right Type of Bamboo
If it is food we are after, there are definitely right and not-so-right types of bamboo to eat. Our two primary considerations begin with flavor and climate. We want tender, delicious shoots rather than ones that we have to really process to make palatable. And, we want a species of bamboo that will readily grow in our climate so that cultivating it isn’t a struggle. With that in mind, these are some of the best choices:
- Phyllostachys edulis: Informally known as moso bamboo, this giant variety of bamboo reaches up to 50 feet tall and can be eight inches in diameter. It’s hardy, readily available, and produces large shoots for food and big stalks for building.
- Phyllostachys dulcis: Referred to as sweetshoot bamboo, this is a plant that can be judged by its cover (or name). It grows up to 40 feet high and three inches around. It also withstands temperatures down to zero degrees Fahrenheit.
- Acidosasa edulis: A member of a strain of bamboo considered “sour”, this species is cultivated large-scale for food. It can survive temperatures of five degrees and grows canes that are 2.5 inches around.
- Chimonobambusa varieties: There are several members of this genus that are considered not just good but delicious. They can be expected to grow in places that stay above 15 degrees, and they produce much thinner and shorter canes than the previous bamboos in this list.
- Chimonocalamus delicatus: Its Latin name suggests that it is a delicacy, and its common name, fragrant bamboo, sounds enticing as well. We can feel good about that going in. It endures freezing temperatures down to 10 degrees, and its canes get to be 1.5 inches around.
The Right Conditions for Bamboo
Bamboo is grass, so it isn’t generally overly demanding about what conditions it’ll grow in. However, there are some basic factors that can produce better harvests. Rich soil is a plus, and if it’s well-drained but amply moist, that’s great. Bamboo does not like waterlogged soil, but it does like moisture. It doesn’t require fertilizing, though some organic fertilizer might encourage better productivity. That said, manure is generally discouraged because it’s the new shoots that are edible, and that could tempt pathogen issues. Mature compost might be a better choice.
The Right Precautions with Bamboo
Bamboo is often considered an invasive plant because it does grow so easily and rapidly. Bamboos are either clumping or running. The clumping varieties don’t tend to spread out of control, but the running varieties notoriously do so. Unfortunately, the good edible bamboos are generally running species.
There are a few techniques people use to prevent their bamboo from taking over. It can be grown in containers, either sitting atop the ground or partially buried in the ground. Or, underground barriers can be put in place. A wide section of grass can be left between the bamboo and anything else, and that can be mown regularly. Or, the shoots should be harvested, which was the point of growing it after all, so that new canes in new areas never form.
The Right Way to Harvest Bamboo
The bamboo season is in early spring. Smaller varieties of bamboo should be harvested before they reach six inches, and larger bamboos can be left up to a foot. The younger and shorter sprouts indicate better texture and flavor. The shoots should be cut cleanly from the roots.
Once harvested, the outer layers of the bamboo need to be peeled off, revealing the familiar white innards that we’ve grown so fond of in stir-fries. They should be cut to size and boiled in water for ten minutes. Then, the water should be drained away, and the process should be repeated at least once. It may take several times to get the shoots pleasingly tender and tasty.
Bamboo shoots can be eaten right away, or they can be canned, pickled, or frozen for later use. Bamboo is a fun, beautiful, and easy crop to grow.
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