Bulrush

02_Bunho_01

Bulrush is abundant, grows spontaneously and is easily accessible. It is softer and more malleable than other natural fibres, while also being resistant to wear and tear, which makes the products more durable. These characteristics make bunho a perfect material for creating comfortable benches and chairs.

Name of Material in the local and Latin language
Bunho, Schoenoplectus lacustris (L.) Palla
Type of Material
Organic
Commonly Found Locations
Throughout the country, with a greater incidence in the centre and south. It thrives in a permanently flooded environment, but can also withstand droughts. It appears mostly in humid and swampy areas, such as streams, ponds, marshes and wetlands.

Colour
Stems present a greyish green colour, turning into light beige with desiccation. The stem surface is shiny.
Density
< 0.26 g/cm3 of for stem specific density (SSD) – Herbaceous (non-woody) plant
Hardness
Stems are cylindrical, soft and spongy (due to its ‘aerenchyma’, which consists of air-filled cavities inside the stems). This is responsible for the ‘cushion-like’ feel of the pieces made with this material.
Structure
This large species of club-rush (genus Schoenoplectus) grows up to 3 metres tall, with round stems 5–15 millimetres thick. Most of its leaves are reduced to bladeless sheaths around the base of the stem, but leaf blades can occasionally form, especially if plants are submerged.

Industrial and Crafts Applications
Bunho (Lakeshore bulrush) is mainly used in the production of traditional furniture.
Historical or Cultural Uses
Traditionally, In Portugal, bunho is used to make furniture such as stools, chairs and sofas. It is also used to do the seats of the traditional wooden chairs and stools. Nowadays there are a few basketweavers using it for baskets, bases and lamp shades.
Environmental Impact
Not known

Extraction Methods
The bulrush is harvested by hand with the help of mowers between July and August.
Processing Techniques
After being harvested, the bunho has to be spread out on the ground, where it dries in the sun on both sides for a few days. After which it must be stored in a very dry place so that it doesn't go mouldy. It takes approximately six months to lose all its water. In order to work with it, the bullrush is watered the day before and soaked so that it doesn't break or split. The top of the plant, used for the filling, is only sprayed with a few splashes of water to make it softer. Once the bullrush stems are dry and ready to work with, they are cut in half. The larger, stronger lower part is used for weaving and the thinner upper part is used to fill the piece.
Sustainability and Environmental Considerations
Bulrush has a positive impact as it helps to control erosion in riverside areas and purify water. By harvesting it we allow for it to keep growing in a healthy way.
Recycling and Waste Management
100% biodegradable if not mixed with any chemical product or material.

Interesting Facts or Historical Anecdotes
Known from a very specific region of Portugal called Ribatejo, it's challenging to determine when the tradition of bullrush furniture began in Portugal, as its origins cannot be traced before the middle of the last century. However, the same technique is used in the production of similar furniture in Central America, specifically in Mexico. The production process used to primarily involve men due to the physical strength required for this craft.
  • PT_Bunho_Nature Profile©Pedro Arsenio_03

    Bunho (bulrush, Schoenoplectus lacustris (L.) Palla) is a species of sedge, similar to flax or “lagoon reed”, also known as narrowleaf cattail. Photo by Pedro Arsénio

  • PT_Bunho_Nature Profile©Pedro Arsenio_02

    It has ornamental potential due to its corpulence, robustness and beauty of its inflorescences. It contributes to controlling erosion in riverside areas and purifying water. Photo by Pedro Arsénio

It grows abundantly and spontaneously in accessible dense clumps, on the banks and, more rarely, on the beds of lakes, dams, ditches and lentic watercourses, preferably in fresh and permanent waters. A vivacious weed, it has round, green, smooth and leafless stems, and can reach 3 meters in height. It grows in a permanently flooded environment, but also resists droughts.

The flowers are presented in loose clusters of red-brown oval spikelets, near the top of the stems. Flowering takes place between June and September, and harvesting takes place in the months of June, July and August, with the leaf still green. 

The bunho is harvested with sickles or scythes. Afterwards, it is spread on the ground, where it dries in the sun, on both sides, for some days. It is chosen and prepared in bundles. While drying, it must not be exposed to humidity or rain. Storage must be done in a very dry place, so that it does not grow mold, as it takes around six months to lose all of its water. It is essential to master the drying process and know how to recognize the right point so that it is neither too soft (which makes production difficult) nor too dry (because it becomes brittle and hurts hands during production). Once dry, bunho has a slow natural biological degradation and the fibers resist traction for several years. 

It is softer and more malleable than other natural fibers, while also being resistant to wear and tear, which makes the products more durable. These characteristics make bunho a perfect material for furniture manufacture. 

Existing throughout Portugal, with a greater incidence in the center and south, it’s challenging to determine when the tradition of bullrush craft began, although the art is very prominent in the Ribatejo region. Traditionally, it’s used to make furniture such as stools, chairs and sofas. It is also used to do the seats of the traditional wooden chairs and stools. 

Nowadays there are a few basketweavers using it for baskets, bases and lamp shades. In order to work with it, the bulrush is watered the day before and soaked so that it doesn’t break or split. The top of the plant, used for the filling, is only sprayed with a few splashes of water to make it softer. Once the bulrush stems are dry and ready to work with, they are cut in half. The larger, stronger lower part is used for weaving and the thinner upper part is used to fill the piece. Bulrush has a positive impact as it helps to control erosion in riverside areas and purify water, and harvesting it allows for it to keep growing in a healthy way. There are no industrial producers or suppliers, and the production process is primarily driven by men due to the physical strength required for the craft.

Photos by Pedro Arsénio

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