Giant Bamboo Invades Oregon – And Why You Want It to Stay

photo by Genevieve Weber

Thinking about finally digging up that stand of bamboo that’s officially annexed the driveway into its ever-expanding territory, and let’s just admit up front that it’s been three years since you pruned it?  Think twice – that bamboo is a lot more valuable than you may know.  While the rapid growth rates of your beautiful personal privacy screen may have you tearing your hair out as it tears up the driveway, bamboo may be an ideal source of biomass for sustainable energy and greener building materials in a world of rapidly burgeoning oil prices and population counts.


Dain Sansome of Bamboo Valley, a local 10-acre bamboo nursery, believes that bamboo has the potential to make a major impact on the US energy and materials industries.  Sansome and his wife, Suya, have been cultivating bamboo in their nursery north of Corvallis since moving from Japan in 2004.  In 2011, Sansome, in partnership with Bamboo Revolution, a growing Portland-based bamboo products company, transplanted live timber bamboos from a grove in Avery Island, Louisiana to his Oregon nursery, a crucial first step in the creation of an emerging Oregon timber bamboo industry.  Sansome is one of only a handful of timber bamboo farmers in the US with a major interest in bamboo products (most nurseries grow smaller varieties for landscaping purposes only), and is the first and only of his kind in Oregon.


Sansome recognizes that biomass as we currently know it as a source of clean sustainable energy and materials has its share of problems.  Farming grasses, hemp (outside the U.S. – it’s not legal here) and other limited biomass sources requires vast tracts of land and water better used for growing [organic] foods for our ever-expanding, demanding population.  The use of agricultural waste like corn stover as biomass is commendable, but the US should be working hard to reduce its dependence on corn, which eats up tens of billions of dollars in government subsidies each year.  Deforestation for lumber and energy production can lead to decreased carbon sequestration, which of course isn’t exactly ideal when you’re releasing tons of carbon into the air by burning trees.


Although sustainable forestry has come a long way since the hack n’ slash 80’s, even responsible logging still requires huge amounts of fuel – think chain saws, skidders, flatbed trucks, chippers, wood treatments, long-haul shipping, etc.  And the smaller the wood gets the more energy is required for its processing.  In other words, it can take more energy to make wood chips and pellets than it does to mill lumber.  This is a huge problem for wood-based biofuels companies, which primarily burn and convert wood chips into non-petrochemical fuels and other useful chemicals.  The energy required to produce wood chips and pellets makes these bulk wood biomass products expensive, so wood-based fuels are currently not cost-efficient when compared to oil.  We obviously have great need of better biomass energy sources than wood, grasses, and corn.


Enter bamboo.  Bamboos are actually the largest members of the grass family, and their potential as biomass for energy, materials and fuel production is immense, only ocean kelp grows faster.  New shoots can grow to man-height in a matter of weeks.  Why not cultivate a farmable, fast-growing, biomass-laden “forest” on easily harvested land?


“I want people to see it and appreciate it for what it is, and certainly using it for products is a part of that,” says Sansome. “A lot of us have bamboo products in our homes, but they’re all coming out of China right now, and we can do it here, we simply need to focus a little bit.  It can be done, and we’re here to prove it.”


Switchgrass, a form of energy biomass gaining popularity in the U.S., produces 2-6 tons of biomass per acre, while bamboo harvested in its fourth year of growth can produce up to 65 tons per acre, although switchgrass has the advantage of requiring less irrigation.  But bamboo doesn’t need to be replanted every year, and in fact doesn’t require any soil disturbance at all.  It can be managed like a forest and will actually grow to resemble a forest within 3-4 years of planting, with several timber bamboo species reaching a towering height of 65 feet and over 8 inches in diameter.  Bamboo can be grown in a wide variety of climates (Sansome’s success shows that it’s highly compatible with our own temperamental Oregon weather), reducing dependence on foreign fuel sources and allowing for the very real possibility of locally grown energy.


With a tensile strength close to that of steel, bamboo is also a strong, hugely sustainable source of non-wood building material.  Asian and to some extent South American nations have produced bamboo structures for millennia, and today treat bamboo essentially like the American hybrid poplar.  Bamboo-based building technology continues to improve overseas, and includes bamboo laminates and composites like OSB (oriented strand board), materials currently made using mostly fast-growing trees like hybrid poplar and aspen in the US (except that structural bamboo can be harvested at 4-6 years, while hybrid poplar takes upwards of 12-15 years to reach maturity).


Along with his interests in energy and materials, Sansome and his family at Bamboo Valley also regularly supply several stunning varieties of bamboo to clients for purely aesthetic purposes.  Businesses can also apply for carbon sequestration tax credits by planting large stands of bamboo.  With proper simple care, a personal bamboo grove won’t take over the yard, will look beautiful, and will fix as much carbon as a comparably sized tree.  So let that backyard bamboo live on with a little love – trim the tops, prune the roots with a shovel and let it do its tranquil thing (besides, you don’t want those creepy neighbors watching you tan again this summer, that was awkward).