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Bamboo - A Versatile Plant - March 2005 Newsletter

 

Bamboo is a dominant plant in Eastern cultures. It serves many functions – it is used for architecture, functional tools, paper…and it makes a tasty addition to cooked meals too! This month, learn more about this fast-growing plant and its importance in Asian history.

STRUCTURE

Bamboo can be divided into two varieties – monopodial, or running, and sympodial, or clumping. Monopodial bamboos have long roots, known as rhizomes, which run parallel to the ground and send up shoots with plenty of space between them. Sympodial varieties, on the other hand, grow in clusters from one larger rhizome. Altogether, there are over 1,200 varieties of bamboo, and they grow in almost every temperate zone. From the lush rainforests of South America to the dense woods of China, bamboo covers millions of acres of land. The Asian breeds are the most famous, and they are harvested for use in thousands of products. Some varieties, such as tiger bamboo, are prized for their beautiful coloration. Each application uses the shoot at a different stage in its life cycle. For example, basket weavers choose bamboo that is between six and nine months old. The bamboo used for architecture is somewhat more mature – it should be at least three years old to ensure proper strength.

Bamboo is so different from trees and other plants that special terminology has been developed to describe its physical characteristics. For example, the stem or main body is called a culm. The culm has nodes, or joints, which give bamboo its distinctive silhouette. Each node has a sheath to protect the segment as it grows out of the ground. The sheaths eventually come off and leave a mark on the culm by the node. Smaller branches with leaves extend off of the main culm. A bamboo plant sends out blossoms during its final season of life, and though botanists are still not sure what initiates the flowering process, it is seen as a sign of the plant’s impending death.

SYMBOLISM

The bamboo plant is very important in Chinese and Japanese cultures, and it has become a symbolic icon used for decoration. Take a look around your house – you may have a vase emblazoned with sprigs of bamboo, or perhaps a set of dishes or cups with clusters of leaves and branches. Take a look at our Green Bamboo Cup for an example of the icon. These patterns are used on fabrics, in paintings, and on decorative accessories because they are both beautiful and meaningful. Bamboo’s natural properties of strength, durability, and flexibility are related through the patterns and forms, and they encourage people to follow these same principles in daily life. When we see bamboo patterns, it reminds us to be humble and accommodating with others. Bamboo gracefully bends, rather than snapping under the strain of the wind. When you wear our Bamboo Yukata at home, you can relax and contemplate the material’s symbolic imagery.

In ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging, bamboo is often paired with pine and plum blossoms. Together, these plants are known as the Three Friends of Winter. They all thrive despite the cold weather, and they encourage people to wait for the coming of springtime. Some arrangements are placed within a hollowed section of bamboo for added effect. The vase is watertight and does not distract from the combination of natural elements, which is the focus of ikebana. Bamboo vases can vary in shape and size, and there are many color variations depending on the variety of bamboo from which the vessel is created. The Three Friends of Winter are often illustrated on dishware too.

JAPANESE TEA CEREMONIES

The ancient tea ceremonies of Japan are very detailed and structured, and all aspects must be carefully followed to ensure a successful display. The guidelines were detailed by Sen no Rikyu, a tea master who worked for a military leader during the sixteenth century. Rikyu was the first tea master to include everyday items – such as broken bowls or old cups – in his displays, and he introduced the use of bamboo in ceremonies.

After his influence, bamboo played a key role in creating balance in the ceremony. As the guests entered the teahouse gardens, they were greeted by carefully planted and groomed bamboo planted in rock gardens. The plants added a soft, elegant touch to the quiet space, and as the guests enjoyed tea, they could hear the leaves rustling in the breeze outside. It added an element of peacefulness, even during times of war. Samurais and leaders often visited teahouses to center themselves between battles. The teahouse itself was built with large bamboo timbers, which were used as structural posts and beams.

Let’s take a look at the most important tools for a tea ceremony: the tea stirrer and the tea scoop.

In traditional ceremonies, only powdered green tea is served to guests. To prepare the drink, the host stirs the green powder into boiling water and stirs it with a tiny bamboo whisk. While the whisks may look like simple tools for a basic task, there is more of a craft involved in their creation than meets the eye. The finished product takes several hours, and only skilled hands can create a whisk worthy of a formal tea ceremony. To begin the process, the stalks are tied up into pyramids and dried in the sun. Ninety percent of all Japanese tea whisks are made in the town of Ikoma, where the craft has been a family trade for centuries. Rice paddies in the area are covered with pyramids of curing bamboo during the dry seasons as the townspeople prepare their materials. Once dried, the stalks are cut into short pieces and stripped of their outer layer and any residual oils. Then, craftsmen slowly divide the top half of each piece into dozens of strips. They are curled inward and spread apart during this process, and black cotton thread helps to separate the strips into two inward-curling sections. If any of these delicate strips break, the whole piece must be discarded. The construction process is time-consuming, but the result is a delicate and well-functioning tool. Surprisingly, some tea stirrers were discarded after only one use.

Nice tea scoops are equally important to the ceremony. Tea enthusiasts collect these simple tools and use different ones to suit the occasion. In ancient China, tea scoops were sometimes made from ivory or bone for fancy occasions. Laid side by side these utensils may seem to look alike, but each has a subtle difference – the choice of bamboo, the angle of the spoon end, or the surface’s patterning can distinguish an especially nice model. Many tea masters make their own scoops, and some give them as gifts to friends or students. The preparation is similar to tea whisks – the stalks are dried and oils are removed during preparation – but the choice of a nice segment of material is especially important, as scoops are considered to be an extension of the host’s hand in the ceremonial display. The ideal type has a node in the middle of the handle, and it balances well when placed on a table. After preparing the bamboo, the piece is carved on one side and it is steamed into a spoon shape.

EVERYDAY TOOLS

For centuries, bamboo has been used to make tools. Fans, spoons, lanterns, musical instruments, umbrellas, window shades, and tatami mats utilize the bamboo’s strong and durable stalk. By cutting and carving sections of bamboo, people have created everything from paintbrushes to serving containers.

Bamboo makes a great material for basketry because it is pliable when wet, yet strong and durable when dry. Bamboo baskets can be used as fish and crab traps, containers for dry goods, and sculptural decoration. Basketweavers choose younger, thinner shoots because they are easier to work with. Each long shoot is sliced into strips, and arranged into a basic shape. Depending on the pattern and type of basket, the weaving process could take hours or several days. There are hundreds of variations on patterns for basket weaving, and colored strips can add even more options for a weaver. Take a look at the baskets in your home and see how the weave affects the basket’s style. Baskets are used for the storage of precious clothing like kimono, but they are also used for everyday food containers. The o-bento basket is a staple in many Japanese homes – it is still popular despite the advent of plastic lunchboxes. Traditional tools and materials are still used throughout Japan, but some evolving techniques have helped keep the bamboo crafts fresh and modern. For instance, modern artists are using bamboo and basket weaving techniques to make avant-garde basketlike sculptures and forms.

Bamboo fibers can be used to make paper. The first scrolls in China were made from bamboo, and it is still used to make fine-quality calligraphy papers. In India, it was used for newspapers and everyday wrappings. The bamboo plant is rich in fibers, but to access them the culm must be broken down. To begin the process, large sections are soaked for several days. The fibers are scraped away and boiled in a large tub, and then sifted to the surface with large papermaking screens. The finished paper is pressed dry and either laid out in the sun to dry or placed in a drying kiln. Higher quality papers use the latter method, as it ensures an even rate of curing.

Craftspeople use bamboo strips to make traditionally styled lanterns, kites, and umbrellas. The bamboo frame is light and easy to bend, so it makes an ideal frame for three dimensional paper decorations. The workers choose varieties of bamboo with thinner culms, which are soaked in water to increase pliability. For lanterns, the bamboo strips are wrapped around a mold. Each piece fits snugly into notches in the prepared form, so the lantern will be a uniform size. Paper is glued down in sections along the newly formed bamboo structure to create the lantern’s distinctive shape. While most of the work for lanterns is completed in a single workshop, umbrellas require the skilled hands of many specialists. Bamboo materials may pass through several workspaces in a town before coming together as a completed product. We carry a fine selection of decorative umbrellas that can add a unique look to your home.

Bamboo is used extensively for cooking utensils because it does not absorb or emit flavors and scents. It is easy to clean, and lasts a long time too. Used in restaurants and for everyday home cooking, proper bamboo tools are essential for creating a good meal. Steamers are perhaps the most recognizable bamboo products used in the kitchen. These stackable baskets can steam vegetables and dumplings evenly and efficiently – just add another layer to double your capacity! Steamer baskets keep food away from the boiling water in your pot and ensure an even dispersal of heat. Whether you are cooking for one or a large group, be sure to always have a few steamers around. Stir-fry tools are another must-have for cooks – we have a nice collection that includes a spatula, fork, and spoon. Be sure to check out our wide selection of bamboo chopsticks too – with so many options of patterns and colors, you are sure to find the perfect match for your personal style. To complete your table setting, choose a decorative bamboo placemat. It will give your evening meals a special and uniquely exotic touch.

FOOD

Speaking of cuisine, let’s take a look at how bamboo shoots are used in Asian meals. In Japan and Taiwan, annual consumption of bamboo averages 8,000 tons. It is used in stir-fry meals, soups, and alone as a side dish. Bamboo shoots can be sliced into decorative shapes for food displays too. The Japanese dish takenoko gohan (rice with fresh chopped bamboo and seasonings) is a seasonal treat that appears in most food venues during the spring’s first bamboo harvest. Western recipes are slowly incorporating this wonderful grass into fine cuisine, and a number of recipes take advantage of its versatile, mild flavor. Interesting applications include potato salad, lumpia (Filipino egg rolls), and salad with pickled bamboo, lobster, and chicken. We are sure you can find even more creative ways to use bamboo in meals!

Almost all varieties of bamboo are edible, but farmers cultivate the crops with special care to ensure their product is tender. Farm workers keep the shoots covered with soil to prevent them from becoming fibrous and brittle; when the shoots are about a foot tall, they are harvested and boiled to remove any bitterness. The growing process takes less than a month to complete. The vast majority of bamboo is canned for convenience, but some markets sell whole shoots to the public. Add our canned bamboo to your next stir-fry and enjoy its health benefits - bamboo is low in fat and high in fiber.

Now that you have learned a little more about bamboo, peruse our selection of quality bamboo products. We have everything from sushi mats to canned bamboo shoots, as well as cups and plates with stylish bamboo patterns.

  OUR 2005 NEWSLETTERS

Full Of Fortune

All About Sushi (part II)

Secret Lives Of Geisha

Specialty Japanese Cookware

Rice The Golden Grain

Summer Wedding Gift Guide

Azuki Beans

Washi Paper Production and Uses

Symbols of Happiness and Longevity in Asian Culture

Bamboo – A Versatile Plant

Symbolism in Asian Motifs and Patterns

Fortune Cookies: The Real San Fransisco Treat


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MAY WE SUGGEST:

Brown and White Speckled Tea Ceremony Set
(T1801)

Pale Blue Ceramic Tea Whisk Stand (T2020)

Breaking Wave of Kanagawa Tea Set (T1799)

Karakusa Tin Canister (T1782)

Matcha or Green Tea Powder (7079)
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