House of bamboo

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Throughout Asia, forests of bamboo grow tall and proud, their sturdy green stalks bending with the breeze. The plant shows up inside as well–it has long been a mainstay in Asian kitchens, the edible shoots used in cooking, the fibres woven into dim sum steamers, and the hollow rounds shaped as cooking vessels.

Now, the plant that's notorious for spreading has infiltrated Vancouver kitchens, in the form of everything from cutting boards to flooring. Not only does bamboo create a cool aesthetic, it's green in more ways than one.

"Bamboo is not a hardwood, it's a grass," says Dan Glavind, director of sales and marketing for BC Hardwood Floor Co. Ltd. "It can grow to 80 feet tall in five to seven years." On the line from the Main Street store, which sells bamboo flooring, he explains that when you cut down bamboo, the roots keep growing. "You can go plant a bamboo forest and harvest it every six years."

That makes bamboo a sustainable alternative to timber. Glavind explains that it is cut lengthwise into strips and compressed to make a flat-grain plank, showcasing the distinctive bamboo knots. Or, the strips are stood on end and compressed into a vertical edge-grain plank. BC Hardwood uses Teragren products, a Washington state–based company that harvests and manufactures its bamboo in the Chinese province of Zhejiang. (The company also makes bamboo countertops and cabinet veneers; visit teragren.com for information.)

Glavind says not all bamboo flooring is necessarily environmentally friendly; it depends on harvesting and manufacturing practices. Some cheap practices use toxic urea formaldehyde to glue the strips, but Teragren does not.

According to Glavind, bamboo flooring is durable–25 percent harder than the red oak benchmark–and easy to maintain. It's also economical; on a scale of less expensive to very expensive hardwood, he puts bamboo in the "low to mid range". It's easy to maintain with sweeping and vacuuming. Whereas a good-quality hardwood floor will last "easily a hundred years" and a very cheap one 10 to 15, quality bamboo flooring should last from 40 to 80 years.

The downside? Bamboo flooring can absorb moisture, and will swell if flooded by something like a dishwasher. Glavind still maintains bamboo works well in kitchens, but says it's preferable for other living areas.

Those who want to bring just a bit of bamboo into their kitchen have plenty of options. The South Granville Ming Wo store (2707 Granville Street) offers a range of products, including 18-centimetre bamboo salad bowls ($16.98) and a 14-centimetre mortar and pestle ($24.50), both by Fox Run. Torre & Tagus make funky place mats ($11.98) and coasters (four for $7.98) from flat bamboo rounds strung together.

But perhaps most useful are the bamboo cutting boards, which come in a wide variety of brands, sizes, and styles at different stores. The boards have a nice blond-wood look but retain distinctive patterns from the bamboo knots and grains, together with natural caramelized shades as a result of heating the bamboo. A 23-centimetre round Tag board sells for $11.98; a 25-centimetre round cross-grain Swissmar for $24.98; and a Totally Bamboo Catalina flat-grain, 29 centimetres by 35, for $49.98.

Ling Tao, a salesperson at Ming Wo's Pender Street store, says that bamboo cutting boards are a popular choice. "They're slightly denser than hardwood," she says, 16 percent harder than maple, so they're "better for durability and longevity". While plastic and glass boards may dull your knife, and plastic may also fuzz and warp, bamboo won't. "You still have to treat it like wood," she cautions. "You have to occasionally wipe it with food-grade mineral oil, and it can't go in the dishwasher."

No worries–they're so pretty you won't mind the extra handling.

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