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Classifications vary considerably, due to the difficulties of finding species in flower and fruit. (Bamboos flower at unpredictable intervals between 20–120 years; some species flower only once, with the whole population flowering simulataneously, then die back together.) There are 75–110 recognized genera with 1140–1250 species (Lobovikov et al. 2007, Ngoc and Borton 2006, Tewari 1992). Major genera include Bambusa, Cephalostachyum, Dendrocalamus, Gigantochloa, Melocanna, Phyllostachys, Schizostachyum, and Thryostachys in southeast Asia, and Chusquea and Guadua in the tropical Americas (Dransfield and Widjaja 1995).
Bamboos are characterized by a prominent rhizome system, branching and usually woody culms (stems), and leaf blades with petioles. Most species are upright, but some are vine-like. Bamboos are the fastest-growing of woody plants (Tewari 1992), and have been observed to grow 30–60 cm (1–2 feet) in 24 hours (Wiltshire 2004), as shown in this video from BBC’s Planet Earth.
Bamboos are distributed throughout tropical, sub-tropical, and mild temperate regions worldwide (McClure 1966). The greatest diversity occurs in southern and southeastern Asia (India, China, Japan, Korea); Madagascar also has numerous endemics (Tewari 1992, Dransfield and Widjaja 1995). However, the tropical Americas also have many species, including most of the herbaceous bamboo species (Judziwicz et al. 1999).
Every part of the bamboo plant can be used. As Vietnamese schoolchildren learn in textbooks: “The leaves are used as fodder for cows and horses, and the branches are used as hedges. The old trees are used as poles and rafters for houses. The young trees are used to make rope and string. The shoots are used for food. The roots are used for brushing clothes. What a useful tree!” (Ngoc and Borton 2006). Bamboo is used extensively in Asia and parts of South America (Columbia, Peru) to construct buildings, fences, and water pipes, and as fuel. Bamboo is also used to make cookware, baskets, furniture, rafts, farming, trapping, and hunting tools (including Amazonian blowpipes), fabric (woven mats, rayon from the fiber), and musical instruments, and can be converted to biofuel (Judziewicz et al. 1999, Tewari 1992). Numerous species are cultivated as ornamentals.
Bamboo has been used extensively in traditional medicine (see Medicinal uses).Recent medical studies have documented anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antifungal, and anticancer properties (Chongtham et al. 2011).
Bamboos are fast-growing and harvestable in 3–5 years. They have been planted widely in reforestation programs and for erosion control. Natural and plantation bamboo forests covered around 14 million hectares globally during the 1990s, mostly in Asia (including 1/7 of India’s forested area), with nearly 1 million hectares in western Amazonia.
Bamboos support many other species. See Associations.