Breathtaking bamboo

A trip to the Orient brings home the incredible strength and diversity of bamboo 

Bamboo scaffolding in Hong KongOn a recent trip to Hong Kong, one of the things that startled me most is the use of bamboo scaffolding. Whilst apparently still common practice in Hong Kong and Macau, it is no longer permissible for use on tall buildings in mainland China.

Bamboo scaffolding ready for erection

Bamboo garden at HK Zoological and Botanical GardensHowever, this set me thinking about the history of this great plant and as I spent more time in the city I became aware of the number of varieties of bamboo growing in the public gardens, and of its use as a practical material.

Marco Polo observed the use of ‘canes’ or bamboos as a roofing material in China towards the end of the 13th century, and Robert Fortune noted during his travels its use for every conceivable purpose, including hats, umbrellas, baskets, ropes, paper, flower stakes, garden trellis and of course the ubiquitous scaffolding, he recommended ‘these trees are well worth the attention of people who inhabit temperate climates.’[1]

The RHS Reeves Collection (1817-1831) features an illustration of bamboo shoots, with a number of other culinary plants drawn from nature in southern China, but it wasn’t until later that century that new introductions of Bambusa or Phyllostachys could regularly be seen in British gardens.

Lemon grass and bamboo [edible tips], from RHS Reeves CollectionLeft: lemon grass and bamboo tips, from RHS Reeves Collection.

Here in the UK we commonly use bamboo as an ornamental garden plant or dried to make slim canes as plant supports, despite efforts to popularise it for other uses. Yet in China and across Southeast Asia the bamboo plant has a much wider cultural value. 

19th-century painting of an egret flying over bamboo by an unknown Chinese artistThere is a long tradition of bamboo ink painting in Chinese art dating back as far as the Middle Tang Dynasty or 8th century and it is subject to strict rules of execution and composition. Bamboo is one of the ‘Four Gentlemen’ or ‘Four Noble Ones’ in Chinese flower paintings (the orchid, plum and chrysanthemum are the other three). Its flexibility and strength are said to represent integrity, for one who may yield but not break and the hollow stalk symbolises tolerance and open-mindedness. [2]

The stark simplicity of the Chinese paintings give the bamboo an elegant charm and it is easy to see why it is so revered. 

[1] Bretschneider , History of European botanical discoveries in China, 1898, vol.2, p.516
[2] China Online Museum, ‘Four Gentlemen

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