Bamboo has a long and interesting history dating back more than 5,000 years. The ancient Chinese used this versatile grass for many projects, including arrow making, construction, weaving, books, and paper. Archeologists working in the ruins of the Neolithic village of Banpo near Xi’an, China in the Shaanxi province unearthed archives written on bamboo slips that date back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 A.D.). During the Jin Dynasty (265-316 A.D.) the first known bamboo research was recorded in a book detailing the 61 different species of bamboo native to China that included biological descriptions and methods of cultivation.
China’s long history with the use of bamboo is not surprising, given that there are more than 400 species of the resilient grass indigenous to the area, and more bamboo grows in China than in any other area of the world. In the 19th century, the Chinese military found a new use for bamboo, shortly after the accidental discovery of gunpowder. Sometime around 850 A.D, alchemists trying to create an elixir of immortality found that mixing saltpeter, sulfur, carbon of charcoal, and honey results in fire, and sometimes burns your house to the ground. By 919 A.D., the military put this property to use by building bombs to be launched by catapult. The first detailed military use was an account of a battle fought in 1126 between the Song army and the invading Nuchens.
The account describes use of a bamboo “firing cannon” that, when filled with gunpowder and lit, sent a flaming missile at the enemy from a moveable platform. It may not have been an efficient weapon in terms of range, but in those days, it made quite an impression.
During the Song Dynasty (960-1279), bamboo was a ubiquitous material in the daily lives of the Chinese people. It was used for dozens of articles, including paper, tiles, rafts, rain capes, clothing, and shoes. It was burned for firewood, and the tender bamboo shoots provided a crunchy, tasty food source packed with nutrition in the form of vitamins, fat, sugar, and protein. Because bamboo grows quickly and requires little attention, it served as a cheap and plentiful source of materials for making a variety of useful products, and that has not changed over the years. We are still finding new uses for bamboo.
Papermaking had become big business by the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D.220), and the Chinese produced high-quality paper made from bamboo. It was an efficient and cheap material with a high rate of return, 1 ton of paper per 3 tons of bamboo. The paper was heavy, though, and later mixed with rags, string, and other plant materials to produce a lighter, more practical paper. The Chinese tried to keep a monopoly on their product by keeping the manufacturing process secret, but a battle with Turkish invaders ended with captured papermakers and their secrets taken back to Samarkand. As a result, the first real paper industry was started in Baghdad in 793 A.D. Centuries would pass before the knowledge of papermaking spread to Europe and on to the rest of the world. Bamboo is still widely used in papermaking today.
Another ancient but still common use for bamboo is as a medicine. It is used to reduce phlegm and treat epilepsy, fainting, and fever, plus a number of mental degeneration disorders associated with aging. It is thought to have cooling properties and often used to quell heartburn. Ayurvedic and Tibetan medicine utilizes the natural properties of bamboo in astringents, fever-reducers, antispasmodics, stimulants, tonics, and aphrodisiacs. A powder made from tabasheer – a part of the bamboo – mixed with pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, and sugar is used to treat colds, sore throat, sinus congestion, and cough. It is also commonly used to treat various forms of lung disease, such as tuberculosis.
Bamboo Flooring Beginnings
Bamboo first made its appearance as a floor covering on the international market in the early 1990s to a lukewarm reception. The product was undeniably beautiful, but without the perspective of education, it was a hard sell. People in the United States were familiar only with common local uses, like old-fashioned fishing poles from the slender, flexible varieties of bamboo native to North America, and from imported items like back scratchers and chopsticks. Changing the perception of bamboo as a viable flooring option with a hardness rating comparable to most hardwoods and a sustainability factor that makes it a green choice was a slow process, but bamboo has become a very popular choice in flooring today. Beauty and durability makes it aesthetically pleasing and practical, while fast-growing sustainability makes it a satisfying substitute for old-growth hardwoods that can take 30 or more years to mature.
Bamboo Flooring Today
Today’s bamboo flooring comes in a huge variety of colors and styles, and can be “painted” during the manufacturing process to look like various hardwoods. The direct print process includes natural-looking variations layered onto flooring planks in a three-part process that produces a convincing grain pattern and color complete with the subtleties of shading found in real woods.
The growing bamboo flooring industry may also produce additional environmental benefits in the long run. In addition to relieving some of the demand for hardwoods, which may help preserve old-growth forest from illegal logging practices, bamboo itself is a remarkably efficient oxygen producer, especially during its early growth years. By adding a high volume product like flooring to the list of uses for this amazing plant, we may end up addressing some of the most pressing concerns for the future of the planet.