You don't have to look very hard to find lucky bamboo nowadays. These plants pop up in offices, on desks, in businesses, and in homes pretty much everywhere. An important part of feng shui, lucky bamboo plants are said to bring good luck and fortune, especially if the plants were given as gifts. It also helps that they have a well-earned reputation as nearly indestructible. These tough stalks can survive in vases of pure water or in soil, and in a wide variety of light conditions. Even a poorly kept lucky bamboo plant will live for a long time before it finally succumbs.
The vast majority of lucky bamboo plants are shipped in from Taiwan or China, where professional growers braid and twist and curl their stalks into a multitude of shapes. The more intricate lucky bamboo plants can cost hundreds of dollars and feature twenty or more individual stalks. More commonly, though, lucky bamboo plants in simple pots can be had for as little as $10 for a three-stalk bundle.
Technically, lucky bamboo is not bamboo at all, but a species called Dracaena sanderiana. Although most are grown hydroponically (in water), lucky bamboo can be potted up in soil. One final caution: lucky bamboo leaves are mildly toxic, so they should not be kept in a place where pets or children are likely to snack on them.
Caring for Your Lucky Bamboo
Light: Lucky bamboo prefer bright, filtered sunlight, such as found under a rainforest canopy. Avoid direct sunlight as it will scorch the leaves. They are more tolerant of too little light than too much. If the plant begins to stretch, however, or the green fades, provide more light.
Watering: Lucky bamboo can grow indefinitely in a simple vase filled with pebbles (for support) and at least an inch of water. However, they are very sensitive to chlorine and other chemicals commonly found in tap water. Water your lucky bamboo only with bottled or distilled water, or tap water that has been left out for 24 hours to allow the chlorine to evaporate. Healthy lucky bamboo roots are red, so don't be alarmed in a glass vase if you can see red roots. Finally, good hygiene recommends that you change the water weekly.
Temperature: Lucky bamboo likes warmer temperatures of between 65ºF and 90ºF. Do not place the plants in front of air conditioning or heating vents.
Potting Media: In addition to water, lucky bamboo can be grown in a well-drained, rich potting soil. Keep the soil moist, but not soaking. Water as you would any Dracaena species.
Fertilizer: Plants grown in water will only need to be fed every other month or so, using a very weak liquid fertilizer. A single drop of liquid fertilizer is plenty for most lucky bamboo arrangements. Alternatively, specialty lucky bamboo fertilizers are available.
Trimming and Shaping Your Lucky Bamboo
Despite its intricate appearance, lucky bamboo is not shaped in the same way as bonsai, with plant wire and judicious trimming. Rather, they are shaped by rotating the plant stalks in front of a light source, thus causing the plant to naturally grow toward the light. In China, the stalks are often grown on their sides to cause the distinctive spiral. At home, this is a laborious process, but it can be accomplished by placing the plants under a three-sided box and paying close attention to its growth rate, rotating the plant slowly and regularly. Be patient, as it can take a while to get it right.
Trimming, however, is an important part of keeping your lucky bamboo healthy. Over time, most plants will become top heavy, or intricate shapes will begin to lose their form. In general, it's not a good idea to cut the main stalk of a lucky bamboo. Instead, cut the offshoots with sterile snippers. You can trim offshoots back to within an inch or two of the main stem. New shoots will soon emerge, and the resulting plant will be bushier. To discourage new growth, dip the cut end in parafin.
If you want to change its shape dramatically, you can cut a whole offshoot flush against the main stalk. A tan scar will result, and new shoots may or may not emerge from the cut. Don't throw the trimmings away, as they can be used to propagate new lucky bamboo plants. If you need to trim a main stalk for some reason, new shoots will emerge from below the cut, and the top portion—assuming it's healthy—can be used to start a new plant.
Common Problems with Lucky Bamboo
The most common mistakes related to lucky bamboo are usually connected to the water. Chlorinated water will kill them over time, and water that is dirty or infected with bacteria can be deadly. If a plant develops black roots, these should be cut away. Similarly, dead leaves should never be allowed to rot in the water as they might introduce bacteria. Practice good water hygiene by changing water every week with distilled or bottled water. If algae is growing in the water, it's usually because the plant is potted in a clear vase, allowing light to penetrate and encouraging algae growth. Just clean it out and start again, switching to an opaque container if algae is a persistent problem.
Leaves that are yellow usually indicate too much sun or too much fertilizer. Cut out the fertilizer and move the plant to a shadier location.
Brown leaves usually indicate dry air or polluted water. Raise the humidity level by spraying the plant regularly and make sure you're using the appropriate water.
If the stalks themselves begin to rot or turn mushy, they are likely beyond saving. Worse yet, decaying stalks threaten any other stalks they are close to. Remove them at once. If you really want to save it, cut away the yellow parts and try to root the trimmed stalk in new water.
Finally, lucky bamboo are susceptible to the same insect problems as other indoor tropical plants. They can be treated manually (picking off bugs) or by the same methods you'd use on any other indoor plant.
Still Have Questions?
If you have specific cultural questions or problems, check out the lucky bamboo Forum thread.