Bamboo Taxonomy Problems
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Isolated Taxonomists Create Multiple Bamboo Names

By: Gib Cooper,

The international system of naming plants is necessary to take the confusion out of common plant names made up of language and regional differences. International consensus has settled most plants into stable positions in plant classification systems so that changes are rarely necessary.

Botanists have had trouble in assigning scientific names to bamboo. Generally, the flower is the feature that is used to classify plants as being related or not. Similarities in leaves, branching patterns, and other plant parts are not enough on their own

Bamboo presents the enigmatic problem of long periods of time between flowering periods and, often, subtle differences between vegetative parts. A few bamboo flower almost annually, like the plants we are used to, but most have long periods like 30 to 120 years. Periods long enough to outlive the individual botanists! Why bamboo suffers these long periods before attempting sexual reproduction can only be answered by guess and theory.

However, the lack of flowers has meant that bamboo taxonomy has lagged far behind that of most other plants. Botanists working in isolation in China, India, Japan, and the West have come up with widely differing systems and names for the same bamboos. Geographic remoteness of many bamboo rich areas such as the Himalayas and China has been exacerbated by political problems between countries such as China, India, and Japan over the last century. It is only recently that botanists working in these countries have started to exchange material and opinions on a systematic basis, so that a consensus can be reached about which names to use.

The American Bamboo Society has been instrumental in bringing Western and Chinese bamboo enthusiasts together, and a project at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, funded by the Anglo-Hong Kong Trust, is also working towards closer collaboration. Chinese taxonomists are visiting Kew, and joint fieldwork is being undertaken. As well as clarifying the names of presently cultivated bamboos, a spin-off from this work is the discovery and introduction of many more garden-worthy Sino-Himalayan bamboos.

Thanks to Dr. Chris Stapleton of Royal Botanic Gardens Kew for help in understanding the taxonomic puzzle.

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[Editor's note] Michel H. Porcher, of the Institute of Land & Food Resources at the The University of Melbourne, is collecting the names of various kinds of bamboo in Asian and European languages. He already has a very impressive collection of bamboo names in Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Thai, Malay and Nepalese.

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