Walter Liese, the Bamboo Pioneer

A few days ago, an e-mail landed in my mailbox. The very first subscription to the newsletter of bamboosphere. „Thank you. Walter Liese“ was there. Who ever had to do with bamboo knows this name. Walter Liese is often referred to in the media as „Bamboo Guru“, „Bamboo Pope“, „Grandfather of Bamboo“ or simply „Mr. Bamboo“. He turns 93 in January and is still a sought-after discussion partner in the scientific world.

So this Walter Liese is the first subscriber of my newsletter. I grew like a bamboo in a very short time by several centimeters, didn’t have to think long and wrote him an e-mail. A few minutes later the phone rang. That was my first conversation with the bamboo world luminary. Others followed and so this article could come into being, which also reveals a hitherto unknown connection between bamboo and the Ruhr area.

Walter Liese began his forestry studies in Freiburg in 1946 and graduated as a forestry biologist at the University of Göttingen. In 1951 he became an assistant at the Forest Research Institute in Lintorf, which is now part of Ratingen. It was the peak phase of Ruhr mining with 480,000 employees and about 115 million tons of hard coal mined each year. However, there was one problem: there was a lack of pit wood, which was required in large quantities to expand and further advance the coal seams. After the Second World War, reparations were used to export wood from German forests to England and France.

Bamboo in Mining

The head of the Forest Research Institute had contacts to the heads of the group in the Ruhr area as well as to Indonesia. Walter Liese was involved in importing bamboo from Indonesia to Germany in order to find a replacement for the pit wood stamps. However, it soon became clear that bamboo was not suitable for mining because the high pressure in the longitudinal direction caused the stalks to burst between the knots. The typical wood crackling was also missing, which could warn the miners in time of a collapse, if a stamp yielded.

Walter Liese with Guadua, the most important bamboo species in Central and South America (Photo: private)

„Bamboo could not be used in mining, but I discovered my happiness in life through it,“ says Walter Liese. In a way, bamboo research has its origins underground in the Ruhr area. The young forest scientist’s curiosity led him not only to examine wood with an electron microscope, but also to become the first researcher worldwide to take a closer look at the cell structures of bamboo.

In 1956, an Indian scientist came to visit to talk about wood preservation and bamboo. Walter Liese was now an assistant at the Institute of Forest Botany at the University of Freiburg. He excavated the bamboo images of the electron microscope that could help solve the problems associated with the impregnation of bamboo. The foundation stone was laid. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) invited him to India as an expert. „At the age of 31, I was a greenhorn for the Indians, especially as I had never seen their vital bamboo before and corresponding literature was not available,“ reports Walter Liese.

Travelling all over the World

This was the beginning of his work as a bamboo expert and international consultant. Many trips to almost all countries of the world from China to Thailand and Ghana to Colombia and Costa Rica followed. At about the same time he habilitated in Freiburg for forest botany and wood biology. After three years at the Forestry Botanical Institute of the University of Munich, he took over the chair of Wood Biology at the University of Hamburg in 1963 and at the same time became Director of the Institute of Wood Biology and Wood Conservation of the Federal Research Centre for Forestry and Forest Products in Reinbek, which was integrated into the Thünen Institute in 2008. Over the years, he mastered the extensive workload with a great deal of enthusiasm and diligence.

The retirement in 1991 created space to deal even more intensively with his life theme bamboo. He still has an office at the Thünen Institute, which he uses regularly. About five hundred scientific publications alone, more than 150 of them as emeritus professor, are attributable to him as well as countless other specialist contributions and lectures. Walter Liese contributed significantly to the founding of INBAR (International Network for Bamboo and Rattan) in 1997. The Bamboo World has expressed its gratitude for the life achievement of the active professor with several honorary doctorates and honorary memberships. A school in Ghana is named after him.

Continued worldwide Exchange

After a serious fall three years ago, he no longer travels around the world, which does not stop him from attending international congresses via video and exchanging ideas with colleagues around the world. He still lives in Reinbek near Hamburg and recently had to install an electric fence because wild boars had done a lot of work in his garden and devastated the lawn. But the six bamboo varieties in his garden were not harmed by the animals.

Photo: privat

Walter Liese immediately agreed to a conversation, but could not quite see the reason for such an article. „I’m not going to be 100, not even 95. Why do you want to report about me,“ he wanted to know. The answer is very simple: bamboosphere wants to develop into an information platform around bamboo in the coming years – from cultivation, research and processing to actors, projects and products. An equally informative and entertaining encyclopedia is of course also part of it. It is a great pleasure for bamboosphere to start with L. We don’t have to wait for an anniversary for an article about Walter Liese and his services to bamboo research.

Coverphoto: Denise Ariaane Funke

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