Staff from the Smithsonian’s National Zoo harvesting bamboo in Greenbelt, Md.

There’s acres of the dreaded invasive running bamboo in my neighborhood, like there is in many of yours, I bet.  And when Kristen Bullard moved to my neighborhood in Historic Greenbelt, Md. about a year ago she wanted to help get rid of the stuff and had a brainstorm: maybe the Smithsonian’s National Zoo could use it to feed the animals! (Officially it’s the National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, revealing a broader mission than we’d have guessed.)  Kristen knew from her work with the Smithsonian that the Zoo grows and harvests bamboo to feed the Asian animals in their care, including giant pandas, red pandas, and Asian elephants.  

Spike, a male Asian elephant, munched on some Greenbelt bamboo for his 42nd birthday. It doesn’t just feed the elephants; it acts as an enrichment activity.  Photo by Kristen Bullard.

As she wrote in our local newspaper (page 1 of this issue), Kristen reached out to the Zoo’s Department of Nutrition Science, which sent someone to assess our bamboo thickets.  Locals in charge of the bamboo-infested lands provided a tour of some infested sites, where they evaluated the bamboo’s health and species (pandas are picky eaters), as well as the ease of access and density of the growth for harvesting.  Kristen wrote:

Thanks to the hard work by so many volunteers in our community, bamboo in many of the thickets has been eradicated or controlled to the point that the Zoo couldn’t use it—but finally, success! The Smithsonian team identified two robust, easy-to-access locations for harvest [and completed the first harvest of our bamboo in June.] They will harvest from these sites several times over the next couple of years. The result will be bamboo thickets that are thinned enough for our community of volunteers to prevent regrowth for a few more years, and then plant native plants and begin restoring the ecosystem for the wildlife living in our area.

Photo credit: DALL-E2

Kristen goes on to explain how local volunteers have not only already removed much of our bamboo but they’ve mapped the thickets and become official caretakers of our housing co-op’s community woodlands parcels, organizing work parties, educating people about the problems that bamboo causes, and helping neighbors identify alternative plants to replace it. Homeowners are encouraged to eradicate it through cutting, mowing, and tarping. “Partnering with the Smithsonian’s National Zoo is just one more way for us to combat this nonnative invasive plant.”

Photo credit: DALL-E2

Not all of the parts of the harvested bamboo are used by the Zoo. The pieces of cut bamboo left over from harvesting are great for creating garden structures like supports for vining vegetables.

“Another byproduct of the harvest is compost. The Smithsonian composts the dung from the elephants, giant pandas, and other vegetarian animals using high-heat methods, turning it into a soil amendment used throughout the Smithsonian’s gardens.  They also offer it to Smithsonian employees each year to celebrate Earth Day,” so Kristen might be bringing some of it back to the neighborhood.

Kristen was surprised that this project created SO much excitement and support in the community. “It’s a great reminder that together we can find creative ways to remove invasive plants and restore our native ecosystem.”

Here the Smithsonian staffers are ready to take the first harvest from Greenbelt back to the Zoo.