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Bamboo, the world’s all-purpose, fastest-growing grass

Two biologists have created Europe’s first botanical laboratory for non-invasive bamboo species in Spain’s Guadalquivir valley

Raúl Limón
Antonio Vega-Rioja (left) and Manuel Trillo, in the bamboo nursery constructed in the Guadalquivir valley
Antonio Vega-Rioja (left) and Manuel Trillo, in the bamboo nursery constructed in the Guadalquivir valley.PACO PUENTES

Bamboo is a grass, a giant grass, but it is still a humble herbaceous plant of the grass family (Poaceae) and it has some unique features: some species grow between 70 centimeters and one meter (27.5 inches and 39.3 inches) in a single day, it is capable of capturing between three and four times more CO2 than other plants, it flowers once every 100 to 150 years on average only to die later, its roots do not go deeper than 100 centimeters (39.3 inches), although the height of its stems can exceed 25 meters (82.02 feet) in only three years, when it reaches maturity, and in no more than three square meters it can provide shade over an area up to 60 times larger. Manuel Trillo and Antonio Vega-Rioja, two biologists who were trained at the University of Seville in southern Spain, have created the first certified non-invasive bamboo nursery in Europe. Theirs is a botanical laboratory to research and apply all the benefits that this plant can offer, about which prejudices are more deeply rooted than the rhizomes of the plant.

There are hotels, houses, schools, and bridges made of bamboo. This grass, the fastest growing in the world, provides food, oxygen, and shade, and is capable of reducing the ambient temperature by up to 15 degrees Celsius compared to a surface in the sun. However, it carries the false burden of being considered an invasive species, despite the fact that only about 20 of the more than 1,500 species identified are considered invasive, and only in some regions.

“Prejudice comes from confusing origin with behavior. Potatoes, tomatoes and oranges are not native to Europe either, but they are not invasive. The bamboo root is central, unlike grass. It only generates one culm [offshoots, flowers or spikes that are born from the same foot],” Vega-Rioja points out.

Vega-Rioja’s father, who was a technical architect, became interested in these plants. He passed on his passion to his son who, as a biologist, together with his partner Manuel Trillo, created an ecological botanical laboratory to research and introduce this plant as an ornamental, industrial, and bioclimatic element. This is the origin of La Bambusería, located a few kilometers from the Andalusian capital and the first European bamboo nursery for non-invasive species.

Manuel Trillo (left) and Antonio Vega-Rioja, in the non-invasive bamboo nursery created in Seville.
Manuel Trillo (left) and Antonio Vega-Rioja, in the non-invasive bamboo nursery created in Seville.PACO PUENTES

“We gathered 10,000 seeds of which 7,500 germinated and selected about 400 based on their characteristics,” explains Vega-Rioja. In the botanical laboratory, measuring only one hectare (2.47 acres) and located in the fertile valley of the Guadalquivir River, he shows different species adapted to various climatic conditions: some can withstand up to -12 degrees Celsius (10.4 degrees Fahrenheit) and survived winter storm Filomena, while others grow in deserts. The gigantic green mass contrasts with the neighboring farms planted with sunflowers and potatoes. At the entrance gate the temperature is 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) on the asphalt of the access road. In the nursery, it is 25.1 degrees Celsius (77.2 degrees Fahrenheit).

Inside, the only sound is coming from birds, despite the fact that, barely 50 meters away, about 50 workers are harvesting the potato crop. The virtues of bamboo as a noise screen have been extensively researched and studies show that it is a suitable acoustic absorbing material.

But the potential of this herbaceous giant is enormous. Known to be central in the panda’s diet, to the point of having conditioned its physiognomy, according to Scientific Reports, bamboo has been present in human life since the beginning of time.

Experimental greenhouse with bamboo species.
Experimental greenhouse with bamboo species.PACO PUENTES

And this permanent presence is due to the fact that, in addition to being a source of food, its special structure, analyzed in a National Science Review study, has not gone unnoticed by humans. The plant has been used for all kinds of constructions or to save up to 20% of energy in transporting heavy objects with a simple rod. “These remarkable but simple tools can potentially reduce the user’s physical effort,” explains Ryan Schroeder of the University of Calgary in the Journal of experimental biology.

Another article, published in GCB Bioenergy describes how bamboo can be a resource for developing renewable energy. “Bioethanol and biochar are the main products that can be obtained,” explains Zhiwei Liang of the Hungarian University of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

The key to bamboo’s versatility lies in the spatial distribution of the fibers in its hollow cylinders, which is optimized to reinforce its strength and bending capacity. “Mimicking the lightweight and toughness model of bamboo, an approach called biomimetics, has proven successful in solving many problems in materials development,” says Motohiro Sato, of Hokkaido University and author of research in Plos One. In this regard, the water-bearing membrane within bamboo, which allows it to be the fastest growing plant in the world, has inspired a research team at Queensland University of Technology to develop more efficient electrodes for batteries that could increase the speed of recharging.

Experimental greenhouse with bamboo species.
Experimental greenhouse with bamboo species.PACO PUENTES

The list of uses and applications of bamboo nature is enormous, from the production of biodegradable kitchenware to the manufacture of bicycles or furniture through all branches of construction. The two Spanish biologists have embarked on this path. “We have never given up research,” says Trillo, who had to supplement his knowledge of biology with knowledge of agriculture. He holds a practical master’s degree provided by his neighbor Emilio Jiménez, without whose teachings they would not have been able to carry out the project, the researcher admits.

The commitment to the botanical laboratory has led Vega-Rioja to become the first legal exporter of bamboo from Thailand. He and Trillo continue to experiment with hybridization to obtain plants with special characteristics depending on their use or the area in which they are to be grown, or to pursue unique seeds around the world, which can cost up to 10 dollars per grain, in order to plant a nursery of up to 200 varieties.

One of the applications with the potential to be applied immediately and have a noticeable short-term effect is the creation of pest-resistant, shaded, green spaces in specific areas, where bioclimatic solutions can be achieved with minimal soil use (bamboo can even be planted in pots) and without damaging the built-up area.

Different species of bamboo grown in Seville
Different species of bamboo grown in SevillePACO PUENTES

They speak of areas near highways, schoolyards, industrial estates, unshaded squares, domestic fences, avenues or areas devoid of vegetation. They do not claim bamboo as an alternative solution to native flora, but as a tool for surgical intervention in spaces where a quick vegetation cover is needed. This facilitates the capture of as much CO2 as possible and provides 35% more oxygen and shade capable of reducing heat by 15 degrees Celsius when environmental conditions are extreme.

The price per meter covered by bamboo can vary between €70 (US$77) and up to €500 (US$550), depending on the cost of producing the plant and the uniqueness of the species required. This grass can provide a structure that lasts hundreds of years, at a lower price per square meter of construction and with a higher water consumption in the first three years and much lower after maturity and during the resting seasons.

A claim they can support with a scientific arsenal. Such as research published in Nature on 293 European cities showing that urban spaces, even if green, concentrate between two and four times more heat than those covered by trees or tall plants; and up to three studies on the greater potential of bamboo forests to capture CO2 versus other types of forest.

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