When it comes to bamboo, the United States is slowly finding out what other parts of the world already know: There's more to it as a building material than just poles and slats.

New processing methods have turned bamboo, which is actually a grass, into plywood, planks, veneers and paneling that look and feel like wood products. They can be used anywhere wood appears: floors, cabinets, walls, furniture and kitchenware.

"Bamboo can be treated very much like wood," says Matt Finstrom, owner of the Bamboo Ranch nursery on the West Side. It's just as strong as, or stronger than, oak and maple, and is comparable in price, Finstrom says.

Processed bamboo crops up at homes, hotels and public buildings throughout Asia, Central America and India, he says, as well as in Hawaii — "the forefront of bamboo building" in the United States.

Residents in other parts of the country, including Tucson, are showing growing interest in bamboo as a building material, especially for floors and cabinets.

There are three reasons why people are attracted to bamboo as a design element, says Natasha Winnik, owner of Originate Natural Building Materials Showroom, which sells environmentally friendly building materials.

"Some people want something slightly different" from wood, Winnik says. "Others are environmentally conscious" and like using the renewable resource. "And there are those who like the contemporary look" of bamboo's light, clean grain.

Tucson homeowner Deborah Tosline falls squarely into the second camp. She expanded the kitchen of her 1940s Midtown home and replaced all of the cabinetry and countertops.

Tosline, a hydrologist with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, had the cabinets built of wheat board, then added bamboo facing and doors.

"The combination of those two just really met my criteria," she says. They were to "promote sustainable technologies" and eschew formaldehyde emissions.

The pleasing look turned out to be a bonus.

"The look is very beautiful because it's so unique," says Tosline, who didn't find anything similar from custom-cabinet makers and big-box hardware stores.

The light-colored edge grain gives the cabinets a smooth look. "It's very earthy and very sophisticated," she says.

That's a comment that Matt Williams often hears from homeowners who consider and use bamboo.

"It's a very clean look for kitchens or bathrooms," says Williams, a self-described craftsman who's built and installed bamboo floors and cabinets.

"It works really well with the European hinges and that kind of contemporary setting," says Williams, owner of Sticks and Stones — Wood, Metal and Stonework. "You're getting a European feel from a typically Asian product."

Using traditional bamboo materials such as slats and weaves also can provide a hint of the Oriental style, says Winnik. Like modern European, it emphasizes simplicity. "There's a large Asian influence right now," she says. "That's still a popular style."

Any building contractor who works with wood can easily work with bamboo, Williams says, although there will be one difference. Unlike wood, cut bamboo smells like roasted corn. "It makes for a pleasurable experience," he says.

● Contact freelance writer Elena Acoba at eacoba@azstarnet.com.

Bamboo basics

• Bamboo is considered a sustainable resource because the plant grows new shoots after its trunk is harvested, avoiding the need to replant.

• Bamboo has a natural resistance to rot, fungus and termites, says bamboo grower Matt Finstrom.

• On processed bamboo, the flat or horizontal grain shows the distinctive nodes that divide a pole into segments. They add pattern to the surface.

• Edge or vertical grain reveals the edges of a pole cut into strips. It provides a smooth look with long lines.

• Bamboo grows in several colors, including yellow, light and dark green, black and gray. The most popular colors for building are blond, bamboo's natural color, or the slightly darker amber, says Natasha Winnik, a bamboo supplier. Boards that mix light and dark colors add texture and interest.

• Unfinished bamboo can be stained and sealed. One cares for the material the same way one cares for wood.

• Bamboo costs about the same as wood and is as strong or stronger.