If Jackie Heinricher's Chilean feather bamboo hadn't flowered in her garden 10 years ago, we might be snacking on the latest, greatest gourmet craze: crunchy chips made from bamboo shoots.
But flower it did, a once-in-a-century phenomenon. Inside the pods nestled tiny seeds that Heinricher carefully stripped off by hand and germinated with the help of a local tissue-culture lab. It was a horticultural feat that eventually left Heinricher with 10,000 baby bamboos.
Even more significant? The ideas sprouting in Heinricher's head - ideas that blossomed into a bamboo empire beyond gardens.
Four years ago, Heinricher and tissue-culture expert Randy Burr discovered how to clone bamboo in a test tube after years of arduous experimentation. Now, Heinricher's multimillion-dollar high-tech company, Boo-Shoot Gardens in Mount Vernon, produces more than 2 million plants a year and has launched a "Plant-a-Boo" crusade to curb global warming.
Bamboo sequesters carbon dioxide at far higher rates than an equivalent stand of trees and releases up to three times the amount of oxygen.
Thomas Edison used carbonized bamboo filament in his first light bulb; Alexander Graham Bell created his first phonograph needle from a bamboo sliver. With tensile strength up to 52,000 pounds per square inch, bamboo is stronger than most steel, yet its fibers can be spun into a silky cloth blessed by natural antimicrobials. Unlike cotton, bamboo doesn't require pesticides to flourish.
Since antiquity, bamboo has been cooked as food and crafted into chopsticks, houses, boats, furniture, scaffolding, farm tools, medical instruments and art. It's been gulped as an aphrodisiac and swallowed as a treatment for asthma, kidney failure, venereal disease and cancer.
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