Growing the bamboo market in France

An interview with Stéphane Alzaix, ornamental bamboo grower at Newfi Bamboo

How did you first get in touch with bamboo?

“My grandmother’s home was inhabited by the Phyllostachys viridiglaucescens and its shoots grew so much overnight that its shade threatened the growth of other plants. I found it very surprising that the shoots grew so fast, and developed a strong interest in bamboo. Because of my desire to learn more about this, I researched all necessary literature. Taming the Dragonby Paul Whittaker caught my full interest, and it was contact with the author which led me and my wife to organise our first trip to China exclusively devoted to bamboo.

In 2012 we attended a seminar organized by the World Bamboo Organization in Yunnan, which gave us the opportunity to expand our network of bamboo enthusiasts around the world. During our trip we found out more about the multiplication and cultivation of different bamboos according to climate. The studies on bamboo are endless and it is always pleasurable to discover new subjects to study, or new species that could grow in Europe.

Stéphane Alzaix and his wife have travelled around the world to collect bamboo

What is your involvement with bamboo?

Stéphane Alzaix and his wife have travelled around the world to collect bamboo

My wife and I have an ornamental bamboo nursery called Newfi Bamboo and a four hectare garden where we planted our first bamboo ten years ago. From the beginning on we looked for non-native bamboo species and dedicated several trips to China. We explored provinces such as Zhejiang, Anhui, Hubei, Fujian, Sichuan, Shaanxi, Yunnan and Jiangsu to identify a few species that could survive in the winter. By now we have introduced about 50 new bamboo species, and we are still looking for more.

Although our nursery is dedicated to ornamental bamboos, we are also growing rare bamboos for collectors and others for possible largescale plantations. We advise contractors on how to plant bamboo for use as biomass or hardwood alternatives. We can help to choose varieties that are in accordance with a specific climate.  Our trips to China have also helped us to [understand more about] bamboo processing. Although we wanted to install our own bamboo processing units for biomass, pellets and charcoal production, we decided not to as running the bamboo nursery is a full-time job.

What do you like the most about bamboo?

A Newfi bamboo hedge, before and five months after planting

A Newfi bamboo hedge, before and five months after planting

Bamboo is not an ordinary plant and because it grows very fast, many customers value it as a fast-growing hedge. So as not to invade their neighbours’ ground, we recommend the planting of the species Fargesia. When our customers return from work, they see that the shoots are already higher than they were when they left in the morning.  We often get calls from customer saying that it is exceptional that a plant grows so fast! We even have regular customers who resell their house to buy a new house with a large garden to be able to plant more bamboo. And I do not think that this happens with many other grasses.

Besides all this, the growth of bamboo provides a beautiful refuge for animals such as birds. In a few years a bamboo garden can become an auditorium with many different types of birdsong. Bamboos also seem to provide a calming and positive environment.

What challenges do you encounter with bamboo?

Many of our customer firstly think about bamboo as an invasive plant. It is then our role to educate our customers about the different varieties of bamboo and that not all bamboos are invasive. We are often repeating on the phone: “Yes, do not worry, they do not have rhizomes that will invade your garden. For example, raspberries are much more invasive.”  Therefore we often advocate for clumping bamboo, since running bamboos bear a greater risk for smaller gardens. In addition, I perceive a lack of garden culture in France. Many wish to have a hedge straight away, without having to water it. This is of course not possible with bamboo.

What do you think could be the future of bamboo in France and Europe?

There is a growing interest in bamboo in France, and we are seeing an increasing number of requests for advice on planting large bamboo surfaces, especially for the production of biomass. The main difficulty is the long wait time between the cultivation and first harvest. For farmers who are used to sowing and harvesting a few months later, this is inconvenient. But those employed in forestry perceive the wait time as very short in comparison to other wood sources, such as the oak.

In addition, we definitely need to focus more on value chain development, which connects growers and business partners in the future. For France we could definitely use bamboo to supply biomass and thereby replace power plants. We are also seeing a large number of water purification projects now turning to filtration of reeds associated with bamboos. In some French cities, it is very fashionable to buy an old factory and to transform it into a residence. Since there are still heavy metals in the soils, they firstly have to be decontaminated before being residential. Here too the bamboo is very efficient. Today Europe is lagging far behind bamboo; this delay can be quickly closed if we find effective knowledge networks such as those provided by INBAR.

What trade opportunities do you see among the global South and Europe for bamboo?

The trade opportunities with Asia, Africa or South America are unilateral and countries which are accustomed to exploit bamboo should help Europe. We need to acquire know-how and equipment to produce bamboo in various forms. I think that in the future and in order to reduce its carbon footprint, Europe would be able to manufacture everything it sells in Europe. For its part, Newfi Bamboo is a small nursery that has started to select varieties that can grow all over Europe and have the best yield. But if several small links meet, we can makes a great chain very strong.

Interview by Ann-Cathrin Joest.

Originally published here by INBAR