Bamboo is a powerful grass. Yes, like wheat, rye, and corn, bamboo is a type of grass. It grows fast, thrives in a wide variety of conditions and has hollow, flexible stems. And like all grass, it produces flowers.
Grass flowers? You have almost certainly seen grass flowers though you might not realize it. Grasses are typically pollinated by the wind, so they don’t produce bright petals or fragrant nectar to attract insects and birds. Regularly mowed lawns might not get quite tall enough to produce flowers, but you can find them in almost any weedy vacant lot or field. Let your lawn go for a season and those flowers should show up!
Bamboo also produces flowers but with a most peculiar twist. The flowers aren’t much bigger or more showey than lawn grass flowers, but they can exhibit a synchronized, almost psychic, process.
How do they do it? Various bamboo may not flower for 70 or more years. Instead, numerous trunks sprout from existing bamboo roots in the soil to form an increasingly dense thicket. A bamboo trunk can grow multiple feet in a day and these thickets can spread widely. They have been known to break through concrete when contained!
Chunks of trunk can be harvested and bits can be replanted in other locations, where they will form another nearly impenetrable forest of trunks. This process can go on, seedless and flowerless, for years.
Here’s where the magic happens. One day, in one season, the entire bamboo family worldwide will enter a reproductive frenzy at the same time. Plants from Tokyo, Japan to Seattle, Washington, from here, there, to everywhere, burst into a synchronous cycle of passionate petal productivity.
Stranger yet, the exact period between bloom cycles isn’t exact. One particular species may bloom about every 70 years, but sometimes the cycle may be 74 years one time and 69 years the next.
Whatever the period, regardless of the distance by which they are separated, the differing weather conditions each thicket has experienced, how much they have been fertilized or not, they all enter the stage of flowery concupiscence at once!
The wind moves the pollen from the many simultaneous flowers and fertilizes them. The flowers produce seeds; the seeds fall on the ground, sometimes in layers inches deep. And then, having fulfilled their life’s mission, all the bamboo plants of that species wilt away in post-coital bliss, synchronously making way for the next generation to begin.
This is unquestionably a very unusual approach to reproduction. So why in heaven’s name would a plant reproduce like this? What benefit could it possibly offer?
Perhaps by blooming simultaneously, the breeze has a greater amount of pollen to waft from flower to flower. Perhaps overwhelming the environment with more seeds than an entire season of rodents could possibly eat ensures that enough seeds survive to bring forth a new generation. Or perhaps, by dying, the adult plants open a hole in the forest canopy that allows the new bamboo seedlings unfettered access to direct sunlight when they sprout.
How do they time it; how do they know, thousands of miles apart! How are they able to remain in synch with the siblings of their generation even though the cycle length differs each bloom year?
As they say: Truth is often stranger than fiction.