Curse of the bamboo flower
By: Charlotte Rowley - 22/08/2011
A letter in the Directors' Correspondence archive describes how the deadly prediction of an old Chinese proverb about bamboo flowering came true.
"When the bamboo flowers, famine, death and destruction will soon follow."
This is a traditional saying from the Mizo people who occupy the hill state of Mizoram in north-east India. Given that their ancestors are thought to have originated from north-west China it is possible that this is the 'Chinese proverb' referred to in a letter from John Mitford Atkinson in 1898, which has recently been digitised as part of the Directors' Correspondence project. At the time, Atkinson was the Principal Civil Medical Officer and Superintendent of the Government Civil Hospital in Hong Kong and was battling to eradicate the plague that had devastated the colony. Atkinson was writing to John Gilbert Baker to send him some seeds of a bamboo obtained from Macau (China). He writes of a Chinese proverb which states that when the bamboo flowers, it means either 'pestilence or famine'. He observes that curiously enough, in the years that the bamboo flowered in Hong Kong - 1894, 1896 and 1898 - plague epidemics ravaged the colony. So could there be some truth in this old saying?
John Mitford Atkinson (1857-1917).
Hong Kong plague
The bubonic plague epidemic reached Hong Kong from southern China in 1894, and the effects were devastating. The disease raged for 30 years and resulted in over 20,000 deaths with a mortality rate of over 90%. It was during the Hong Kong plague epidemic that Dr Alexandre Yersin was able to identify the bacterium that caused the disease which enabled him to develop an antiserum. He was also able to show that the pathogen was present in rodents, identifying a means of transmission. But what does this have to do with bamboo?
Men removing the dead from an infected area of Hong Kong.
Attack of the rats
Many bamboo plants exhibit mass flowering at intervals of up to 130 years depending on the species. In Mizoram, bamboo forests of Melocanna baccifera cover over 26,000 square kilometres and flower en masse every 50 years. The flowering produces such a vast quantity of seed that the rat population explodes, resulting in a 'rat army' of mythical proportions. Once all the seed has been eaten the rats move onto crops, destroying local agriculture and causing widespread famine. This once in a generation event last occurred in 2004 and allowed scientists the opportunity to properly study the phenomenon which had previously only been heard of in anecdotes.
Bamboo in flower (credit: Mogens Engelund)
Interestingly, the two bamboo species in Hong Kong (Bambusa chunii and B. flexuosa) last flowered in 1994-1995 and based on historical evidence are estimated to have a 50 year flowering cycle, which corroborates Atkinson's observations of the flowering years. The bamboo therefore may well have exacerbated the spread of the plague by providing abundant food for the rat population in an already widely unsanitary environment, leading Atkinson to make the connection between the epidemics and bamboo flowering. As it turns out, that old Chinese proverb contained a deadly prophecy.
- Charlotte -
- Visit the beautiful Bamboo Garden at Kew
- Learn more about the Directors' Correspondence digitisation project
- Read other letters from Kew's Directors' Correspondence archive at JSTOR Plant Science
- Search the Kew Herbarium Catalogue for bamboo specimens
Kew's Library, Art and Archives contains many millions of items within its collections. Find out about the diverse teams who look after these collections and make them accessible.
- Archives team
- Directors' Correspondence Digitisation team
- Exhibitions & Galleries team
- Library Information Services team
- Preservation team
- english garden
- around the world
- ground breaking
- for kids
- english heritage
- for friends
- gifts that help
- the UK
- at risk
- brand new
- for plant lovers
- special interest
- high up
- Kew at home
- garden plants
Keep up to date with events and news from Kew