Over the last few decades, there has been an explosion of various bamboo products. From socks to towels to sheets to flooring, bamboo can do just about anything. And thanks to the predominance of Moso bamboo from China, bamboo does pretty much everything.
Bamboo’s environmental benefits make it a top choice among environmentally conscious consumers. Many of these consumers are also asking, “What about bamboo grown in the United States?”
Growing bamboo in America is a great idea. In fact, wherever corn is grown, bamboo can be grown with fewer chemicals. Bamboo is fast-growing and cold-tolerant, and many species grow taller than trees. Although it does not grow as well in Kansas and Kentucky as it does in its native China, commercial bamboo holds promise for American growers looking to diversify their acreage.
Gardeners and landscapers have been cultivating bamboo in the United States for many years. And now, the excitement surrounding the domestic bamboo industry is greater than ever. From farm to factory, new ideas and opportunities emerge almost every day.
Current estimates put the global bamboo industry at around US$80 billion annually. The United States remains the largest importer of bamboo, primarily from China. So, the incentive to grow bamboo on American soil is significant. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. None of the commercially significant bamboo species are native to the United States, and the country has yet to demonstrate the cultivation of bamboo from seed to mature harvest as a proven business concept.
Table of Contents
- Bamboo Species
- Climate Conditions Required For Bamboo Farming
- Can You Do Bamboo Farming in US?
- Farming Bamboo in Florida
- Farming Bamboo in North Carolina
- Farming Bamboo in Georgia
- Challenges: Bamboo Farming in the US (United States)
Growing bamboo in your garden and growing it as a cash crop are two very different things. You can choose from hundreds of bamboo seeds for your garden, depending on your climate and desired effect. But there are only a handful of notable species to grow bamboo and compete with China on the open market.
Until recently, all commercial bamboo cultivation took place in China and South Asia. Most bamboo species are native to this part of the world. This means that you will have no trouble finding a well-performing bamboo variety that is free of unexpected pests and other problems.
Moso bamboo from southern China is a variety used for bamboo flooring and clothing. There is demand. There are even more species to choose from to grow bamboo for props and light structures. Guadua bamboo is the main variety used for poles and construction in Latin America, but it does not perform well in the tropical north.
But serious research needs to be done before mass planting of Chinese or South American bamboo in the United States. Exotic plants can have a hard time adapting to unfamiliar weather and soil. And, of course, bamboo is known to spread rapidly. These are some serious considerations that must be taken into account before introducing bamboo into foreign habitats on an industrial scale.
Phyllostachys nigra ‘Henon’ (giant grey) and Phyllostachys bambusoides are temperate cultivars that grow more readily in a wider range of climates. They have straight, smooth culms that are perfect for buildings and other uses, and can easily grow to 50 feet tall and 5 inches in diameter.
Phyllostachys rubromraginata, or red-edged bamboo, has long been popular as an ornamental and is now gaining prominence as an excellent money plant. In terms of distribution, it is one of the fastest-growing species. While it may not be a giant species like moso or henon, rubulo grows in dense thickets and can produce as much biomass as woody bamboo per hectare.
Bambusa balcooa is an Indian species, now cultivated in many parts of Asia and Africa, characterized by its large size and very thick culms. This species produces large amounts of biomass and very high-quality piles for construction. Although it is a gregarious bamboo, it is also a tropical variety that requires a warm climate.
Dendrocalamus asper is one of the most important bamboo species in the world. Many people in Southeast Asia and Indonesia consider it the strongest of all bamboo species. Excellent for construction. There are also edible buds. like B Balcooa is a tropical bushy bamboo that needs a warm climate to thrive and survive economically. Many farmers now grow D. asper in Florida.
Climate Conditions Required For Bamboo Farming
Indeed, there are bamboo species that grow throughout North America. However, to grow bamboo on an economically viable scale, most varieties require some degree of temperature and humidity to reach their full potential.
There is no shortage of bamboo that can withstand freezing temperatures. In fact, you can grow bamboo wherever corn grows. However, very cold weather will definitely delay harvest and reduce the overall yield. As such, the practical zones for growing bamboo in the United States are rather limited. The southwest may have potential, but it’s a bit dry. And all framework conditions must work in your favor to operate successfully and competitively. Still, some farmers are considering bamboo for the California desert.
The ideal area for bamboo forests in the United States is the deep southeast. Once the land of King Cotton, it is now home to burgeoning Big Bamboo forests.
Can You Do Bamboo Farming in US?
Gardeners in the United States plant bamboo as a houseplant and as a privacy screen. In at least 49 states and Canada, you can find bamboo species that thrive or at least survive. No, your bamboo may not reach its highest potential in places like Vermont or Minnesota, but yes, it can grow.
Farming Bamboo in Florida
Mixon Farms, a longtime orchard in Manatee County, Florida, planted about 8 acres of commercial bamboo about five years ago (2016). As citrus trees battle pests, disease, and climate change, these pioneers have risen with bamboo.
Based in Bradenton, Florida, near Tampa, Mixon Fruit Farms believes bamboo is a more resilient and profitable crop than the citrus fruits that have long dominated the local landscape. Today, they mainly focus on growing Moso bamboo (Phyllostachys edulis) for its edible shoots, which are rich in dietary fiber and rich in vitamins and minerals. As the plantation becomes more mature, it may begin harvesting large piles for timber and various other uses.
Also in Bradenton, Rizome Bamboo now claims to grow thousands of acres of bamboo, which would make it the largest bamboo farm in America. They specialize in the production of technical bamboo lumber for the construction industry. The company is also listed on Start Engine, which helps startups raise investment capital from the public.
Rizome Bamboo appears to be associated with Carbon Resources of Florida, which specializes in producing Envirocoal™, a virtually sulfur-free solid fuel used in power plants. It remains to be seen whether rhizome bamboo will also find its way into the energy industry. This is one of bamboo’s myriad uses. In the Southeast near Fort Lauderdale, Only Moso specializes in growing Moso Bamboo and Dendrocalamus Asper for a variety of uses, from seedlings to soil to sunglasses. More importantly, they provided starter plants to other farmers and growers, including Mixon Farms.
Farming Bamboo in North Carolina
National Bamboo helps farmers across the region transform their land from traditional crops to promising bamboo. Their preferred species is Phyllostachys nigra ‘Henon’, a temperate woody bamboo suitable for this climate and purpose due to its impressive size and growth rate. They also recommend and use Phyllostachys edulis (Moso), P. rubromarginata, and P. vivax.
Farming Bamboo in Georgia
Thigpen Trail Bamboo Farm is another interesting venture in the Deep South. This family farm and nursery grows about 100 varieties of bamboo, specializing in bamboo that does not affect local habitats.
South Georgia has an ideal climate for growing bamboo, but there are also many pristine natural habitats that can be disturbed by invasive species by planting the wrong species. As a retail nursery, Thigpen sells live bamboo plants to individuals and the general public. They also wholesale to other nurseries in the area and smallholder farmers looking to start commercial growth.
Challenges: Bamboo Farming in the US (United States)
The promise of American bamboo sounds tempting and many are rushing like the next gold rush. Unfortunately, not everyone in the industry is as realistic as we would like it to be. Some farms will say bamboo grows like a weed and costs $25,000 per acre to grow wild. But the reality is less certain, and growing bamboo commercially in non-native habitats is not that easy.
Perhaps the most important thing to realize in 2022 is that no American has been operating a commercial bamboo farm long enough to know the full story. Florida’s most experienced growers have only been around for about 5-6 years. This may affect their oldest plants and they may be nearing maturity, but it will probably be another couple of years before they can harvest full-size, top-quality poles.
Many Floridians began by planting the Mourning Mushroom, which is so widespread and revered in China, but then moved on to cultivating Aspelia, a more tropical bamboo with gregarious habits.
It could take several years for American farmers to establish a proven approach to growing bamboo from seedling to full harvest. The question remains where they sell the sticks and what they do?
This bamboo processing and manufacturing issue is another important consideration. There are currently no large bamboo processing plants in the United States. As such, farmers may be reluctant to feed industry on hundreds or thousands of acres of land. Experts say about 5,000 acres of bamboo are needed to justify building a factory. And no one in this country is that close. Smaller farmers, however, can purchase more modest machines to turn bamboo into charcoal, toothpicks, pulp for paper, or thin strips for lightweight construction.
When it comes to sustainability, no other raw material can match bamboo in terms of its vigorous growth and limitless diversity. However, reducing our carbon footprint also means sourcing our materials locally. And as long as all bamboo comes from China and the Far East, it’s going to be a disadvantage.
State advocates for sustainability and environmental responsibility are finally growing plantations to feed America’s healthy appetite for bamboo. The Deep South is recognizing bamboo’s potential as farmers in places like Kentucky and the Midwest jump on the hemp bandwagon. Until further research proves otherwise, the area around the Gulf of Mexico appears to be the most suitable for commercial bamboo cultivation. Only in this hot and humid subtropical climate can giant bamboo grow to full size. Elsewhere, cooler regions grow somewhat slower, and local growers may struggle to compete with Chinese bamboo.
However, there are still risks and challenges in growing Asian bamboo in North America. Some species may not do well on this continent, and others may do a little too well, driving native ecosystems to extinction. “Strains are not easy to find and still require a lot of research.
Thanks to pioneers like OnlyMoso in South Florida, National Bamboo in North Carolina, and Resource Fiber in Alabama, Americans are finally growing bamboo on a large scale. At the moment, the most ambitious farms are in Florida’s citrus region, but Georgia is also recognizing bamboo’s economic potential in the peach state.
If all goes well, bamboo fields could one day stretch from Miami to Houston to Kentucky. But remember that the key to sustainability is maintaining balance and diversity. The goal is to manage primary forests and grasslands in ways that are compatible and complementary, not to replace them all under the guise of ‘green gold’.