Two weeks ago, I received an invitation to review a scientific paper about ‘invasive plants’. The authors of this article report that more and more studies are actually assessing the potential benefits of invasive plants.
Interesting, I thought!
There is precisely one emblematic plant, both ‘invasive’ and ‘useful’, that I am not sure if we should include or not in our future food forest: bamboo.
I tried to explore this concept of ‘invasive plant’, and to review this scientific paper, in light of my interactions with bamboo in France and Taiwan over the last few years.
For many weeks, Hsiao and I have been eating free bamboo shoots almost every day. We love it! It reminds us of Taiwan.
I am now in our bamboo bush, salivating. I pick one shoot, then another, and another, frenetically. With Hsiao and I as competitors, the Burgundian panda would be seriously endangered, if it had only existed.
This time, though, I refrain a little my greediness, and I decide to let grow some shoots. Not for pandas, but for future use in my bamboo craft projects.
Around me, the bamboo poles start to balance elegantly in the wind, reminding me of beautiful old Chinese paintings. I let myself immerse into this scene, drifting into a poetic mode.
Then, appearing in the middle of the bush, sitting in the lotus position, my Taiwanese mother-in-law starts to recite this Chinese proverb: “胸有成竹” – “The painter already had bamboos in his heart before painting them”.1
Wow, I thought, what an awesome plant for a food forest…
Not just a super productive silica-rich edible, not just a carbon-storing building material, but elegant-looking as well, and even a source of inspiration in art and philosophy!
So many services for humanity!
Bamboo: what a horrible invasive plant!
Excited by these visions, I am now talking to myself out loud. Moved by poetry, I grab a bamboo pole and start to turn around it, revealing a hidden talent for pole dancing.
But I am suddenly brought back to reality when I hear: “Ah! I see that you take care of your bamboo hedge. That’s great, thank you!” In just a fraction of a second, my mother-in-law disappears. I turn around, and, ashamed, I greet my neighbor. If he didn’t think yet that I am mad, he now can no longer ignore it.
Yet, instead of commenting on my dancing skills, he continues by introducing me to his bad adventures with bamboo. His neighbor does not trim her bamboo hedge, he says, and bamboo has invaded his courtyard. Helpless, he informed the village mayor of this affair, hoping that it could force her to trim her hedge. Because, yes, due to such a humid and dense shadow, some parts of his roof have started to rot!
And that’s not the worst, he adds. “In autumn, you will smell it. Every night, swarms of starlings — small migratory birds — invade bamboo bushes and poop everywhere. If I were you, he concluded, I’d uproot them completely. Although, with such entangled and tough rhizomes, that’s almost impossible.”
Oh, no, am I starting to realize… Such a horrible plant!
Invading yards and grasslands, nastily competing with other plants for light, extremely difficult to uproot, concentrating birds’ poop, and even destroying neighbor’s relationships. What a horrible invasive plant.
How could we stop it? How is bamboo controlled where it is endemic?
How to control bamboo spread?
At that moment, on the other side of the planet, in Taiwan. A grandfather is slowly walking in his orchard, staring at the ground.
Earned on the steep slopes of a foggy mountain, the orchard is surrounded by a dense forest of subtropical trees, and bamboo. Step by step, the grandfather patiently harvests every bamboo shoot he finds.
For he knows: new shoots appear on the edges of the orchard, at the tip of rhizomes, coming from the forest. If he wasn’t harvesting new shoots, bamboo would colonize the whole orchard in just a few years. Then, after a few decades, some tall trees would gradually shade bamboo. Inhibited, bamboo would withdraw in smaller patches. Eventually, the orchard would look like the wild forest all around: a multi-layered mixture of trees, with just a few bamboo here and there.
In ecosystems where bamboo is endemic, the forest itself stops the spread of bamboo. After all, if I try to think like an ecosystem, isn’t bamboo just a kind of ‘pioneer plant’?
In a disturbed and simplified ecosystem, bamboo enters the scene. Covering the whole area, as quickly as possible, it protects the fragile soil with its entangled and tough rhizome network. Catching the light, as much as possible, it recycles this energy as organic matter into the soil.
And that’s not the best. Every night, swarms of birds invade bamboo bushes, and leave as a gift in the morning their phosphate-rich poop.
So, if bamboo is just playing its natural role of rescuing disturbed and simplified ecosystems, does this mean that, from the point of view of ecosystems, the real invasive species out there, the bad guys disturbing ecosystems would be… us? Humans?
Should we just stop disturbing nature? So that no more ‘invasive plant’ will ever bother ecosystems (and us)?
Are ‘invasive plants’ just a symptom of too disturbed ecosystems?
Back to Burgundy, but 300000 years ago.
The Quaternary glaciation is finishing to squeeze some survival plant species southwards, against mountain ranges and the Mediterranean sea. Facing this glaciation, many plant families have already gone extinct, forever. Among them, some European bamboos2.
Glacial periods: such enormous disturbance of ecosystems!
While I start to think about it, I realize that natural disturbances are so common. A natural fire reduces a forest into ashes; a family of beavers chop a wood, build a dam, and make a lake; a herd of wild-boar “plow” a field.
And, after such disturbances, what happens? Well, you already know the story! A few ‘pioneer plants’ like bamboo enter the scene, the ecosystem gets more complex, never exactly as it used to be, until another disturbance, and the cycle continues.
Cycles, again and again. A succession of ecosystems that are never the same as before.
Well. If I try to think like an ecosystem, doesn’t seem like its disturbance might just be a normal stage in its life cycle? As long as there is enough time to recover, disturbances may even be a useful tool, a necessary tool for life to play around and express its creativity.
But wait, did I say that there were species of bamboo in Europe before the last glaciation?!
Perhaps even the Burgundian panda has existed! Then, in Burgundy, bamboo might rather be an endemic extinct species than an exotic species. I wonder what an ecosystem would think about it…
Oh, I have an idea! I should ask for subsidies for planting bamboo in our food forest. We never know, it might be considered a brave act of ecosystem restoration!
Then, should we plant bamboo in our future food forest?
Don’t you start to think like me, that all these rationales are kind of absurd?
A ‘horrible invasive plant’ that is also providing ‘services for humanity’. A plant ‘symptomatic of disturbed ecosystems’, or just a ‘pioneer plant’ playing ‘its role in the life cycle of ecosystems’? An ‘endemic plant’ cruelly extinct by nature that, hence, becomes an ‘exotic plant’. And me, trying to take advantage of this whole mess to get some subsidies.
So many human concepts. So many human emotions. Everything human-centered.
I wonder how the relationship with my ecosystem can be healthy, if I keep telling her (or him?) how things should be, using a language that does not even make sense to him (or her). If I don’t try to think like my ecosystem.
So. Should we plant Bamboo in our future food forest?
To know what to do, I could start by forgetting all the concepts.
Then, I could visit my neighbors: Do they think like an ecosystem? — then, I would probably plant Bamboo, and observe with my hippy neighbors how nature expresses its creativity. Do they think like humans? — then, I would probably not plant Bamboo, considering that the relationship with my neighbors is also a valuable part of my ecosystem (aren’t my neighbors part of my ecosystem?).
But, let me share with you my dearest dream.
Ideally, there would be a moment when, instead of trying to control natural processes using my human referential, instead of trying to think like an ecosystem, I would start to remember that, me too, I am the ecosystem3. It might sound like this:
“Ok Bamboo. I am not sure. Should I plant you here, or not? You can be direct with me.”
PS: Well, now I still need to write my report for the review of the scientific paper. Do you think they may like this story?
The Chinese artist Wen Tong thoroughly observed bamboo around his house, until “bamboos were in his heart” (胸有成竹). Then, he painted them so well that he became known for his paintings of bamboos. Hsiao tells me that this proverb usually describes someone confident, who has well prepared his plans before acting. It is well explained in this PDF.
Fabrice Desjours mentions this biodiversity loss due to glaciations, including for bamboo in Europe, in his book, p.60-61 (in French) — Jardins-forêts. Un nouvel art de vivre et de produire. Ed. Terran.
Two readers of this letter series recommended to me the beautiful comics of Alessandro Pignocchi (I don’t know if they exist in English), who explains with humor the very inspiring way Jivaroan peoples from Amazonia interact with other species and ecosystems.
To share my experiments, I write a monthly newsletter, called my 🔭 Laboratory Logbook. I send this letter on the 1st day of each month to my gracious readers to update on my work in progress, my observations, my — hopefully elegant — experiments. If you like to follow my explorations, then I invite you to subscribe below ;)
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I am a kind of researcher-explorer. I am French, introverted, and hypersensitive. I value a lot freedom, creativity, and altruism. I am curious about almost anything, but I do have a preference for topics around simple living: permaculture, nature, craftsmanship, autonomy, philosophy, the mysteries of life… More about me and my work >