Most San Diegans believe that the stuff that grows along the San Diego River bed in Mission Valley is bamboo. But it’s not. It's Spanish reed.
  • Most San Diegans believe that the stuff that grows along the San Diego River bed in Mission Valley is bamboo. But it’s not. It's Spanish reed.
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In early September 1988, late at night, a canny thief scaled the fence at Quail Botanical Gardens in Encinitas and made his way to the tender shoots of ten exotic species of bamboo and, after cutting them with an expert’s care, disappeared with the shoots forever.

George Shor, president of the American Bamboo Society, about the coco-de-mer: “That, my son, is the largest nut in the world.”

George Shor, president of the American Bamboo Society, about the coco-de-mer: “That, my son, is the largest nut in the world.”

Richard Haubrich, a Scripps geophysicist and cofounder of the American Bamboo Society, estimated $1000 worth of bamboo had been stolen that night, including cuttings from the enormous, grayish-green Bambusa beecheyana, a native of China, which takes as long as a century to reach maturity. Haubrich told the Los Angeles Times he was certain the kidnapped bamboo was destined for sale in the little-known underworld of stolen plants. And Haubrich wasn’t taking any more chances. He told the Times that as soon as he’d learned of the theft, 50 specimens of Quail’s rarer bamboos had been whisked to undisclosed locations throughout the county where they could continue to grow in safety.

Bambusa sinosspinosa. A local doctor, attending a convention in Canton, China, managed to dash to a field where he dug up roots of Bambusa sinosspinosa, which he spirited back to Quail Gardens.

Bambusa sinosspinosa. A local doctor, attending a convention in Canton, China, managed to dash to a field where he dug up roots of Bambusa sinosspinosa, which he spirited back to Quail Gardens.

Haubrich had every right to be cautious. Throughout the 1980s, he and his industrious crew of bamboo enthusiasts had with fanatical zeal searched the globe for rare and unusual varieties to add to the Quail Gardens collection. They trekked through rural Mexico, Costa Rica, and Taiwan. They traded with specialty nurseries and botanical gardens across the U.S. and in Japan. A local doctor, attending a medical convention in Canton, China, even managed, in a spare moment, to dash to a nearby field where he dug up and cut sample roots of Bambusa sinosspinosa, which he later spirited back to Quail Gardens. Haubrich and his minions were nothing if not dedicated. Some might say obsessed.

Their obsession paid off. From the time the American Bamboo Society was founded at Quail in 1981, the garden’s bamboo collection grew from a meager handful to more than 186 varieties, the largest bamboo collection in the United States. A collection whose scope and quality were so exceptional as to attract the attention of relatively rare bamboo thieves. Its tremendous expansion was due in large part to Haubrich’s having obtained a special permit from the USDA to import live bamboos, the first permit of its kind granted by the department to a private individual since 1914. The permit entailed the raising of funds for and the construction of a quarantine house for imported plants, which were not particularly easy tasks to accomplish — at the time the permit was granted, the American Bamboo Society had only a dozen members. But the permit and the quarantine house did open the door to some of Quail’s most spectacular bamboo, like the amazing Bambusa bambos from India.

Bambusa bambos talks, or seems to speak its own creepy bamboo language. When the wind moves through the tops of its thick and spiny 20-foot-tall stalks, Bambusa bambos squeaks, groans, and chatters. It’s an unearthly noise, one not particularly soothing even in broad daylight. On the bright, clear day I stood in Quail Gardens admiring the stand of Bambusa bambos, listening to its monologue, a pretty blond woman in her early 50s sidled up to me and whispered, “Just listen to it.”

“Odd, isn’t it?” I said.

“Oh, yes,” she continued. “I have a very dose friend in Pasadena who was forced from her home by Bambusa bambos. She and her husband had moved into a new house, and he was often away on business. There was a large stand of this bamboo right outside their bedroom window. At first she thought the bamboo was nice because it offered so much privacy. Then, while her husband was away, she noticed she was having trouble sleeping. She kept waking up, thinking she heard voices. It was the bamboo. The bamboo sounded like it was talking. She was terrified. She couldn’t sleep. Finally, they had to move.”

“My,” I said, glancing over my shoulder to see if George Shor, ABS’s current president, had arrived yet for our meeting. “That’s a very strange story.”

“It certainly is,” the nice blond woman said, eyebrows raised. “Very eerie. ”

I wished her a good day and, at a brisk canter, went to the garden’s visitors’ center, where I found Mr. Shor waiting patiently on a wooden bench. Shor is a tall, 72-year-old fellow with splendid graying eyebrows and a well-tended goatee. In a lyric baritone, he speaks in meticulous, fluid paragraphs, each thought leading methodically to the next. To hear him speak is to hear a fine, well-ordered mind at work; before retirement, Shor was for 38 years a marine geophysicist at Scripps, where he conducted research and also taught. I asked him if the bamboo world was rife with physicists.

“No,” he laughed. “But Quail Gardens is rife with retirees.”

He made a broad gesture with his hand at the gardens, which were, in fact, teeming with retiree volunteers, both male and female, bustling about happily with filthy hands and muddy-kneed khakis. In their 60s and 70s, they move through the grounds, weeding, pruning, cleaning, planting, darting around in electric work carts. They stop to tell each other jokes and to flirt with each other in a coy, decorous way. It’s an Edenic scene Shor led me through on our way to the bamboo stands on the garden’s northwestern edge. The sun was warm, the breeze mild, quail gamboled, lizards scuttled, butterflies and hummingbirds flitted and zipped, and the air was filled with the scent of flowers and the tangy eucalyptus mulch spread many inches deep throughout the grounds. It’s very much as though these older folks have in their leisure rewarded themselves with a few acres of hard-earned heaven on earth.

As current president of the American Bamboo Society, Shor’s particular corner of heaven is the glamorous, arching clumps and groves of the plant grown to dramatic heights. Shor leads me deep into the cool, emerald-green light at the center of a grove of Phyllostachays vivax.

“This,” Shor says proudly, “is bamboo.”

Most San Diegans, he explains, believe that the leafy, green and beige stuff that grows in their back yards, canyons, and along the San Diego River bed in Mission Valley is bamboo. But it’s not.

“It’s Spanish reed,” he says, with some disdain. “Brought in by the Spaniards in, I believe, the 16th Century to use for thatching. It’s vigorous, all right. Like bamboo, it can really grow. Like some bamboos, it spreads rapidly by sending out runners, or rhizomes. But it’s not bamboo. True bamboo has branches, see?”

He points upward in the refreshing light to a section on a bamboo stalk that has sprouted a tiny branchlet. “Now, there are two ways bamboo grows. With plenty of exceptions, there are the clumping bamboos common to tropical climates, and there are the running bamboo common to temperate climates. But both send up shoots, and both grow in sections called internodes. Bamboo’s characteristic rings are called nodes, and it’s from these nodes that the branches form.

“In fact, of the four ways possible to propagate bamboo, one of the easiest is to cut a stalk into sections, cutting each section just below the nodes or rings. You then plant them with the nodes beneath the soil. If you’re lucky, in time roots will grow from the node, and you’ll have the beginnings of a bamboo plant. Branches and roots, you know, are very similar.

“You can, of course, also grow bamboo from seed. We happen to have one variety that’s seeding right now — a fairly rare occurrence.”

Shor moves to take me to this seedy bamboo, but we are intercepted by a beaming, older woman who is clearly charmed by Shor.

“Oh, Mister Sho-o-o-r!” she calls, trudging toward us through the spongy mulch. “I’m going to be sitting at the table with the coco-de-mer at our palm sale, and I was wondering if you might give me a little background on it. I mean, people are sure to ask questions about it.”

“I’m sure they will,” he grins and wiggles his splendid eyebrows at her and, turning to me, confides in a stage whisper, “The coco-de-mer is an unusual palm whose nut resembles, uh, certain parts of the, uh, female anatomy.”

“Oh, Mr. Shor!” the woman giggles and flaps her grimy work gloves at him in a display of mock fluster. “As a woman I resent that!” (She’s grinning ear to ear, and it’s obvious she adores him.)

It’s easy to understand why. Shor launches into a detailed exposition of the coco-de-mer’s colorful history, its life as a powerful totem prized by ancient sultans for its supposed aphrodisiacal and fertility-conferring properties.

“That’s almost more than I’d care to know,” the woman says. “But I’m sure our visitors will be fascinated.”

Shor chuckles as she turns and wades away through the mulch. Pausing here and there along the way to pull up stray weeds, he takes me to the stand of Bambusa sinosspinosa, which has literally gone to seed. In this rare condition, with its slender branches laden with cascades of pale brown seed dusters, it’s easy to see bamboo’s close relationship to grass — a relationship that’s often hard to imagine when confronted with its extremely tall or dangerous-looking, spiny varieties.

Shor begins to comb through the seed clusters with his fingers, worries them about in his cupped palm, looking for a fertile kernel in the chaff. He and other volunteers can spend hours doing this and have managed to gather enough seed to offer for sale in the gift shop and to ABS members.

“This,” he says, holding a seed between forefinger and thumb, a seed no bigger than a grain of rice, “turns into this.” And he nudges the ground with the toe of his shoe.

Down on my hands and knees, I see nestled in the mulch a tiny seedling perhaps two spindly inches tall.

“That’s just one of the ways bamboo can take over. There’ll be hundreds of seedlings by the time it’s finished seeding, and then the stand will probably die. It’s possible to save it with lots of water and lots of fertilizer, but by the time it takes to revive a stand that’s gone to seed, you could’ve already grown entirely new bamboo. So I really don’t know that it’s worth it.”

Shor marches me through the garden, stopping only to light the cigarettes he smokes studiously all the way to the filter. On our way to the specimen plants, he points out all the very many bamboos he and ABS members have tucked into the odd nook and cranny around Quail. Up near the Walled Garden, he points out two delicate clumps of Fargesia, Himalayan natives that can withstand snow and frost.

“The Germans,” Shor says, “especially the northern Germans, just love it. It does very well there. Here, on the other hand, you’ll notice that the tips of the leaves are brown — leaf burn. It’s the water. We have terrible water here that wreaks havoc on some kinds of bamboo. In fact, some of them are so sensitive to the hardness of the water that at home, with my bamboo, I can actually tell when San Diego is getting more Colorado River water. There’s not much you can do about it. One woman I know goes to the store every week and buys gallons of distilled water for her bamboo.

“It’s still an amazingly hardy plant. There’s bamboo just about everywhere. There are one or two varieties native to North America and many native to Mexico, Central, and Latin America. But they’ve never been exploited in the West the way they’ve been in Asia as a food source. Most all Asian cultures eat bamboo shoots, and most all bamboo shoots are edible, although some varieties are tastier than others. The shoots of some varieties contain small quantities of cyanide, but that problem can be gotten around by cooking. Cyanide breaks down rapidly when cooked.

“The Africans don’t seem to have discovered bamboo as a food source either. I have a good friend, however, a very bright man, an engineer, who lives in Tanzania, who was commissioned by his government to devise a system for bringing fresh water into every house in every Tanzanian village. So he began preliminary plans for such a system and quickly discovered that using common materials such as plastic pipe would run into costs that would exceed Tanzania’s total annual budget. Being a extremely resourceful fellow, my friend started looking around for natural materials in Tanzania that he could use in place of the imported plastic pipe and fittings. It turns out that Tanzania has an abundant supply of bamboo, and he devised a method for reaming out the nodes with a length of hot metal pipe. All he had to import was a simple kind of fitting that was fastened with plain wire. He went from village to village teaching men how to construct a water system using bamboo, and he supplied them with the fittings. As soon as they’d had some practice, he’d move on.

“The only problem they ran into, though, was rot. Bamboo’s fine if it’s dry and it’s fine if you keep it wet, but by turning the water on and off, as you would with a plumbing system, the bamboo dries out, and gets wet, and dries out again, and this leads to rot. The solution, however, was simply to leave the water running. There’s water running in homes all over Tanzania.

“And,” he says — by this time we’ve arrived at Shor’s specimen plants tucked away in a northern gated part of the gardens, “we’ve got water running all over Quail, too.”

Shor is not pleased. Someone has left the irrigation system running, and water has pooled inches deep throughout the specimen compound.

“It’s not bad for the bamboo,” Shor harrumphs. “But it’s bad for Quail.”

These are Shor’s babies. Here and there, shielded by a tall structure draped with billowing yards of fine black netting, are some of Shor’s favorite bamboo. And it’s touching to watch him as he walks among them. This tall, practical, gruffly affable man reaches out to gently touch his favorites, Mexican varieties, whose delicate green, pencil-thin stalks form long, elegant downward arcs.

I asked him why he liked bamboo so.

“It’s just so darned pretty,” he says. And as if to counter this momentary lapse from scientist’s objectivity into mild sentimentality, he adds, “There’s so little that’s known about it that a layman like me can get to be an expert in it with a relatively small amount of study. I guess I also like it because it’s a superbly designed material — excellent strength-to-weight ratio. During World War II, the U.S. even did studies to see if bamboo could be used in certain instances to replace steel as reinforcing rod in concrete. And in some parts of the world it’s still used as that.”

Our time is almost up, and Shor has much to do before his day is through. He has to go to Home Depot to buy 20 bags of cement for the floor of the third quarantine house that he and ABS volunteers have constructed for Quail.

“We’ve got 186 varieties,” Shor says, walking into Quail’s administrative offices. “We’re kind of running neck and neck with the University of Georgia Coastal Gardens in Savannah, who have, at last count I think, 180. But with this third quarantine house, we should be able to pull ahead easily. There are, after all, more than a thousand bamboo varieties.”

The offices are alive with an excited thrum — a shipment of green coconuts has arrived for the palm sale from Hawaii. Five or so female volunteers tenderly lift the smooth, lime-green nuts from their densely padded box and admire them.

“Would you like,” Shor asks me, “to see the coco-de-mer?”

In a room off to one side, on a bookcase, sit two specimens. One is unhusked, grayish-black, and looks like two sizable ovoid shapes connected at the center. It looks very much like a giant pair of human testicles. Sitting next to it is a husked coco-de-mer nut. Its skin has been polished smooth to an ebony-like finish. The shape is softened, rounded, and the twin ovals have assumed the shape of lush female hips — perhaps the hips to the thighs. It’s a primitive form, like that of the ancient clay statuettes of earth’s earliest plump fertility goddess. And at the crux of this polished coco-de-mer, where the two ovoids join, the craftsman has left a small bit of hairy husk—a naive and natural rendering of the female mons.

I blush.

But Shor and his covey of happy volunteers cluck and giggle. They’re not prudish. They’ve raised families. They’ve watched things grow and die. And every day they thrust their hands into the dirt to make things grow again.

“Pretty amazing, isn’t it?” says Shor of the coco-de-mer. “That, my son, is the largest nut in the world.”

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