Rice plantations, fields of cotton and wide expanses of Bermuda Grass – all things one would expect growing down South but bamboo in the Delta? Sure enough though (or as they say in my town “Sho’nuff”), a Bamboo Farm flourishes at the University of Georgia’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. To be fair, the farm did begin as a prosperous rice plantation called Vallambrosa. By 1834, the plantation measured 2,692 acres and was a leading rice producer along the Georgia coast. However, after the Civil War left the farm and economy in ruins, rice farming became a less viable option for farmers.
But there was a planter who had other options for the land – Andreas E. Moynello introduced the giant timber bamboo, Phyllostachys bambusoides, after a trip to Japan. Although worlds apart in their origins, it turns out that both bamboo and rice both prosper in the Southern climate and rich soil. Seeing the success of their neighbor, adjacent farms acquired bamboo clumps and planted them on their own land. One such neighbor, a Mrs. Smith, began selling bamboo shoots to local restaurants for use in bamboo recipes (perhaps they made their own bamboo pickles!) and bamboo poles to whomever needed them.
For anyone familiar with growing bamboo, it should come as no surprise that the grass flourishes in the Deep South. While native to tropic climates in Southeast Asia, Africa and the Americas, bamboo is able to thrive in a variety of climates from a tropical rainforest to a snow-covered mountain.
When the grove faced destruction, Dr. David Fairchild of the USDA contacted a wealthy donor, Barbour Lathrop, who purchased the land and leased it back to the USDA. And from that purchase, a research farm was born. In the 40’s, with the support of industrialists Harvey Firestone and Henry Ford researched the latex content of various plants in hopes of identifying native latex sources for use in rubber production.
The Herty foundation in partnership with Champion and the Scott paper company worked to make paper from bamboo pulp and while they were able to make high quality tissue and writing paper from bamboo pulp, it was not profitable enough to continue production.
On the medical front, yucca and several bamboo varieties were evaluated for their cancer-fighting properties. And during the Vietnam War, much of the bamboo was harvested for use by the US Army to create replica Vietnamese villages at Fort Stewart to train soldiers for combat.
When the USDA phased out the Bamboo Farm, it was deeded to the University of Georgia to use for their agricultural research. In recent years the Farm has been used to evaluate improved Bermudagrass varieties for resistance to mole crickets; field trials of conifers, camellias, blueberries have taken place; as have trials of various pesticides and pesticide alternatives for control of insect and weed pests. Some of the earliest trials of the popular ornamental sweet potato vine took place here as did trials of sun-tolerant Caladiums.
And when the Bamboo Farm faced closure again, a 501( c )3 was formed and the Friends of the Coastal Gardens was born. The goal of the Bamboo Farm is now focused less on research and more on education, including a Roots & Shoots program which brings science classes from K – 5 in for half day field trips. The Xeriscape Garden demonstrates water conserving techniques for gardeners.
The Bamboo farm continues to be a much-loved and often-visited site in Georgia and recently hosted their annual Spring Festival. If a trip to Georgia isn’t in your travel plans, try growing your own Bamboo Garden this spring!