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Bamboo is a group of plants in the grass family (Family Poaceae). Some of its members are giants, and form the largest members of the family. Its stems, or 'culms', can range in height from a few centimeters to 30 metres (100 feet) or more, and from a diameter of a few millimeters (0.1 inch) to over 15 centimetres (6 inches). It is found in diverse climates, from cold mountains to hot tropical regions. It spreads mainly through its roots or rhizomes, which can spread widely underground and send off new culms to break through the surface.

Bamboo growing at Westonbirt Arboretum, Gloucestershire, England.

There are two patterns for the spreading of bamboo, clumping and running. Clumping bamboo species tend to spread out underground slowly. Running bamboo species, however, can spread several feet a year, are considered very invasive and can cause problems by invading adjacent gardens. It is very difficult to remove bamboo without digging up the entire network of underground rhizomes, for there is no central root to destroy, and destroying the plant above ground will leave the underground rhizome system waiting until next year to send up its shoots.

One way to prevent running bamboo from taking over an area is to surround it with a physical barrier, although in order to be effective the barrier must reach down to below the depth at which the rhizomes spread, which can be several feet.

Established bamboo will send up shoots that generally grow to their full height in a single season, making it one of the fastest growing plants. However a newly transplanted bamboo plant can take many many seasons before its shoots achieve their full potential height.

The shoots (new bamboo culms that come out of the ground) of bamboo are edible and are available in supermarkets in various sliced forms. However, the shoots of some species contain toxins that needs to be leached or boiled out before they can be eaten safely.

Some species of bamboo flower rarely, some of them only every 100 or more years. When these rare flowering species bloom, the plant can die. Furthermore, all the individuals of the species will flower at the same time in a large geographical region. This is thought to be a defence against predators of the seed, who would be unable to depend on a predictable food supply.

Bamboo is the major food source of the giant panda of China.

Bamboo forms a very hard wood, especially when seasoned, making it useful for many things such as fences, bridges, walking sticks, furniture, food steamers, toys, construction scaffolding, hats, abaci and various musical instruments. Modern companies are attempting to popularize laminate flooring made of bamboo pieces steamed, flattened, glued together, finished, and cut.

Cultural aspects

Bamboo's long life makes it a Chinese symbol of long life, while in India is a symbol of friendship. Its rare blossoms has led to the flowers being regarded as a sign of impending famine. Several Asian cultures, including the Andaman Islands, believe that humanity emerged from a bamboo stem. Malaysian legends include the story of a man who dreams of a beautiful woman while sleeping under a bamboo plant; he wakes up and breaks the bamboo stem, discovering the woman inside. In the Philippines, bamboo crosses are used as a good luck charm by farmers.

See also Japanese knotweed.

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