Friday, May 13, 2011

Dracaena Sanderiana (Lucky Bamboo)

The first time I ever saw a Dracaena sanderiana on display at a local Wal-Mart, I thought it was the most boring plant I’d ever seen. Sure the pot it was being sold in was decorative and attractive, but the plant didn’t strike me as the most appealing choice if someone was looking to add some greenery inside their home or business. In fact, at the time, I didn’t believe that this fad would really catch on or last for very long – no matter the marketing strategy. It’s not that Dracaena sanderiana is unsightly, it’s not; it’s actually kind of cute. Kind of. But certainly not stunning. Or gorgeous. Or awesome. So I didn’t think it would be a hit. And I certainly did not think that anyone would pay the ridiculous amount listed on the price tag – because it can be costly – for a plant that doesn’t warrant that amount, especially when there are so many better, bigger and cheaper ones to choose from.

Boy was I wrong.

The fad exploded and the Dracaena sanderiana, typically labeled as ‘Lucky Bamboo’, charmed its way into the hearts of plant lovers everywhere. Even mine. Kind of. It’s not like I actually went out and bought one of these plants – at least not in the beginning. Nope; I was determined not to. The first one that ended up in my home came in as a gift.

Here’s the scoop:

A few years back, when my daughter was in sixth grade, she invited a friend over (I can’t remember her name, so let’s call her Sophie). Sophie arrived with a gift for my daughter, and the reason she did this is because her mom is the type that believes it is obligatory and thoughtful to bring over a gift on a first visit. So Sophie arrived at our house that afternoon with a thoughtful gift, which was surprising enough. But what was even more surprising is that this 12 year old child showed up with a plant. A plant, of all things. At that age I would have shown up with a board game or some funky costume jewelry or one of those teen magazines or maybe some makeup. Something like that. But a plant? No way. I didn’t even like plants at that age. In any case, the plant she brought was - yup, you guessed it – the Dracaena sanderiana, three stalks to be exact. And those three stalks were potted up in a ceramic blue vase filled with pretty stones.

And it was at that very moment that I warmed up to these trendy plants and became somewhat fond of them. Somewhat. Well, as time progressed, I became a little more interested in this new addition to my home (of course I took care of the plants; my 12-year-old had zero interest in the plants). I can’t say that the popular “Lucky Bamboo’ has ever become an absolute favourite of mine, but somewhere along the way these plants grew on me and I got caught up in the enthusiasm; not too much, just enough to add a few stalks in glass vases here and there. I think what did it is their simplicity. There’s almost zero effort required in caring for these water-grown plants as opposed to the ones in soil, so I can certainly see the appeal. No, I did not pick up complete setups, those ready-for-display ceramic/glass vase + pebbles + plant thingamajigs that end up costing an arm and a leg. I bought my own containers and river rocks in thrift shops, picked up a few stalks of the plants at local greenhouses and assembled my own cool displays.

As a result, I’m kind of charmed by them, although not overly so. And because I see them everywhere I go, which has convinced (but not surprised) me that many people are (happily) interested in growing them, I feel kind of compelled to add something about their care requirements on my website. Moreover, the way I figure it is this: since they’re taking up a little room in my house, they may as well take up a little room on my blog. So I’ll write about them.


Caring For The Dracaena Sanderiana

To begin with, Dracaena sanderiana, known as lucky bamboo, ribbon plant, ribbon Dracaena or anything else it may be called in your area, is not a bamboo at all, nor is it related in any way to the grass family of plants, which bamboo is a member of. No, none of that. The ‘lucky bamboo’ is part of the Dracaena clan and is related to well-known cousins such as Dracaena deremensis Janet Craig, Dracaena fragrans Massangeana and Dracaena marginata, all commonly-grown plants that you see everywhere. And I mean everywhere.

Native to Cameroon in tropical West Africa, but imported from China, Korea and Taiwan, this Dracaena is typically sold with its roots submerged in water, even though it grows better as a potted plant in soil or as a hydroculture plant in clay pellets. Although it is true that many plants can grow indefinitely in water, there are some basic rules that must be followed to keep them alive and healthy. So if you are a fan of this trendy specimen, the advice below will help to keep your Sanderiana in the best shape possible.

1) Always Use Quality Water. Unlike soil-grown plants or plants in hydroculture systems, plants grown directly in water have their roots submerged at all times, therefore the quality of water is very important. In addition, Dracaenas are known to be very sensitive to fluoride. So, if your water contains high levels of fluoride or other harmful chemicals that do not dissolve over time, you might want to use spring, well, rain or distilled water instead.

If you use tap water, let the water stand in an open container overnight; this will accomplish two things: 1) the chlorine will dissipate and 2) the water will come to room temperature (very cold water can shock the roots).

2) Help The Roots To Breathe. When plants are grown in water, they develop water roots. But even water roots need to breathe. Fresh water contains oxygen that your plant will use to breathe. Keep the water properly oxygenated by changing it every week (every two weeks at the most). It is very important that you do not compromise this simple requirement. Without enough oxygen in the water, old roots will die and new roots will cease to develop. Eventually your plant’s health will deteriorate, which can include severe stunting.

3) Consider Using Glass Containers. It is always better to choose glass containers over anything else. Other selections – pottery, plastic, ceramic, metal – may eventually release harmful chemicals into the water that can damage or kill your plants. If you don’t like glass and prefer to use one of the other types, make sure you rinse the container now and then to keep it clean, and that you change the water often to keep it fresh. You can also slip your glass container inside other pots or decorative baskets, which will also help prevent algae if the plant is growing in a very brightly-lit location. Darker glass will also discourage algae growth.

4) Check Up On The Roots. Your Dracaena was not meant to have its roots growing in water continuously and there is a possibility that some of them may die, especially if you are not changing the water regularly to keep it oxygenated. So, make it a habit of checking the roots regularly to make sure they are healthy. And remove any dead or dying roots immediately.

5) Provide Enough Space For the Root System. Dracaena sanderiana has the potential to make a lot of succulent water roots, so it's recommended to have a nice big opening in your vase/container to be able to pull the plant out whenever you need to change the water or clean the container. Of course you can always start off your plant in a smaller container and then move it into a larger one as its roots grow.

6) Feed Lightly And Infrequently. Dracaena sanderiana does not need to be fed often and its roots will burn easily if fertilizer is applied to the water in full strength. If your plant is healthy and growing steadily, choose a liquid fertilizer (‘Miracle-Gro Liquid All Purpose Houseplant Food’ is a good choice), dilute it to 1/10th the recommended strength and feed your plant every 4, 6 or 8 weeks from March to September. Never leave fertilizer in the water for extended periods; change it after one week. You may also opt to use a foliar spray instead. Other sources on the internet recommend fish emulsion as a good fertilizer, while others advise not to feed at all.

7) Choose A Brightly Lit Spot. Dracaena sanderiana does not need direct sun to thrive. Bright, indirect light is best; direct sun, especially midday, which can cause the leaves to burn, should be avoided. Although Dracaenas are famous for tolerating low light areas, they do not fare well in such poor locations. A shady spot is fine as long as it’s not too dark.

8) Keep It Warm. Dracaenas need to be kept warm; they are very sensitive to cold drafts and chilly temperatures. Is your plant sitting in a cold draft? Do you have it on a cold windowsill? Is it near patio doors that are opened throughout the day, causing the plant to get hit by cold air constantly? Are the leaves touching cold glass? Is it located in a room where you lower the thermostat significantly? Is it in front of a window that you open daily for fresh air – in the middle of winter? If your plant is placed anywhere where cold air hits it, move it. Correct any situation that has the potential to cause cold damage or your Dracaena will deteriorate rapidly.

9) Keep It Clean. No matter what type of container you use, or how often you change the water, the grime will eventually build up, be it on the roots or stem of the plant, on the medium you are using or on the container. Keep things clean. Disassemble the whole kit and caboodle every 3 or 4 months (at least twice a year), rinse everything (plant included) and reassemble. This regular cleaning process will keep the setup looking shiny and clean, and help keep pests at bay, particularly your unfriendly neighbourhood spider mites.


The care requirements of a Dracaena sanderiana are quite simple: clean water, bright light and warm temperatures. If you don’t care about the trendy style, you can grow your plant in soil. Pot it up in an airy, quick-draining medium and keep it evenly moist from spring to fall. During the winter, allow the plant to dry out a little more but never completely. The rest of the requirements – light, food, temperature – are the same as above.

And instead of soil, consider clay pellets and the hydroculture system; it will eliminate the water juggling madness associated with soil-grown plants and keep the maintenance just as simple as growing in water, which is one of the top reasons why ‘Lucky Bamboo’ has become so popular.

1 comment:

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    Caroline Ma/Nico Zhu
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    E-mail:znknico@gmail.com

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