Pacific NW Cover Story
Cracking the code to 'the perfect plant' opens a path to saving the planet
Four years ago, Jackie Heinricher and tissue-culture expert Randy Burr discovered how to clone bamboo in a test tube after years of arduous experimentation.
If Jackie Heinricher's Chilean feather bamboo hadn't flowered in her Skagit County garden 10 years ago, we might, this very moment, be snacking on the latest, greatest gourmet craze: crunchy chips made from bamboo shoots.
But flower it did, a once-in-a-century phenomenon. All over the world, from Argentina to Alameda to Anacortes, every clump of Chusquea culeou unfurled fairy-like fans of pointy mauve petals and dancing chartreuse pods. 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.
Heard of the United Nations program to plant a billion trees for the planet? Bamboo sequesters carbon dioxide at far higher rates than an equivalent stand of trees and releases up to three times the amount of oxygen.
Saving the planet wasn't on Heinricher's radar when she cleared pasture in Anacortes and planted her first stand. She'd worked as a marine scientist, Army nurse, professional scuba diver, ski bum, whale-watch tour guide — but nothing quite like this. Her business plan hadn't yet gelled, but she knew bamboo had fabulous qualities and she loved it.
"The idea that bamboo could have a meaning or a purpose above and beyond horticulture? You can't even entertain those thoughts without the ability to pump out millions of plants. It took eight full years to bring the technology to fruition."
While Heinricher and Burr were tinkering in the lab, consumers developed a craving for bamboo floors, bamboo towels, bamboo trays for bamboo plates. And the world started worrying about climate change.
Not only do the hairy plants capture carbon, they "collect dust and dirt out of the air and make the rain fall more gently on the ground," says Gib Cooper, a nurseryman in Gold Beach, Ore., and executive director of Bamboo of the Americas, a conservation-action organization. "I hate to say it: The world's population and economy are going to outpace whatever we try to do. But bamboo will help."
"I feel like the company's at the epicenter of a big place and time," says 48-year-old Heinricher. "This is a collision of breakthrough technology, a demand for bamboo products and global warming. I didn't have the brilliant foresight to see it, but it's pretty common in business that where you wind up is not where you thought you'd be."
TO HEINRICHER, bamboo is the perfect plant.
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.
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.
Unlike cotton, bamboo doesn't require pesticides to flourish. It needs modest amounts of water to thrive — some species rise a foot a day during growing season — and its root system can help stabilize hillsides and prevent erosion. When you harvest some of a stand's canes, the underground rhizomes survive and continue to quickly produce mature culms, unlike trees that die when chopped down.
The woody grass grows on every continent except at the poles. Its more than 1,200 species include giant temperate timber bamboos such as Moso, of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" fame; hardy mountain bamboos such as Wolong, Fargesia robusta, a favorite snack of pandas, and dwarf Pleioblastus distichus, a ground-cover bamboo so compact you can mow it.
Clumping bamboos, such as Heinricher's Chilean feather babies, don't spread and won't terrorize the neighborhood — unlike the unruly rhizomes of running bamboos.
But bamboo does have a dark side: There isn't enough of it.
World demand is so high that old, naturalized bamboo forests are being chopped down for textiles, lumber and pulp, creating havoc for resident wildlife. Other times, grand bamboo stands are uprooted to clear the way for roads and development, crops such as sugar cane or timber plantations to satisfy the planet's hunger for wood.
Before tissue culture, it wasn't feasible to farm bamboo on large-scale plantations because it was hard to find enough seed or divisions to plant. Despite their invasive reputation, bamboos are in short supply because most species flower and produce seed only once every 60 to 120 years, and propagation by division is labor intensive and iffy.
That all changed with the advent of cloned bamboo.
"We've never had a true supply of bamboo," Heinricher says. "We don't know how big the market will be." Boo-Shoot is the main commercial player in America, successfully cloning bamboo types that can be used for horticulture, agriculture, industry and carbon mitigation. A Belgian company, Oprins, clones mostly landscape bamboo. This winter, Heinricher retrofitted her greenhouses, enabling her company to produce 4 million plants a year.
Heinricher sees bamboo as an alternate lumber and source of pulp for paper, a way to ease pressure on trees. Bamboo plantations on unused agricultural land could be sustainably harvested while simultaneously functioning as carbon sinks. And, she asks, what about highway plantings for erosion control and noise reduction?
Asia, South America and Europe totally "get" bamboo, using the woody grass in hundreds of ways, Heinricher says, but America has yet to embrace bamboo for serious agriculture or industrial planting.
As it is, American companies buy bamboo products in Asia and ship them here on freight containers. Not fuel efficient. "Why," Heinricher says, "are we creating more carbon pollution and perpetuating the same old bad practices?"
Already, Boo-Shoot is noodling deals with corporate titans from Asia. Heinricher loves to tell of a Korean-Chinese executive who jetted into Sea-Tac, then motored by limo up to the humble lab set among potato fields and furniture outlets.
At first, he didn't believe that here, in Mount Vernon, they'd figured out how to clone bamboo when the process hadn't been cracked on a commercial scale in bamboo's heartland, Asia.
Then, Heinricher showed him racks of test tubes filled with tiny bamboos and trays of little bamboo seedlings. Tears welled in his eyes. "It was very emotional," Heinricher says, "for all of us."
THE BAMBOO empress was born in Seattle and grew up mostly in Olympia, the middle daughter among three girls and a boy.
"She is different from the other kids," says her father, Jack Heinricher, who now lives in Arizona. "Her sisters are kind of laid back. Jackie wasn't. She took charge and wanted to be the leader. She'd step out in front and try to do things, and if things didn't go well, she was passionate about results." Intense and dramatic, her family dubbed her "the actress."
Heinricher's mom was a homemaker; her father served as assistant state auditor. He was also an avid gardener who planted golden bamboo wherever they lived, the kids trailing him in the yard as he divided clumps and cut runners.
Jackie: "I remember playing in it, a little jungle. I always thought it was pretty neat. It just makes this incredible noise, and you could crawl through it and make stuff out of the poles, and it has birds in it, and it was always this enchanting little hiding place."
Heinricher's parents divorced when she was about 12, and she moved to Colorado with her mom. "It was one of those divorces, a little bit cantankerous, and it hit Jackie in particular because she's so passionate," her father says. He describes her teenage years as "wild and wandering." Heinricher recalls she skied a lot, left school, earned a GED.
Joining the Army was a turning point. She trained as a nurse in the Panama Canal Zone and worked the emergency room. She also learned to scuba dive in tropical waters and did some underwater side jobs for the Smithsonian Institution, which whet her appetite for studying marine biology. After leaving the military, she traveled solo around Asia for a year ("saw a lot of amazing bamboo"), earned a degree in biology at the Evergreen State College, then applied for graduate school in fisheries at Tennessee Tech University.
Phil Bettoli, a research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey who directs the school's grad students, remembers their first meeting and his surprise that Evergreen had no grades, just a dossier.
"This was the first indication this was not going to be your typical grad student."
She was older, more mature, well traveled. "We didn't get students from the Pacific Northwest in Tennessee," Bettoli says. "It was a whole different attitude about the world. Thinking out of the box. Constantly asking questions. Approaching her research with fresh eyes."
Heinricher's graduate work, on freshwater mussels, studied the impact of a huge dam project on water temperature and mussel reproduction. Typical grad students would have hung out with other fish-and-wildlife researchers, relying heavily on traditional methods and studies, Bettoli says. Heinricher took an original tack. "She ended up hooking up with medical folks in town to do histology," working with microscopes and slides. Heinricher's findings helped spur dam officials to periodically release warmer water to trigger mussel spawning.
Her longtime friend, Holly Martin, remembers first meeting Heinricher when touring the house Heinricher and her then-husband were selling. Aroma wafted from a giant pile of chopped garlic on the kitchen table. "It smells great! I love garlic!" Martin told Heinricher. They got to talking about food, music, became fast friends. Martin and her husband bought the house.
Heinricher recalls those years as "a lot of good times, and a bad marriage." When Heinricher divorced, Martin and her husband invited her to live with them while finishing her master's degree.
Martin: "Jackie wakes up at the crack of dawn and has an agenda every morning, doesn't go to bed until she drops." And whether she's well off or on the edge of disaster, "she still wears her blue jeans and her work gloves and has a keen interest in farming equipment."
The following year, when Heinricher met Guy Thornburgh, Martin knew he'd be The One.
Heinricher and Thornburgh had worked together on fisheries projects, mostly via telephone, for years. When they finally shared a couple beers at a conference and realized they were both available, it was kismet. "She always seemed so cheery and ambitious," Thornburgh says. "I'd have long commutes on the ferry to Shaw (Island) and I'd think of her and write poems, and she'd write back."
Thornburgh, who owns a marine technology company, had recently purchased seven acres on Campbell Lake in Anacortes; Heinricher moved back to the Northwest and they married. She knew it would be tough to find a fisheries job here because the Northwest spawns an overabundance of fisheries experts. Plus, she'd always wanted to try bamboo and now, finally, had acreage. They hired a guy with a tractor to plow up the pasture; Heinricher and a girlfriend planted the first groves from one-gallon containers.
Initially, Heinricher thought she'd market sliced edible bamboo shoots and sell poles for garden projects. But she discovered bamboo didn't spread fast enough in the Northwest's temperate climate to make poles profitable, and she needed a value-added product to make money from shoots. (Thus the kitchen experiments with bamboo-shoot chips. Salty sesame was the best, Thornburgh says.)
She tried selling plants wholesale, for the nursery trade, but again, couldn't produce enough through division.
Then, her Chilean bamboo flowered.
Heinricher stayed out in the greenhouse past dark every night, settling her bamboo-lets into 5 ½-inch pots while listening to Sting. "People thought I was nuts. How was I ever going to get rid of 10,000 bamboo plants?" she says. "I thought it was the most wonderful work, and I was excited about it."
She also realized that once her seedlings were sold (it took five years), that was it. No more seeds. She became determined to crack the tissue-culture code.
REMEMBER THE Boston fern craze? Those ruffly green fronds in the hanging macrame planters with the big wooden beads?
Thank Randy Burr. Burr pioneered commercial propagation of Boston ferns in 1973, started this country's first commercial tissue-culture lab and has since cloned numerous horticultural hits: lily bulbs, orchids, birch trees, Japanese maples, cabbage and cauliflower for seed production.
He co-owned the Mount Vernon lab where Heinricher germinated her Chilean bamboo seeds and was impressed by her success. But when she asked him to tissue-culture bamboo? "I just rolled my eyes," he recalled. "I knew bamboo would be difficult. I had tried it before with no success."
She kept coming around with plant material. "If you have patience, I'll try it," he told her. "No promises."
Tissue culture is a four-step process. First, you sterilize a cutting of the plant in bleach, bathe it in a solution of inorganic salts, vitamins, plant hormones and sugar and set it in agar gel. Step 2: Get the plant to make side shoots and replant them in more gel. Stage 3: Stop the multiplying and encourage root growth. Step 4: Acclimatize the plants for the real world by growing them in dirt in the greenhouse.
"Most plants, maybe one of those steps will give you a problem," Burr says. With bamboo, "every one of those four steps was a battle."
Burr rubs the top of his balding head when describing his initial failures: "Oh, I'm good at killing plants, especially good at bamboo. Those first years, I killed thousands."
After six months, a cutting sent out roots — wild celebration! — but then withered and died. For two more years, no luck. "Look Jackie, it's not going to work. I can't afford to do this," Burr told her. "She was like, Yeah Yeah Yeah. Gotta have bamboo! Her enthusiasm definitely kept me going." She paid for the research by selling the Chilean feather bamboos, "creative financing," personal investment and a trip to the bank.
Carrie Cammock, assistant vice president at People's Bank in Mount Vernon: "It was one of the most unique loan requests I've ever worked on, if I can diplomatically say it that way."
After more than four years of trial and error, Burr developed the magic formula for Crookstem bamboo, then Sunset Glow, Fargesia 'Rufa,' a mountain clumper.
"The first plants we put out, we were maybe charging $5 and they had to be worth thousands of dollars each," Heinricher says. "Plus, people were still wrinkling their noses and saying: 'Oh, it's bamboo.' It's something people have to be a little more educated to appreciate."
BUT WILL they?
After touring the amazing bamboo specimen garden at Heinricher's Anacortes home, we drive to Boo-Shoot's Mount Vernon lab in her Ford Explorer. She needs a big rig for her two German shorthairs, she says, and feels bad about her fuel consumption, even though she's planted enough bamboo to mitigate seven lifetimes of gas guzzlers. That spurs talk about bamboo's role on the global stage; Heinricher recently talked with members of Washington's congressional delegation on Capitol Hill about bamboo's carbon-scrubbing capabilities and potential use domestically for other products.
A logging truck whizzes by, loaded with hefty firs. "Wouldn't it be nice to see bamboo poles in the stacker?" Heinricher asks. If you're stuck in a traditional evergreen mindset, it's hard to envision an alternative Northwest landscape. But why not? With gas prices soaring and the earth ever warming, something has to change in the oil economy. We spin past the belching Anacortes oil refinery, various RV and tractor dealerships, a brand new sawmill. "Heartbreaking that it's not a bamboo facility," Heinricher says.
Imagine underutilized farmland growing 50- to 70-foot bamboos, she says. "We could put those people in Longview back to work."
Think of the vineyards now blanketing Walla Walla's hillsides. Before they were there, somebody had a vision to plant all those grapes.
We pull into Boo-Shoot's parking lot and Heinricher heads back to check the greenhouses. Minute by minute, a million tiny bamboo-lets are quickly outgrowing their trays.
Paula Bock is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Tom Reese is a Seattle Times staff photographer.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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