Bamboo Bonzai

More on Tonkin Cane

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In my last column I discussed the origins of the split cane flyrod and noted that sometime before the turn of the century rodbuilders began to use a new type of bamboo, 'Tonkin' cane, as the material of choice for flyrods. Today we will look a little more closely as well as dispel some myths about the plant that makes such a fine rodbuilding material.

It may surprise some people that the bamboo that looks, grows and can be hand worked or machined into a flyrod is not, botanically speaking, a tree. A member of the grass family, 'Tonkin' bamboo was assigned the scientific name of Arundinaria amabilis by Dr. Floyd McClure. Upon a visit to China, McClure was the first to scientifically describe the plant and recognized that it was a distinct and previously unreported species. At the time (1925) this bamboo had already been in use for building fly rods and was known by a variety of different common names. The name was amended to Arundinaria amabilis McClure in the doctor's honor and translated, means 'The Lovely Bamboo.'

In addition, most people assume from the common name 'Tonkin' bamboo that the species grows along the gulf of Tonkin. Actually, this species is propagated in a rather limited geographic area along the Sui River in southern China, north and west of Hong Kong.

The geography along the Sui River provides the perfect climate for this species. The river is bound by steep hillsides and it is along these hills that workers plant, tend and harvest the bamboo. The area receives an average of seventy inches of rain a year and although the plant thrives with a lot of rain it doesn't do well in standing water. The steeply sloped banks therefor provide the drainage and altitude that the plant prefers.

The plant is propagated by division of its rhizome (a horizontally running, underground stem). The rhizome is divided and placed into a hole about a foot deep. As a family, the bamboo's are the fastest growing plants on earth and once the rhizome sends up new shoots it takes only a month or two for the plant to grow to its mature height of about forty feet. At this point the mature 'stalk' of the plant is referred to as a culm and larger culms average about 2-2 " in diameter at the base and taper progressively smaller toward the top. Culms ideal for rodbuilding are those that grow straight with a minimum of branching leaves and with dense and strong walls. The culms are marked by scratching the enamel (outer surface) of the cane with a symbol (grower's mark) so that during the plant's life and subsequent harvesting each person's labor can be accounted for. The plants are allowed to mature for at least three years before they are harvested.

Harvesting is accomplished by workers climbing the steep hillsides and slashing the culms with a machete at the base of the plant. The culms are slid down the hillside to the banks of the Sui River and bundled into large floating 'barges'. Workers stand upon huge trains of these floating barges and guide the whole floating mass of bamboo downstream to be further processed.

Processing involves workers separating the culms from the assembled 'rafts' and scrubbing the bright green culms with sand to remove lichens that grow on the surface enamel. The culms are then dried in the sun, turning the color of the culm to the familiar straw yellow that rodbuilders prize. The dried culms may then undergo further processing to straighten those that have grown crooked and cut to length and bundled for shipping.

Culms that a rodbuilder receives are typically cut from the lowest twelve feet of the plant and are packaged in bundles of twenty. The walls of the bamboo are thickest in this portion, and it is the 'power fibers' present in the walls of the bamboo that give it the strength and resiliency that make it so prized for rodbuilding. Only a small portion of the yearly harvest however, will be exported and used to fashion fishing rods. The bamboo is also used to make furniture, fence posts, scaffolding, garden stakes and a whole host of other objects that make the bamboo so valuable.

We are often asked many questions about cane. Some commonly asked questions, and my opinions:

Is cane difficult to acquire? No. All one needs to do to acquire bamboo for rodbuilding is pick up the phone and call a supplier. There are presently a number of people importing cane for rodbuilding. Part of the perceived scarcity of cane goes back to an embargo placed on Chinese goods from 1950 to 1971.

During this time cane could not be imported into the U.S. and those that had good supplies of the material guarded it jealously because without an adequate stock of material, they simply could not continue building bamboo rods.

It is also often asked if there is something magical about this so-called 'pre-embargo' cane. The answer is, no. I wish I had a dollar for every time I was offered to buy (at very high prices) someone's precious 'pre-embargo' bamboo. Remember that the trade embargo was nothing more then a political act. If the government today slapped an embargo on another natural product, say rosewood, and the embargo ended tomorrow and importation resumed, you would still get the same rosewood.

I know of rodbuilders that have offered to sell supposed pre-embargo cane yet they purchase new cane every year. As a matter of fact, I'd venture to guess that there is more 'pre-embargo' cane available now then there was in 1950! So if there is anything magical about pre-embargo cane, it's all in how well some people can make an old (maybe) piece of grass worth a lot of money.

Is the cane expensive? No. Currently a twelve-foot culm of bamboo may sell, depending on the source, from about thirteen dollars to the low twenty- dollar range. A rodbuilder can get a minimum of one rod from a culm, and sometimes more. This makes the material cost of the cane in a rod very inexpensive.

How dry (or old) does the cane need be to build a rod? I remember reading someone stating that the drier the cane, the better. This is hogwash. In fact, some types of glue used to assemble rods will not function correctly below a minimum moisture content in the cane. If a rod is glued up with ultra-dry cane, it may just fall apart. Some makers will tell you that their cane is aged x-number of years. Well, maybe it is, and maybe it isn't. But you sure as hell can't tell by looking at it! This sort of hype in regards to a rodbuilding material is as old as the hills and continues to this day. Nowadays, instead of rodbuilders bragging about how old their cane is, graphite builders brag that their material is x-million modulus or is fortified with secret submarine technology. The more things change, the more they are the same! ~ J.D. Wagner


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