The Truth behind Lucky Bamboos

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20150210With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, you’ll certainly notice intriguing heart-shaped plants in many stores: lucky bamboos with a loving twist. But this plant is not a bamboo at all and… is it really “lucky”? That’s far from certain… especially for the poor plant which, as you’ll see, is often in a really tough situation.

The plant in question is Dracaena braunii (until recently, it was called D. sanderiana), a shrub 6 to 10 feet (2 to 3 m) tall that grows wild in the jungles of Africa. However, it has been grown as a houseplant, and especially as a terrarium plant, for a long time. When I first started doing terrariums back in the 1970s, the variegated forms, either with leaves and stems striped white or (less frequently) yellow, were the most common. The original form, of course, had entirely green leaves and stems, and it is very much back in style these days.

Braun’s dracaena has tall stems with nodes very much in evidence, especially when you pulls off most of its leaves, giving this plant a very bamboo like appearance. Of course, it is not a bamboo. Bamboos are grasses with hollow woody stems and are in no way related to dracaenas. However, enterprising Chinese business people smelled gold when they saw you could transform the leafy dracaena into a bamboo substitute. You see, in China bamboo has long been associated with good fortune, but few genuine bamboos can easily grow indoors (actually, essentially no true bamboo really makes a good houseplant, at least, not for beginners). If dracaena plants could be passed off as bamboos, there would be a lot of money to be make in China, what with millions of people living in apartments who would now be able to grow their own bamboos. So dracaena farms began sprouting across China, and later throughout Asia, to satisfy the Chinese superstitious beliefs that growing bamboo brings good luck.

These beliefs, called feng shui (let’s resume the term as meaning “the art of harmonizing environmental energy”) began circulating in the West as well, especially from the 2000s on. Suddenly the market for this “lucky bamboo” became global and the producers of these faux bamboos became very, very rich! So you see, lucky bamboos do bring good fortune… to a lucky few!

Large Scale Production

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Dracaena farm

Today, literally millions of stems of D. braunii are produced annually in farms throughout tropical regions of Asia. They simply stick dracaena stalk cuttings into the ground very densely (they root readily), as overcrowding reduces the amount of light reaching each plant, forcing it to etiolate and thus gain height faster, which shortens production times. Most plants are grown in shade houses or under trees, as dracaenas will not tolerate full tropical sun.

In the simplest form of production, when the stems are high enough, the stems are simply cut into sections of variable length and placed in buckets of water to root. Once rooted, they are shipped around the world and sold on their own or in containers of water or of water and stones.

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Lucky bamboo towers can be small or immense, like this one.

But the Chinese appreciate added value. So enterprising growers began to give them more than just rooted cuttings. Among other things, they began to tie stems together with red or gold ribbons (two colors considered auspicious by the Chinese), increasing sales. Sellers learned that towers of dracaenas, composed of stems of different heights, could be sold for even more money. And they even discovered that they could manipulate stem growth in order to achieve special effects: spirals, braids, hearts etc. This may seem surprising, as dracaena stems are not very pliable and will snap if you try to bend them. So, how do growers create those intriguing spiral forms?

20150210DThe trick is to understand that dracaenas always grow straight up, towards the light, but if you change the stem’s angle, it will correct itself. Thus, out in the fields of dracaenas, when the stems reach an appropriate height, workers bend the stems to the ground and fix them to the soil. With the stem now horizontal, its tip will therefore start producing new growth almost straight up, nearly at a 90˚ angle from the original stem. But after a few weeks, the growers move the stems a bit clockwise. The plant then changes direction, trying to straighten itself. This is repeated regularly, slowly giving the plant a a curved stem. By the time the stem has been moved in a full circle, its extremity has now described a complete loop. Keep doing this  two or three times and the stem now forms a beautiful spiral. That’s a lot of work and the growers must carefully calculate the moves they make to the stems, but they have become masters in the art of forcing the stem to create a sellable spiral.

20150210EBraided stems are created in a similar fashion, but instead of a spiral, moving the now horizontal main stem back and forth creates a zigzag growth pattern. When the zigzagging part is cut off, rooted and correctly arranged with other stems, this gives a braid like appearance.

20150210As for the heart-shaped form so popular at Valentine’s Day, much the same thing is carried out, but here dracaenas are grown on a slope. When the stem is bent down to the ground, its tip is now actually lower than the plant’s root system. Again, careful movement of the stem will result in a hook shape… and two hooks attached face to face form a heart: it’s that simple!

Why Lucky Bamboos Die

Braun’s dracaena is a tough plant that can take much abuse, but growing them as lucky bamboos pushes the abuse to its limits. That’s why lucky bamboo plants are rarely long-lived, lasting 6 to 9 months, rarely much longer, and generally going downhill the whole time. And there are many reasons for this failure.

For one, like most plants, Braun’s dracaena carries out most of its photosynthesis through its leaves… yet the plant has been stripped of much of its foliage. When sold, there are usually only a few sprouts of new growth and no fully formed leaves. So the plant is already in a weakened state.

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These shoots have some living (white) roots.

Then there is a problem with its roots. The lucky bamboos received from China, especially, are shipped dry, with their roots exposed to the air. That’s because its much cheaper to ship them that way. By the time they reach you, though, most of the roots are dead or dying and look it, with shriveled tips. If you want a lucky bamboo dracaena that will last, look for a plant with at least some white roots peeking out from the mass of dead ones. It that isn’t possible, it may be best to cut off the base of the stem and reroot it, preferably in soil, cutting just below a healthy node.

Also, these plants are generally sold growing in water or else in decorative stones and water. This is not ideal, as dracaenas are not aquatic plants. Left sitting for weeks in the same water (as they will in the stores that sell them), the water will lose its oxygen and become stagnant… yet oxygen is required for healthy root growth. In addition, the dracaena is among the few houseplants that won’t tolerate the chlorine found in tap water (see https://laidbackgardener.wordpress.com/2015/01/10/no-need-to-let-chlorine-evaporate/). It should be watered with rainwater, distilled water, or at very least with filtered water (poured through a fresh Britt filter, for example). But usually neither the seller nor the buyer does so.

Even if you replant your faux bamboo in potting soil, it often still ends up dying: the roots, formed under water, are not accustomed to a terrestrial situation and tend to rot. That’s another reason why it is often easiest to simply start your plant anew from cuttings.

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Avoid plants with yellowing stems or leaves.

Also, the plant is often infested with diseases (let’s just say growing conditions in China are not necessarily very sanitary!), including diseases that affect their leaves and several bacteria that can cause rot. And these problems are hard to treat.

One way to reduce the risk of buying a sick plant is to avoid any plants with yellowing or browning stems or leaves. Even if your plant looks healthy, if other plants from the same delivery are obviously sick, it is quite possible that your plant is contaminated too.

How to Grow Healthy Lucky Bamboo Dracaenas

Let’s assume that you are able get ahold of a lucky bamboo dracaena in good condition, with at least some white and vigorous roots and green and healthy leaves and stems. Here’s what to do to keep it healthy and growing:

First, it requires relatively warm temperatures all year: never below 60˚F (15˚C) and preferably even warmer. It will also need moderate light in the summer, with a few hours of direct morning sun, so an east window or a few feet back from south or west window would be appropriate. If you live outside of the Tropics, give it full sun in winter if you can.

If you grow it in water, change the water weekly, using distilled or filtered water or rainwater. Fresh water ensures that the roots are adequately oxygenated. Also, once a month, add some water soluble fertilizer to the water, at least during the spring and summer months. Normally this could stimulate the growth of algae, but since you’ll be changing the water weekly, algae won’t have time to develop.

If you grow them in soil, you’ll find they are less susceptible to the ravages of tap water. Nevertheless, it is still better to water with distilled or filtered water or rainwater or at least to leach the soil 2 or 3 time a year. Water the plant normally, that is, when the soil is dry to the touch. And feed occasionally with fertilizer of your choice.

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A healthy dracaena produces so much foliage it no longer looks like a bamboo.

A healthy lucky bamboo dracaena will continue to grow, filling in with fresh foliage… and their now denser growth will eventually destroy the original effect. If you want to maintain a bamboo like appearance, you’ll have to occasionally cut the back new growth, forcing the plant to produce new shoots. Or just let the plant grow naturally and let it take on a shrubbier appearance.

Personally, I prefer the natural look of a dracaena: it somehow seems happier once you “free it” from the constraint of having to grow like something it is not!

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