The world of bamboo is rich and diverse. With about 1,500 varieties to keep track of, it’s easy to get lost. Some bamboos stretch over 100 feet high, taller than most trees. Other dwarf species only grow up to a few inches. But with the general similarities common to all bamboo, identifying your species can be extremely difficult.

To make matters worse, there are some plants that look like bamboo, but are not. Not only that, but there are a handful of plants that have bamboo in their common names, but are not related to bamboo at all. Some of the plants most commonly confused with bamboo include Lucky Bamboo (Dracaena sanderiana), Bamboo Palm (Rhapis excelsa), and Giant Cane Grass (Arundo donax).

Once you know the difference, you can decide whether you want to keep those non-bamboos in your garden, or choose to eradicate them. In some cases, you may discover that a bamboo look-a-like is just the right thing for your interior decor. After all, bamboo does not perform very well indoors, but there are a few common houseplants that have a similar appearance.

Common nameBotanical nameDescription
Lucky BambooDracaena sanderianaOrnamental houseplant, often grown in water
Bamboo PalmRhapis excelsaSmall variety of fan palm, also called lady palm
Parlor PalmChamaedorea elegansSmall palm variety and very popular houseplant
Giant Cane GrassArundo donaxTall reed grass resembling bamboo, common along river beds
A few common plants that look like bamboo

Plants commonly mistaken for bamboo

LUCKY BAMBOO

Probably the number one plant that people mistake for bamboo is the popular ornamental known as lucky bamboo. In the last 15 years or so this Asian plant has become widely available, even in hardware stores and pharmacies, where the staff have little expertise in botany and horticulture. And as a short cut, or perhaps a way not to sound superstitious, they often refer to it simply as bamboo.

Lucky bamboo is not bamboo
Lucky bamboo is unrelated to bamboo

Despite having segmented stems and narrow leaves, with some resemblance to true bamboo, this plant has no relation to bamboo. Dracaena sanderiana, as it’s known to botanists, does not belong in the grass family. It is actually more closely related to asparagus. But it does come from Asia, probably Taiwan, like many species of bamboo.

In China and other parts of Asia, people revere the lucky bamboo for its beneficial Feng Shui properties. This is how it earned the name. Also, evidence suggests that adding the word “lucky” to any product can increase sales exponentially. So not surprisingly, the name stuck.

As a Feng Shui remedy, presentation of the lucky bamboo is crucial. So when you see it in stores and garden centers, it’s almost always set in a simple but attractive pot or vase, with an Asian aesthetic. This reinforces the association with bamboo and perpetuates the misunderstanding.

Something else that makes this plant lucky is the way it grows. Without need for soil, Dracaena sanderiana grows easily just in water. This makes it impossible to overwater or underwater your lucky bamboo, these being the two leading causes of death among houseplants. (Just keep water in the vase, of course.) The plant also requires very little light, so it grows perfectly well in virtually any indoor environment, even with nothing but the artificial light of an office or bathroom.

True bamboo, on the other hand, is very difficult (but not impossible) to grow indoors. Bamboo, a type of grass, needs plenty of natural light, either in full sun, or at least partial sun. Some varieties of bamboo can survive indoors, but they will not thrive. And real bamboo cannot grow in just water. Some species will do better than others in wet soil, but no bamboo can survive for more than a couple days under water, not even the species known as water bamboo.

Check out our entertaining article about Lucky Bamboo.

GIANT CANE GRASS

Growing in tall canes with long slender leaves, this is a plant that looks very much like bamboo. Arundo donax actually comes from the Mediterranean and has become quite invasive in North America, especially along river beds and water ways. Arundo grass, as it’s also known, has a similar growth habit to the native species of bamboo in the American southeast, especially Arundinaria gigantea.

Arundo donax
Giant cane grass is easily mistaken for bamboo

While the shape and growth habit of Arundo cane does resemble certain types of bamboo, there are distinct differences. Both are perennial grasses, but Arundo actually looks more like corn. As you can see in the picture, the leaves of giant cane line the entire culm, which grows in one straight shoot without lateral branching. And if you try building anything with these canes, you’ll discover they are very flexible, not nearly as sturdy as bamboo.

Varieties of running bamboo have earned a wicked reputation for their aggressive growth habit and their ability to overrun a piece of property. But Arundo donax is just as bad if not worse. As mentioned earlier, bamboo cannot grow in standing water. But Arundo grass absolutely thrives along waterways, choking out native habitat and severely disrupting the the native ecosystems in those important areas.

BAMBOO PALM

Once again, the common name of this decorative, household palm tree leads to a predictable misunderstanding. The general shape of the plant also resembles a small bamboo with its long lancet shaped leaves. Bamboo palm (Rhapis excelsa) grows taller than most houseplants, with long, upright stems and attractive, narrow fronds. One of these plants can really liven up a room, and it will do better indoors than any kind of bamboo.

Bamboo palm looks great indoors, but it’s not bamboo

Like bamboo, palm trees are prolific in tropical and subtropical climates, and they come in thousands of different species. Among them you’ll find an incredible diversity of shapes and sizes. Parlor palm (Chamaedorea elegans), pictured at the top of this article, is another kind that look something like bamboo, with its thin, delicate leaves. But it’s pretty short and compact.

The growth habit of bamboo, a type of grass, is nothing like a palm tree. Each growing season, a bamboo plant will put up new shoots from its rhizome rootball. By the end of the growing season those shoots will reach their full height, and sets of leaves will emerge at the internodes. Later in the year, or the following season, depending on the variety, lateral branches with additional leaves will also shoot out from the internodes.

Further reading

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FEATURED PHOTO: Chamaedorea (Unsplash)

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