Drought-tolerant bamboos for combating desertification (Willem Van Cotthem)

Carlo DEFEND is a young Italian doing some research on the possibility to cultivate a drought-tolerant species of bamboo, namely Oxytenanthera abyssinica in the regioin of Karamoja in Uganda.  Carlo contacted me after reading my former posting on this subject :


After screening the literature on this bamboo species he wrote : “In different articles I read, unfortunately, that this plant grows with a minimum rainfall of 800 mm per year. In this case of Karamoja, it is not sufficient to withstand the dry season and to try to cultivate it. Do you have a different information? Can you confirm the possibility to cultivate this plant in these conditions?”

My reply was : When looking at the distribution map of this bamboo, I get convinced that it must have a lot of potentialities in the dry areas :

  • Northeast Tropical Africa: Eritrea; Ethiopia; Sudan
  • East Tropical Africa: Tanzania; Uganda
  • West-Central Tropical Africa: Cameroon; Central African Republic; Congo; Zaire
  • West Tropical Africa: Benin; Cote D’Ivoire; Gambia; Ghana; Guinea; Guinea-Bissau; Nigeria;
  • Senegal; Sierra Leone; Togo
  • South Tropical Africa: Angola; Malawi; Mozambique; Zambia; Zimbabwe

The species name “abyssinica” indicates that the plant maybe originated from Eastern Africa.  It should thus be an excellent bamboo for Uganda !

Today, Carlo wrote again : “You are right, I also received confirmation from two African referees of INBAR (www.inbar.int), the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan, telling me that Oxytenanthera abyssinica can grow in the plains with high temperatures and low rainfall, especially “If rainfall is over 500mm in lowland try Oxytenanthera abyssinica.” They tell me that there are also other species that could be fine. One should do some screening to identify the best species for this Karamoja location.”

A nice description of the “lowland bamboo” can be found in the article “The Two Bamboos of Ethiopia” by Walter Liese (http://bambooplantations.blogspot.be/2008/09/two-bamboos-of-ethiopia.html) : “The lowland bamboo Oxytenanthera abyssinica ( A.Rich) Munro grows in the western part of Ethiopia towards the Savannah Woodlands of Sudan at an altitude between 700-1,800 m. It is a hardy species on poor soils in dry vegetation formations. As a most resistant bamboo to drought it tolerates rainfall down to 700 mm and a high temperature of above 35°C.”

At the website of the Kew Botanic Gardens one finds (http://www.kew.org/plants-fungi/Oxytenanthera-abyssinica.htm) : “Oxytenanthera abyssinica (Bindura bamboo) is a drought-resistant bamboo from tropical Africa.“.

Wikipedia calls it : “the most common lowland bamboo in eastern and central Africa, also called savannah bamboo.

The FAO says (http://www.fao.org/docrep/X5327e/x5327e1f.htm) : “A large herb grass (bamboo) growing in open grassland, lowlands, and highlands, often on hills or along intermittent watercourses. It is widespread but irregular although generally close together in pure stands. Most hardy of the 3 African species, it is often found on very poor soils in Tanzania (RSCU 1992).

Concerning drought-tolerance in bamboo species, we find some information in :http://www.bamboogarden.com/FAQ%20general.htm#drought%20tolerant : “Are bamboo drought tolerant?  Clumpers are more drought tolerant than runners because they root fairly deep, but runners have higher tolerance of dry, hot air. In particular, Semiarundinaria fastuosa, Phyllostachys decora, P. aurea, and P. glauca ‘Yunzhu’ are very tolerant of dry, desert climates. See Landscape Uses.  Bamboo planted in dry climates needs to be watered regularly for the first 3-4 years until it becomes well rooted.”

The “Bambooweb.info” mentions two drought-tolerant species : Phyllostachys nannii ‘Decora’ and Dendrocalamus strictus (http://www.bambooweb.info/bb/viewtopic.php?f=11&t=3707).

On the “GardenWeb”, one can find http://forums.gardenweb.com/forums/load/bamboo/msg1212072616351.html, mentioning : “When I google “drought tolerant bamboo”, Indocalamous latifolius appeared; a broad leaf, low screen (7′) bamboo.”

The Mediterranean Gardener published an interesting article on drought-tolerant bamboos : http://www.themediterraneangardener.co.uk/drought-tolerant-plants/drought-tolerant-bamboos/, in which Semiarundinaria fastuosa “Temple Bamboo”, a tall growing, slow spreader, is described as being more drought tolerant than Phyllostachys.

Taking into account that some bamboo species seemingly show a certain degree of drought-tolerance and therefore can play a significant role in anti-desertification programs and projects, e.g. in agroferestry, it is recommended that scientific research work is carried out on this subject.  Determining which bamboo species can be optimally used for combating desertification will be very rewarding for all the drylands.

For the time being, we suggest to concentrate this research work on the species and varieties mentioned above.


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Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.