Healing the Planet with Earth-Friendly Bamboo Products

The business she launched out of her garden bamboo plants could help heal the planet.

By Margaret Heffernan | December 2008
Jackie HeinricherPhotographed by Erik Butler

Jackie Heinricher’s love affair with bamboo started in her backyard. “As a child, I remember playing among the golden bamboo my dad had planted, and when there was a breeze, the bamboos sounded incredibly musical. It was my magic fort area.”

A fisheries biologist by training, Heinricher, 47, planned to work in the salmon industry in Seattle, where she lived with her husband, Guy Thornburgh, but she found it too competitive. Her garden gave her the idea for a business: She’d planted 20 bamboo groves on their seven-acre farm and had had some success propagating noninvasive clumping bamboos-the ones for small gardens (not the notorious runners that grow two inches an hour and take over the landscape).

Heinricher started Boo-Shoot Gardens in 1998. She realized early on what is just now beginning to dawn on the rest of the world: Bamboo is incredibly versatile as well as very earth-friendly. It can be used to make fishing poles, skateboards, buildings, furniture, floors, and even clothing and bed linens (the fabric is as soft as silk). An added bonus: Bamboo absorbs four times as much carbon dioxide as a stand of hardwood trees and releases 35 percent more oxygen. If Heinricher could use her green thumb to advance a green cause, even better.

First she had to find a way to mass-produce the plants—a tough task, since bamboo flowers create seed only once every 50 to 100 years. And dividing a bamboo plant frequently kills it.

Heinricher appealed to Randy Burr, a tissue culture expert, to help her. “People kept telling us we’d never figure it out,” says Heinricher. “Others had worked on it for 27 years! I believed in what we were doing, though, so I just kept going.”

She was right to feel a sense of urgency. Bamboo forests are being rapidly depleted, and a United Nations report showed that even though bamboo is highly renewable, as many as half of the world’s species are threatened with extinction. Heinricher knew that bamboo could make a significant impact on carbon emissions and world economies, but only if massive numbers could be produced. And that’s just what she and Burr figured out after nine years of experiments—a way to grow millions of plants. By placing sterilized cuttings in test tubes with salts, vitamins, plant hormones, and seaweed gel, they got the plants to sprout and then raised them in soil in greenhouses.

Not long after it cracked the code, Burr’s lab hit financial difficulties. Heinricher had no experience running a tissue culture operation, but she wasn’t prepared to quit. So she bought the lab. “It was a scary leap,” she says. “I went from 5 employees to 55 [including Burr]. I didn’t sleep much. Changing hats overnight was a lesson in boot camp management. Sometimes I wonder how I got here.”