Stepping into a mature madake bamboo grove is like entering another universe. You feel dwarfed by towering bamboo giants. A bamboo grove is a testament to the resilience of life on earth. It becomes apparent upon seeing the bamboo grove that the shakuhachi truly embodies the simplicity and versatility of bamboo. The shakuhachi is held upright with root facing downward which shows us how bamboo grows out in nature. We, also being a part of nature, utilize the bamboo which, with no small amount of work, provides us with shakuhachi.
Phyllostachys bambusoides, commonly called madake and giant Japanese timber bamboo, is a bamboo species in the genus Phyllostachys. Madake bamboo has become identified in use and name with Japan even though it originally came from mainland China and Korea. Madake all over the world has the same DNA because bamboo reproduces Asexually directly from the roots or rhizomes. However, growing conditions such as the soil, lay of the land, exposure to sunlight, climate and micro-climate have a big effect on how bamboo, including madake, will grow. Only new shoots provide a 100% positive ID when expertly examined in the spring. While madake bamboo can grow in a wide variety of climates it grows best for shakuhachi in areas such as The South Eastern US. These places share similar climates with parts of Japan.
History of Japanese madake bamboo in America
Philanthropist and world traveler Barbour Lathrop (pictured above) was most passionate and instrumental in introducing bamboo to the United States. The study and collection of bamboo was the primary focus of Lathrop’s third expedition with David Fairchild while they were in Japan in 1902. Lathrop told Fairchild, “One of the main things here [in Japan] is the Bamboo. I want to finance a big shipment of the plants to America. We should have them at home. Bamboo is beautiful as well as useful. The Japanese use it for everything. It may take a long time before Americans learn how to use it, but they’ll never learn if we do not introduce the plant. Don’t spend so much time on other things that you can’t study the bamboos.”
Most of bamboo’s history in the United States is contained in the Fairchild Archive Collections. The story starts in 1890 when a Mrs. H. B. Miller planted three Madake bamboo plants (Phyllostachys bambusoides) on her farm along the Ogeechee River. The parent plants had been brought to Georgia in the 1880’s by a Cuban born rice planter named Andres E. Moynelo. David Fairchild (1869-1954) said that, “P. Bambusoides [madake] was introduced [to The US] by a one Andres E. Moynelo in the late 1880’s”. A world traveler and rice planter, Moynelo introduced madake to the United States after a visit to Japan.
In 1915 a worker on Mrs. H. B. Miller’s farm feared the madake grove would be destroyed. He wrote to David Fairchild in Washington, D.C. informing him that the owner planned to cut the madake down and he asked Fairchild to save it. Fairchild was amazed to find a huge healthy grove of valuable madake. He told Barbour Lathrop about the madake grove and suggested that he buy it. In 1919 Lathrop bought the property and gave it to the USDA for use as a Federal Plant Introduction Garden. The site is now known as the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens which is part of the University of Georgia’s Cooperative Extension Service.
Harvesting Japanese madake bamboo for shakuhachi
First a positive ID must be made which is only possible by examining the bamboo shoots in Spring. Luckily, Madake has very colorful and characteristic shoots (see picture to the right). It has lovely green spider-like “auricles”, smooth leopard spotted sheaths, and pinkish hues. Many grueling hours are spent digging up the root end of the bamboo for making shakuhachi. Besides the roots of the stalk itself, each root-ball is connected to the “mother of bamboo” or the rhizome. The thick, often incredibly tough rhizome is the subterranean womb of the bamboo grove which gives birth to each stalk. Rhizomes are unbelievably hard and have shattered my tools.
The new shoots bud from the rhizome and soon breach the earth, climbing toward the sky in order to process light into food. The whole grove is one large family tightly interconnected with one-another. Besides the rhizome from which a stalk sprouted, there are often other rhizomes intermingling in the root-ball making it even harder to dig up. Digging root ends for shakuhachi is actually good for the bamboo grove because only the old, dying, or dead stalks are dug up which discourages infections, infestations, and overcrowding.
Prized beautifully spalted “goma” madake and how madake dies
Bamboo stalks typically die from some kind of infection like mold or fungi which start in at the roots or where the tough bamboo skin has been compromised. This is part of the reason why the average lifespan of one stalk of madake is only six years.
Ironically, it is these mold and fungi that create the lovely mottled splotches or “spalting” that shakuhachi enthusiasts have come to love.
When making shakuhachi the mold and fungi are killed so there is no worry of mold in the finished shakuhachi.
The Japanese call these spalted pieces of madake goma. Spalting highlights the natural process or life of the bamboo.
“Aburanuki” coal-curing madake for shakuhachi
After many long hours of harvesting, transporting, and cleaning, the time finally comes for the next amazing process called aburanuki.
Aburanuki is the act of sweating bamboo over extremely hot coals which drives out moisture and cooks the juices of the bamboo making them more viscous like glue.
This in turn makes the bamboo fibers stronger and less likely to crack. After performing aburanuki the bamboo is placed in the full sun to dry for a month or more. Each piece has to be rotated to receive even sunlight so as to dry and change color correctly.
They also have to be protected from the rain and other sources of excess moisture such as dew. After sun drying the bamboo is placed indoors to further dry or “cure” until they can be worked with tools into shakuhachi.