Though often referred to as bamboo "trees," these widespread plants are actually members of the grass family. Represented by more than 1400 species across the globe, bamboo is most abundant and most heavily utilized in southern and eastern Asia; however, native species grow on all continents except Europe and Antarctica. North American bamboo, known as river cane or canebreak, was once common from the Chesapeake Bay to the Ohio River Valley and southward to the Gulf Coast; scattered pockets remain but most stands have been cleared for agriculture.
Initially sprouting from seed, bamboo spreads via underground rhizomes, resulting in large, dense colonies of genetically identical plants; most species are found in tropical areas but some are cold tolerant and grow in the Temperate Zone. Flowering and subsequent seed pod production occurs simultaneously throughout the colony but such events are often widely spaced, occuring every 40-100 years or more in the largest species. Smaller species flower more frequently and remain viable while larger bamboos die once their seed pods are produced.
Across the globe, bamboo is used for a wide variety of purposes. Tender stems, leaves and seed pods are eaten by giant pandas, lemurs, cattle, humans and a host of other animals while the mature, woody stems have been used to make paper, straws, pipes, poles, rafts, scaffolding and homes, among a myriad of other products. Since bamboo is one of the fastest growing plants on Earth, it has been increasingly used for livestock feed and may become an important source for biofuels.