What plant material can become a house, dress, bicycle, bridge, chair, towel, vegetable, cabinet, skin moisturizer or aphrodisiac? The answer is bamboo, as the people of the Orient have known for forever. In the United States, however, its use was largely limited to porch furniture and tiki torches till some farsighted innovators in the Bay Area decided to see what technology and ingenuity could do for this ancient plant. Plenty, as it turned out; and then environmentalism went mainstream, turning bamboo into the darling of interior and fashion designers, architects, homeowners, and, of course, green believers.

San Francisco-based Smith & Fong is one of those innovative firms. Since 1989, it has turned bamboo into the Plyboo line of flooring, paneling, plywood and veneer. AlterEco in Sausalito is another early bamboo enterprise. It has custom designed bamboo cabinetry for Bay Area kitchens and baths for 11 years.

Also famous among bamboo aficionados is Alameda architect Darrel De Boer, who designs sustainable homes and lectures widely on the subject. And then there's David King, who heads the Northern California chapter of the American Bamboo Society; and Craig Calfee of La Selva Beach (near Aptos), who has designed a bamboo bicycle so lightweight it makes competition cyclists feel like the road rises up to meet them.

The wonder grass

Botanically, bamboo is a grass, explains King. There are more than 1,000 varieties of it, growing primarily in the Far East, South Pacific and India, but it can grow anywhere except the Arctic regions. It just might be the world's most sustainable resource. It's incredibly fast-growing, with some varieties shooting up a yard or more a day. It can be harvested in four to seven years and needn't be replanted because its roots keep sprouting new shoots, and it does so without fertilizers or pesticides.

Bamboo generates 30 percent more oxygen than trees, and can play a critical role in scrubbing the air of carbon dioxide. It also prevents massive soil erosion, reduces rain runoff and, because of its high nitrogen consumption, it helps mitigate water pollution from manufacturing, livestock farming and sewage treatment.

De Boer calls bamboo's reproduction rate "astounding." "It's better than trees," he says. "Bamboo replaces 30 percent of its biomass in one year, while the rate of a tree forest is only from 3 to 5 percent."

At home

As a building material, bamboo is stronger than wood, steel or concrete, and has the added advantage of flexibility, lighter weight and an organic look. Architects have begun using it for important structures in Europe and South America. Yet, because of zoning laws, bamboo is not likely to be used for homes in domestic subdivisions any time soon. However, its green credentials and natural good looks have made the material especially popular as flooring and cabinetry, and De Boer feels that's a good beginning.

"Using bamboo in really visible places helps," he says. "People see how beautiful it is and how well it works. That paves the way for its acceptance for other applications." Smith & Fong is the U.S. pioneer in bamboo products for floors, walls, ceilings, cabinetry and any place where plywood and veneer can be used. Sven Eberlein, marketing director, says that flooring currently is the most popular bamboo product. "A bamboo floor goes with any interior, from contemporary to traditional, and it's easy to install and so strong. Plus people love all its green aspects."

Cabinetry is the second most popular bamboo product, a development AlterEco founder Harrison has been expecting since 1997. Working only with bamboo, the company is dedicated to what Harrison calls "the triple bottom line," which translates into "people, planet and profit."AlterEco's custom cabinets are known for their sleek looks. "That's the best way to display bamboo's natural beauty," says Lorraine Hanson, kitchen and bath designer. "People usually think of bamboo in terms of a light palette, but we're currently experimenting with deeper colors. Recently, we did an espresso color. It turned out beautifully."

The softer side

Bamboo has also gained cachet on the runway and in textiles for the home. Diane von Furstenberg and Oscar de la Renta are among the fashion designers who've embraced the material, and green clothing manufacturers like Bamboosa and Shirts of Bamboo are fast becoming well-known brands. The appeal of bamboo fabric is obvious. It's ultra-soft; can look and feel like silk, without the high price; and it can go right into the washer and dryer. It also can mimic cashmere, fleece and cotton; and since it's absorbent and fast-drying, it works well for towels, bathrobes and all sorts of activewear.

These days, you'll find sheets and towels made of bamboo featured by mainstream chains like J.C.Penney, Target and Bed, Bath & Beyond as well as in mail-order catalogs from L.L. Bean, Brookstone and others. Bamboo fabric has its critics, however. Some environmentalists say harsh chemicals are used to process the fiber. Domestic producers counter that sodium hydroxide, the main chemical used in the fiber processing, is widely used in food and paper products and on nearly all cotton fabrics.

The bottom line, they say, is that the environmental impact of bamboo fabric production is much lighter than that of cotton and synthetics. For example, cotton uses 25 percent of the world's insecticides, many of them extremely toxic.

"Practically every product we consume has some environmental impact," says Rich Delano of Bamboo Textiles. "Given that, we have to educate ourselves and choose the lesser evil. Since bamboo is one of the greenest materials on earth, I don't see how it won't come out on top every time."

Bamboo facts

  • Bamboo forests may soon come to the United States. A bill to plant three pilot forests will be before Congress before the end of the year.
  • Currently, China forbids fiber processing of its bamboo beyond its borders. U.S. companies import that fiber and spin, knit, dye and sew the clothing domestically.
  • Bamboo is naturally anti-microbial.
  • Visit the American Bamboo Society's Web site for information on lectures, plant sales and tours in the Northern California area.