By Dewayne Allday
I first read that bamboo is edible in my Army Survival Manual around age 14. That was over 25 years ago when my knowledge of botany was extremely limited. The book said to eat the young shoots, but there were no details or pictures as to what the young shoots look like or the time of year to harvest them.
To an untrained and unsupervised child this meant trying the young twigs on the existing bamboo that grew near a branch behind my home in Sweet Water, Alabama. It was not a pleasant experience because the twigs were bitter and tough; making them unpalatable.
I gave up trying to eat bamboo for years and instead used it to build structures, makeshift arrows for homemade bows and cane fishing poles for unsuspecting bream.
It would be another 20 years or so before I would successfully eat a young bamboo shoot — the way they are intended to be eaten at a very young and tender age as they pop out of the ground in spring.
Bamboo: It’s A Grass
Bamboo is easy to recognize, and once you’re familiar with one species, you’ve basically seen them all.
Bamboo belongs to the grass family Poaceae. The long straight stalks of this giant grass can reach up to 100 feet tall depending on the species. Bamboo in more temperate climates is usually less than half that size, but tropical bamboos can reach staggering heights. The stalks are jointed and hollow, often growing in thick stands.
The aboveground portion of bamboo is called the culm (Latin for stalk is culmus). It consists of the main stem, leaves and inflorescence. The sections of the main stalk are broken down into culms and interculms, commonly described as nodes and internodes. Think of the nodes as your knuckles and the internodes as your finger between the knuckles. These internodes are hollow, and the nodes are solid. These hollow sections of stalk between the nodes are normally airtight and have many uses.
Because they are airtight, one should not throw bamboo on a campfire as it can explode.
Incidentally, the underground horizontal running rhizomes of bamboo also have bumps called nodes, and the sections of the root between nodes are called internodes. The lengthy roots are the main way that bamboo spreads because they do not flower and seed out for many years. There are two types of bamboo root systems; clumping and running.
As the name suggests, clumping bamboo root systems clump together, making it easy to grow in pots. Running bamboo sends out long horizontal rhizomes with new shoots and new branching rhizomes that come off the nodes. Clumping bamboo is easier to contain in a small area whereas the running type may take over.
Bamboo was introduced into this country a long time ago and can readily be found in ornamental stands as well as naturalized stands in the wild.
Look for it in warm, moist areas, mainly in the southeastern United States, with some species so cold-hardy they grow as far north as New York.
Being from Alabama, I enjoy eating a species called golden bamboo, or Phyllostachys aurea, which was introduced into this state in the late 1800s.
That same year, Thomas Edison was firing up a factory using filaments for his famous light bulbs with golden bamboo’s cousin, black bamboo.
I suspect that with just about any bamboo (there are thousands of species), the young shoots can be eaten raw in small quantities, but because of slight toxicity some species of bamboo must be cooked if eaten in larger quantities. It’s best to be safe, so when in doubt, all edible bamboo shoots should be cooked to remove toxins.
The questionable species are limited however, and boiling the shoots with several changes of water solves the problem.
There are many people who believe that every species is edible after boiling. For that reason, it should be an important edible for the wild foods forager to keep in mind. In other countries such as Japan, China, Thailand, India, Africa and some Latin countries, it is eaten as a vegetable on a daily basis. Taiwan, Thailand and China are three of the largest eaters and exporters of bamboo shoots worldwide.
The seeds are also edible, but it’s a rarity to see bamboo flowering or seeding out, although there is a market for it. If you are lucky enough to find the seeds, grind them into flour and use them as cereal, soup thickener, or even as a fermented beverage.
Harvesting & Preparing Shoots
Harvest bamboo shoots by cutting them off even with the soil, or digging around the young shoot and cutting just above the rhizome. Clean the shoot and peel the outer sheaths. As you get closer to the soft edible core as you remove the sheaths, you’ll notice the bottom of some of the sheaths will be white or a very light color. These can be cut from the tough part of the outer sheath and made into what I call “bamboo chips.” Basically the inner-core can be cut longways or perpendicular to the shoot and for use however you like.
Unlike tropical climates, the season for eating young shoots in most of the United States is limited to spring, because the closer to the equator one gets, bamboo send up shoots nearly year-round. Even so, for such an important vegetable staple in other parts of the world, I’m amazed it’s not a big commercially produced vegetable here in the United States.
Just one cup of shoots, after boiling, has cellulose, fiber, trace minerals, amino acids, 1.84 kcal of energy, 1.84 g of protein, 2.3 g of carbohydrates, fats (saturated, unsaturated, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids), 14 mg of calcium, 0.29 mg iron, 4 mg magnesium, 24 mg phosphorus, 640 mg potassium, 5 mg sodium, 0.56mg zinc, 0.024 mg thiamin, 0.060 mg riboflavin, 2 mg folate and various other vitamins. Like most vegetables, many vitamins and nutrients are cooked out when boiling, therefore finding or growing species that are safe eaten raw is beneficial.
Bamboo is an important forage crop around the world for various animals, both wild and domesticated. Almost 100 percent of the giant panda’s diet consists of bamboo. Gorillas, elephants, rats and chimps also eat bamboo.
In the right environment, bamboo supposedly produces up to six times the cellulose per acre than pine. Anyone interested in self-reliance should have a stand because not only is it edible, but it can also be used for all sorts of things from fish baskets, live traps, containers and cooking utensils to paper, flooring, furniture and containers.
The hollow sections of bamboo, particularly the larger varieties, make excellent raft-building materials that provide great buoyancy. Gardeners will be happy to use it for beanpoles. It can also be cut into sections and used as cups or canteens.
I’ve watched my friend the Southern Herbalist Darryl Patton make survival water filters and cook with bamboo sections.
The most common edible species of bamboo in the United States can be narrowed down to two genera: Phyllostachys spp. and Bambusa spp.
One of the most popular edible Phyllostachys in the southern United States is called golden bamboo (P. aurea). It’s also one of the most widespread species from Florida to New York.
Aside from its larger size, one way to tell golden bamboo from native switch cane is that switch cane has a flat side on its rounded stem near the nodes, and golden bamboo is consistently round. We southern foragers are very lucky that this species is so prolific because the edibility of the P. aurea shoots is superb. Some sources say that it’s one of the most invasive as well. Another Phyllostachys common in the southeast is yellow groove bamboo (P. aureosulcata, which ranges from Alabama to New York. Black bamboo (P. nigra) ranges from Texas and Georgia north to New York.
Some less common Phyllostachys with a much smaller geographic area in the south are Japanese timber bamboo (P. bambusoides) with a range from Louisiana to Tennessee and North Carolina; tortoise shell bamboo (P. edulis) with a range from Georgia to South Carolina; sulphur bamboo (P. sulphurea) with a range mainly in Georgia; reddish bamboo (P. rubromarginata) with a range mainly in South Carolina; and running giant bamboo (P. vivax) can grow as far north as Maine.
This genus is far less common than Phyllostachys, but it is regularly eaten in Asia and should grow well in temperate and tropical sections of North America. Shoots and the rarely produced seed grains are eaten. Common bamboo (B. vulgaris) grows from Florida to South Carolina, and hedge bamboo (B. multiplex) is typically found in Florida.
Polymorph bamboo (B. polymorpha) is a popular shoot having an unmistakable sweet taste. In Thailand, numerous fermented vegetable products are made with this genus of bamboo, such as a popular dish named naw-mai-dong, made with the shoots of B. arundinacea.
In the Kitchen
If you want to preserve bamboo shoots, as many people do worldwide, there are various methods such as: fermentation alone or fermentation and then dehydration; pickled; salted; seeds or sap made into beer or wine; and bamboo rice (bamboo seeds) or white rice infused with bamboo extract.
Worldwide there are many ways that bamboo is used in cooking. Many things can be cooked inside the hollow bamboo sections, such as rice, soups or meats. Bamboo adds a distinct flavor to whatever is being cooked. The leaves are often used as a cooking wrap around other foods.
There is a Japanese condiment made out of dried bamboo shoots used as a topping for noodle soups. They are pickled and eaten straight or cooked in Asian dishes, and sometimes tougher shoots are fermented, dried and powdered to add in with soups or mixed with other flours.
Bamboo helps sustain millions of people worldwide with food, shelter and various other uses. What I’ve discussed in this article is just the tip of the iceberg. I hope you enjoyed learning about this wonderful and often-overlooked plant. Bon appétit.
Dewayne Allday has been harvesting and experimenting with edible wild foods in Alabama for the past 25 years. As assistant director of Appalachian Mountain Life Inc., an environmental nonprofit, he is active in fighting for the preservation of the unique plants and animals of the Deep South. This article appeared in the June 2017 issue of Acres U.S.A.