‘Lucky bamboo’ may be lucky, but it’s not bamboo
The New Year is still young so let's continue to welcome it in — with some lucky bamboo.
At this time of year, this plant appears in supermarkets and plant stores across the country. It may or may not be lucky, but bamboo it ain't.
Lucky bamboo does look a lot like bamboo. The jointed stalks are typically one-half to three-quarters of an inch across, with a tuft of strappy leaves sprouting either from their tops or from the side of one of their upper joints. Sometimes the leaves have yellow stripes, and on some plants the stalks spiral around rather than continuing straight up.
Stalks are sometimes offered loose, but the plant sitting on my desk is a decorative arrangement of three stalks, one about 6 inches high and the other two each about 4 inches high, bound together with a gold ribbon and planted in an Asian-style pot.
According to feng shui, that ancient art of harmonizing our surroundings, my little planting is a positive influence on the energy around it, and the threestalk arrangement attracts happiness.
With such supposed powers, lucky bamboo is a plant well worth caring for. Fortunately, it's very easy to grow.
Light? No problem. Lucky bamboo will survive quite happily in relatively low light. Too much is more likely to do it harm, resulting in water-soaked splotches on the leaves.
Fertilizer? No problem. Lucky bamboo can go for a long time with little or no fertilizer. As with light, too much is more likely to cause problems than too little, with scorched leaves providing evidence of fertilizer burn.
Watering is a little trickier, but only marginally so. Plants will survive for long periods with the bottoms of their stalks in plain water or supported in pebbles and water. The water should be changed periodically, once or twice a week.
Lucky bamboo is sensitive to chlorine and fluoride, so rainwater or well water would be best, or at least tap water that has sat out for a few hours. A plant growing in soil needs to be watered pretty much like any other houseplant.
That's what lucky bamboo is — one of a common species of houseplant known as dracaena, corn plant or dumbcane. The name "dumbcane" comes from what happens to your mouth, because of oxalate crystals, if you bite into this plant, so don't.
Dracaena or lucky bamboo is not even distantly related to bamboo.
Left to its own devices, a dracaena plant can grow 6 feet high, or more, but the large plants no longer have that intimate charm common to Asian gardens and plants. Recapture that charm by merely lopping the plant back to its charming height. New leaves will sprout from one of the joints near your cut. (You can't do this forever; the plant will keep growing back to its charming height, but along the way the stem will grow uncharmingly fat.) If you want to make the growing stem curl around in a spiral, arrange it to see light from only one direction, toward which it will grow, and then rotate it as needed.
If you prune the plant, don't throw away the pieces of stem you cut off. They can be used to make new plants by merely immersing their bases in water or potting soil. Group the stalks together as you wish: three stalks for happiness, five for wealth, seven for health, or 21 for a powerful all-purpose blessing.