Back when I was running a bamboo boutique, this would happen two or three times a week. A customer walks into the store with a look of determination on his or her face and asks if we sell any “actual bamboo”. Now, I have a thorough appreciation for a customer who knows what they want, but since this was an all-bamboo store, and virtually every item was made from bamboo, it was hard to miss the irony. So I’d usually just raise my eyebrows in expectation and wait for a more specific request. Often as not, they would turn out to be looking for Lucky Bamboo. Which was even more ironic.

Lucky Bamboo is the common name of a popular houseplant, Dracaena sanderiana, which does not belong to the bamboo subfamily of grasses. There are more than 1,400 species and cultivars of bamboo, and this is not one of them. Lucky Bamboo is a member of the asparagus family and is unrelated to true bamboo. But it is genuinely lucky. Asian cultures have long used Dracaena sanderiana to enhance their Feng Shui.

What is Lucky Bamboo?

Dracaena sanderiana resembles bamboo in appearance, but is actually a hardy houseplant that thrives in water (no soil needed) and requires little or no natural sunlight, making it perfect for offices, bathrooms, and other indoor settings. Its appearance and ultra low-maintenance are probably what earned it the name Lucky Bamboo. But as a member of the family Asparagaceae, this adorable houseplant is actually more closely related to asparagus than bamboo.

In the Far East, especially China and Taiwan, Dracaena sanderiana has long been revered as a great remedy for Feng Shui and a source of good luck. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s so darned easy to grow. Also, it can be trained and shaped nearly as easily as a balloon animal. It’s not clear how or when the idea came to be, but today Lucky Bamboo is placed in homes and businesses around the world as a way of attracting prosperity and good fortune.

One of the most distinguishing features of Lucky Bamboo is how well it grows in a vase of water. Without need for soil, the light green stalks produce a profusion of stringy, white root tendrils that get all their nutrition from the tap water. It’s advisable to change the water about once a week, as you would with a vase of flowers. I like to use bottled water or mineral water, but avoid distilled water which has had all the trace minerals removed.

Lucky bamboo grows in water
Lucky Bamboo grows directly in water. True bamboo does not.

PRO TIP: Add a few stalks of Lucky Bamboo to a fish tank for some additional interest. The fish excrement will give the plants an extra nutritional boost.

Another curious fact about this Oriental talisman, the Dracaena sanderiana is actually native to Africa. Although today, when you see markets, florists and boutiques selling Lucky Bamboo, these specimens are almost always imported from China or Taiwan. In many cases, the stalks are shaped into spirals or hearts, and set in ornamental vases or pots resplendent with fortuitous iconography from the Far East. Odd numbers of stalks are considered to be the most propitious.

So yes, in fact, it is quite lucky, but bamboo it’s not.

What is Bamboo?

The 1,400+ varieties of true bamboo technically belong to the grass family, Poaceae. Among these 1,400 or so strains (some say the actual number of bamboo species and cultivars is closer to 2000), you will discover a great variation in appearance and growth habit. Bamboos do grow all across the globe, from southern Chile to the tropics to the Himalayas, with species indigenous to five continents. Generally, they prefer a lot of water, but there are even a few more drought-tolerant varieties.

Despite that great diversity, there is a certain characteristic consistency that makes bamboo fairly recognizable. Everyone knows that bamboo grows up in shoots, mostly cylindrical, although there are a few more square-ish strains. The striking similarity between bamboos actually makes the different species very difficult to distinguish, particularly for the novice hobbyist gardener. At the same time, there are a handful of look-a-likes, including the Lucky Bamboo, that can be very easily mistaken for true bamboo.

Lucky Bamboo vs True Bamboo

Unlike Dracaena sanderiana, however, bamboos do share the same general growth habit as all other grasses. That is, they require full or at least partial sun exposure, some type of soil medium, and should most certainly be grown outdoors. Lucky Bamboo, on the other hand, as mentioned above, thrives in dimly lit quarters with nothing but a vase of water.

Growing conditions

While Lucky Bamboo makes a delightful, decorative houseplant, true bamboos are all grasses. Bamboo, like any grass, is meant to grow outdoors, in the earth, wind and sun. There’s a misconception that bamboo can grow directly in a pond or a swamp, similar to Lucky Bamboo. But that’s not true. Bamboo roots will rot is they are submerged in soggy soil for too long. A few species of so-called “Water Bamboo” are more tolerant of saturated soil, but will only survive a few days in those conditions.

Many gardeners want to keep a point of true bamboo growing indoors as well, but again, most true bamboo will not survive. Grasses need sunlight, and they also need the fresh air and change of temperature they experience outdoors. Indoor bamboo will often yellow from sun deprivation or get attacked by pests. Some dwarf bamboo varieties will do better indoors, as they are smaller and more accustomed to growing in the shady understory. (See our detailed article on Growing Bamboo Indoors to learn more.)

Because the Bambu Batu boutique was located indoors, with one large, east-facing window, it wasn’t so easy to keep a true bamboo plant happy and healthy. We generally kept one specimen by the front door, where it got good sun and a decent amount of fresh air. But I would also rotate it with other potted bamboo specimens from my home garden, so they were never stuck indoors for too long a stretch.

As for the Lucky Bamboo, yes, we did sell it. It was one of the 5 or 6 items at Bambu Batu not actually made from bamboo. LOL. But rest assured, if it’s not genuine bamboo, it’s definitely lucky. Prayers Bundles from our friend Renya were another perfect example; also our eco-friendly, non-paraffin candles made from soy and beeswax.

More lucky learning

To learn more about the auspicious uses and legends relating to bamboo, be sure to read our articles on Bamboo Symbolism and Mythology, Bamboo Proverbs, and the Deep Meaning of Panda Bears.

PHOTO CREDIT: Toni Cuenca (Unsplash)