What you should know about Japanese bamboo

There are plants that have specific and sometimes exclusive functions. However, there is one that is versatile due to its various applications: Japanese bamboo. 

We are used to species that are only used for decoration, as a natural remedy, or as raw material to manufacture industrial products. 

Japanese bamboo offers diverse solutions. Yes, historically, it has been of great help for the subsistence of many communities.

In the past, it was used to make weapons, such as bows and arrows. 

That has changed, and now the evolution is evident. Besides appearing in rituals, it is used to make everyday objects like baskets, brooms, fishing rods, and much more. 

It is even common to find it in dishes from the eastern country. Keep reading here to learn everything you need to know about Japanese bamboo.

How does bamboo grow?

You don’t need to be an expert in agriculture to know that a good seed harvest takes time. 

However, those who cultivate bamboo are aware that they will need more patience than usual. 

Although this plant requires normal care, changes only start to be seen seven years later. 

First, the seeds are sown, fertilized, and constantly watered. But in the following years, nothing will happen visibly. 

Are you an inexperienced grower? Then you might think that the soil is not fertile or your seeds are sterile. Wrong! 

The action is happening underground. Bamboo needs a solid base, and it achieves this thanks to a strong and complex root system. 

The same roots will support it for the rest of its life. After those seven years, the plant will germinate and won’t stop growing. 

In fact, in just weeks, it can reach a height of 30 meters. Another notable characteristic is that no matter how many times you cut it, it will always grow back.

Distinctive features of bamboo

But what is the structure of this tree like? When some people talk about bamboo, they refer to it as a tree. 

We understand because they associate it with its great height. However, this is a mistake. 

It is actually a plant. Specifically, it belongs to the family of wheat, rice, and corn. That is, to the grasses. 

Now, let’s talk about its morphology. The culm or stem is woody and divided into nodes. 

When you have one in your hands, the surprise comes when you see how it is inside: it is hollow between nodes. 

Another peculiar characteristic is that its base is an underground stem that grows horizontally and dozens of centimeters below the surface. 

Its name is rhizome, and from it, several shoots can emerge, which give life to individual crops.

Species and characteristics of Japanese bamboo

There are around 1200 species of bamboo in the world. Now, not all are Japanese. 

In Japan, only 250 varieties grow, belonging to two particular species: sasa and bamboo. 

The first reaches a height of 0.5 to 4 meters, and the sheath (protective cover) of the culm or stem remains intact over time. 

Meanwhile, the second can reach up to 20 meters in height, a process that makes the sheath fall off. 

Three common varieties come from it: mosochiku, madake, and hachiku. Let’s see how they differ:

Mosochiku Bamboo

About five hundred years ago, it arrived in the country from China. It is a giant bamboo that exceeds 20 meters, specifically capable of reaching up to 28 meters. 

Its most common application is in the textile industry dedicated to producing artificial silk. 

Also, many of the bamboo shoots found in Japanese cuisine are from this family.

Madake Bamboo

This species is native to both China and Japan. It reaches up to 20 meters in height, and usually, its diameter is 10 cm. 

You can recognize it by its color. Its stem is dark and particularly very straight. 

Precisely because of this characteristic, it is highly valued for construction and furniture making.

Hachiku Bamboo

There are doubts about the origin of this species. Some say they are from Japan. 

Other versions claim it arrived in this country from China during the Nara period. 

Apart from this ambiguity, many others exist. This is because its flowering cycle is 120 years, so there is little information about it.

Uses of Japanese bamboo

Being an evergreen plant, the Japanese have found multiple ways to use bamboo. There is always something to do with its leaves, culm, shoots, etc. 

And precisely that sense of permanence has made people consider it a sacred plant. 

It is used as decoration in ceremonial rituals and annual festivals. One of them is the jichinsai ritual.

In addition, it has other applications because it is very flexible, lightweight, and easy to cut. 

As mentioned earlier, it was chosen for weapon production; now, it is used to create crafts. 

Similarly, it is used to make brooms, umbrellas, chopsticks, fishing gear, and materials for building houses. 

In gastronomy, it is also an important element. On one hand, the antibacterial properties of the leaves and sheath are utilized. 

On the other hand, they are used to wrap food. Two examples are dango (dumplings) and onigiri (rice balls). Therefore, there are many dishes where bamboo is present.

3 Japanese bamboo recipes you didn’t know

Bamboo shoots are major protagonists of Japanese cuisine in the spring. They are a highly anticipated seasonal ingredient by chefs and diners. 

If you are a fan of bamboo shoots, you must go to the mountains and find those that have not yet reached the ground. 

Wait for the right moment and harvest them. These are soft and can be eaten raw. 

Another option, the most common, is to wait until they are exposed to sunlight and photosynthesis begins. 

At that point, their taste is bitter and spicy. The key is to cook them immediately after harvesting. 

In any case, they should be boiled for an hour before enjoying. Here are three well-known dishes:

Rice with bamboo shoots

This is the most typical dish with shoots and, therefore, a must for the Japanese in spring. They are cooked with the rice, resulting in fragrant and crispy shoots with an earthy flavor.

Grilled bamboo shoots

This is a healthy snack. They are barbecued. How? Boil the shoots and marinate them. Then, insert them into a skewer and grill them over charcoal.

Processed bamboo shoots

You can find them in any store or supermarket. Eat them fresh or use them to prepare menma, a condiment that can accompany Japanese ramen. Simply boil the shoots, cut them into slices, and ferment them.

What is the purpose of Japanese bamboo forests?

Thanks to the distinctive features of this plant, the Japanese have always considered bamboo forests as safe places. 

Their height and strength have made them the protective plant for many communities. 

The rhizomes fixed to the ground created an extensive and solid system that, since the Meiji period (1868-1912), prevents and withstands damage caused by natural disasters. 

The current forests were born in that era when the natives planted bamboos along rivers and reservoir dikes near human settlements. 

They knew they were less likely to collapse than other species, so they chose them as a protective shield.

Current situation

The demand for bamboo decreased from 1960 when the plastic products industry began to prosper. 

Urbanization was another factor that replaced the use of bamboo. Consequences? 

The number of unused forests increased considerably. Now they have such high density that it is difficult to walk through them. 

Recommendations? Regularly cut them so they don’t grow too much. 

The goal is to achieve a balanced density level so that sunlight can penetrate easily, allowing the specimens to thrive. 

This would produce ideal species for construction and crafts. At the same time, tasty shoots would sprout and spread properly for disaster prevention.

Bamboo and sustainability

The sustainable development goals have made governments, organizations, and institutions worldwide turn their attention to Japanese bamboo

This is a renewable resource that has gained importance in this field. In fact, local authorities and people related to the matter have taken measures. 

They are working with residents to use and manage abandoned bamboo forests. At the same time, they are devising and developing new ways to use the plant. 

Evidently, we are facing a plant that undoubtedly offers many benefits to humanity. It is strong, has solid bases, is flexible, renewable, and has decorative qualities. 

Tell us, what would you do with Japanese bamboo?