Bamboo's Commercial Uses Gain Attention

Much of the bamboo being used commercially comes from plantations in China. Horticulturalists think that someday it could and should be grown in the USA. It is an eco-friendly crop as it is typically grown without chemicals and pesticides. It's used commercially for everything from floors to blue jeans.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Bamboo is getting a lot of attention as a green material for construction, paper, and a breathable fabric that's soft as silk. You can find bamboo T-shirts, jeans and even lingerie nowadays. Much of the bamboo being used commercially comes from plantations in China. A lot of experts think it could be grown commercially in the U.S.

NPR's Wendy Kaufman took a tour of one project aimed at just that with a horticulturalist in Washington State.

WENDY KAUFMAN: About 60 miles north of Seattle in the community of Mount Vernon, Jackie Heinricher oversees the multiplication of bamboo in a test tube. It took several years of research and development for her company, Boo-Shoot Gardens, to come up with a system for reproducing the plant on a major scale. Although the plant has a reputation for spreading unwanted into neighbors' yards, it isn't easily produced from cuttings or seeds.

(Soundbite of machinery)

KAUFMAN: On a recent morning, Heinricher took us inside the company's modern laboratory.

Ms. JACKIE HEINRICHER (Proprietor, Boo-Shoot Gardens): So we have 32 cutting stations. These are people that actually cut plants that multiply in test tubes.

Dr. RANDY BURR (Senior Scientist, Boo-Shoot Gardens): It's one of the plants I'm going to increase.

KAUFMAN: Senior scientist Randy Burr sits down at a clean-air station. He pulls on well-worn rubber gloves and picks up his sterile forceps.

Mr. BURR: Make three clumps out of that one. Pretty simple process - the complicated part is that part.

KAUFMAN: Burr points to the liquid in the bottom of the test tube. It's the secret formula that allows a tiny sliver of bamboo to become dozens of bamboos in about a month. While Boo-Shoot Gardens used to produce hundreds of plants, it now produces hundreds of thousands.

Owner Heinricher initially focused on producing non-invasive clumping bamboo for gardeners, but she's come to believe that someday, bamboo could and should rival cotton as a domestic fiber.

Ms. HEINRICHER: When I started this at my house in a small greenhouse, I had no idea. Maybe last year I would say I had no idea.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HEINRICHER: It's really come on strong.

KAUFMAN: Bamboo is eco-friendly. It's highly efficient at taking in CO2 and holding on to the carbon as it exhales pure oxygen. In the field, it's typically grown without chemicals and pesticides. That's in sharp contrast to most cotton. And bamboo, says Adam Turtle of the Earth Advocates Research Farm, grows fast.

Dr. ADAM TURTLE (Bamboo Consultant, Earth Advocates Research Farm): It's the fastest growing plant on Earth. It'll out yield any other known plant in climates that suit it.

KAUFMAN: Floors made from bamboo are strong. Bamboo fabric is soft. You can buy shirts, pants, designer shoes, and at Target, sheets and blankets. The company's Amy van Walter says bamboo products have been on the shelves for a year and a half.

Ms. AMY VAN WALTER (Bamboo Products Seller): What we love about them is bamboo is one of the world's most renewable resources, and it also creates a soft, comfortable sheeting, and it's actually naturally anti-bacterial.

KAUFMAN: But the process currently used to transform the plant into soft fabric is nasty. It uses chemicals and solvents similar to those used to produce rayon. Bamboo's advocates say that the process could be improved, and that the plant's green characteristics - along with its other attributes - make it a strong candidate for growing on underutilized American farmland.

Wendy Kaufman, NPR News.

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