Bamboos are a subfamily of the grasses, and are characterized by a large diversity in growth habit and geographic distribution. Bamboos occur naturally on all continents except Europe. Their altitudinal range of distribution varies from sea level to high mountain areas at heights of 3000-4000 m, in the Himalayan and Andes mountains. The northernmost distribution is in the North of China and Japan, and Korea, while the southernmost bamboos occur in Chile.
Bamboos are grasses! Currently about 1200 species are recognized, divided into two main groups: woody and herbaceous bamboos. The latter resemble grasses, often with broader leaves, and are distributed as understory vegetation in tropical forests. They are commonly called pygmy bamboos and cover the soil below the trees.
The most interesting bamboos are the woody ones, perhaps because of their spectacular size. The largest bamboos in Asia grow as tall as 40 m! Bamboos are the fastest growing plants on earth and a daily growth increment of 1 m in 24 hours is not exceptional. The world record holder is Phyllostachys edulis: a shoot elongated as much as 121 cm in 24 hours!
Bamboos are also extremely useful plants and over 1000 uses of bamboo have been recorded. Bamboos are used for pulp and paper, for construction and structural applications, for furniture, as well as for food and fodder. Bamboo is commonly called the poor man's timber, because it is used in all aspects of life. In rural areas in the tropics bamboo is used for making everything from cradles to coffins!
Two main groups are distinguished among woody bamboos: on the one hand there are the temperate species, which are resistant to cold and frost and are evergreen, some even in the most severe winters. On the other, there is the group of tropical bamboos which are hardly or not at all resistant to frost, but which are generally much taller and larger. In warm climates, some tropical species are used as ornamental plants for gardens, but they are more generally used as timber crop for agroforestry.