Friday, October 19, 2007

Lucky Bastard (Dracaena sanderiana)

You know, normally I would say that "lucky bamboo" is a pretty cynical attempt at selling crap (alligator feet, assorted coins, not just dreamcatchers but paintings of dreamcatchers, sleeper sofas, etc.) by associating it with luck. This is something that people have been doing for ages, and has a long, if not honorable, history.1 But it has occurred to me that I'm looking at it from the wrong perspective. It's not about making people luckier. It's about making the plant luckier.

Allow me to explain.

Dracaena sanderiana is a perfectly nice plant, as plants go. It's pretty undemanding – normal resistance to pests, doesn't need a huge amount of light or humidity, tolerant of normal indoor environments. The trouble is, it's also not much to look at. Unlike its fellow Dracaenas, sanderiana has relatively small leaves, that are attractively striped in gray and white but which never, ever look bushy at all. And people like bushy.

For a while, D. sanderiana languished on the outer edges of the plant trade, occasionally sold by itself but mostly used in group plantings, where it provided a little bit of contrasting color, and some height. One can also fake bushiness by planting several canes together, like in the picture, though that sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. (I think it's working just fine in the picture.) But then one day, someone – I don't know who – realized that it would sell really well if it were completely misrepresented.

So. A soil-grown, variegated, straight-stemmed plant from west Africa with no particular cultural associations became Lucky! Bamboo!, a water-grown, all-green, curly-stemmed plant from somewhere vaguely Chinese in Asia that was, miraculously, perfect for feng shui, which just happened to be taking off at about the same time. There is, of course, no way that Dracaena sanderiana could ever have had anything to do with feng shui in the past, since it lived half a world away, but historical accuracy has never been marketers' (or Americans') strong suit, and so millions of canes were grown in all kinds of contorted directions, plunked in water, and then sold at a premium for people to take to their office cubicles and slowly torture to death.

And this is what I mean by "lucky." The people who buy "lucky bamboo" aren't going to get any luckier, and whoever is responsible for this marketing strategy isn't so much lucky as a genius, but from the perspective of the plant, whose entire aim in life is to reproduce (even photosynthesizing is a means to that end), this is the best thing to happen to it in millions of years. It's escaped the little pocket of Africa it grew up in and become a global phenomenon, reproducing beyond its wildest imaginations. No doubt it will shortly begin to squander its resources on fancy cars and hookers, and then slip back into obscurity, but for now, let's give it props just for being here.2

At work, we have tons of the standard white-striped variety, which doesn't sell well at all, and which we, frankly, can't figure out how to get rid of. I've mentioned to the floral department that they might want to start using it for group plantings, which are frequently (though far from always) at the discretion of the florist.

If you want to grow your own, my understanding is that the curly stems are created by placing the plant in a box which is open on one side, and then as the plant grows to the side, reaching for the light, one keeps turning the plant, or the box. It doesn't have to be grown in water, though this is probably a lot easier for most people to keep up with, since that way you don't have to wonder when to water it. Opinions differ about whether this is a practical long-term growing situation: I've seen it claimed that plants grown in water indefinitely will yellow and die, and that it's better to plant it in soil. I couldn't say, personally, though a certain percentage of the plants we have in soil at work will also suddenly decline and die for no obvious reason from time to time, so I kind of lean to the theory that this is just something they're prone to do. Anyone with actual information is encouraged to share in the comments.

Like most Dracaena species, it is sensitive to fluoride: too much will cause leaf tips to burn and die.

My attempts to propagate the plant at work (not to make more, because we already have too many, but to shorten unsellably long stems) have not gone well. Sometimes cutting the top off of a plant will result in a new sprout from near the top of the stem that remains, but the top isn't easily rooted (I have a success rate of about 1/5), and the new sprout has an annoying tendency to get so far and then just stop. Presumably there's a trick of some kind I'm missing. This would probably work better if I were rooting in water, but we're not really set up to do water-rooting at work, so it's only done occasionally and in the short-term.


Photo credit: anonymous Garden Webber.

1Not that there's anything wrong with buying something that's marketed this way, necessarily, but you have to like it for itself: if you're gambling on it being lucky even though it's expensively priced, obviously cheap, and you don't especially like it, then once you've been charged for it, the only person it's been lucky for is the one who sold it to you.
2It would not surprise me at all to find that it was already an invasive species somewhere outside of Africa. When your whole raison d'ĂȘtre is to reproduce, you reproduce, whether you're at home or not.


Anonymous said...

I like it, Ikea sell them for 99p (about $1.75) and it goes in my bathroom where it sits in total darkness except for times when I go in there and put the halogen lights on. it doesn't look as nice as the ones on your picture, but after 10 months of almost total darkness it is in no worse condition that when I bought it, and it is significantly bigger.

Anonymous said...

I love the white striped plants and have had trouble finding ones that aren't solid green. Unfortunately I got them becuase they required little care, and have subsequently taken horrible care of them, but some of them are still alive.

Freebooter Fox said...

Supposedly if you want the top trimmed part to grow roots you have to soak it in a rooting hormone solution.

Andrew said...

I'll just throw in my 2 cents here about both prorogation and growing it in water.

I bought a stem that was probably 2 feet long with some short roots on the bottom, two growing tips at the top. I proceeded to cut it into three pieces, the bottom piece I planted in a pot - it grew some shoots but eventually died, don't remember why exactly. The two other pieces were both grown in water where the middle piece grew roots and three shoots while the top grew roots and then took off. Didn't use any rooting hormone either, just stuck them in a glass with water in bright indirect light.

Unlike most growing this stuff in water though I have mine in a playsand/laterite mix in water which has kept them growing well for over a year now without yellowing.

I'm actually considering further chopping up my plants to see how many more pieces I can get to grow and actually try planting some in some potting soil or something crazy like that.

Siculari said...

Lucky bamboo is indeed a culture from Taiwan and China, but the ones sold in US is not bamboo (as you have stated also), but dracaena. The reason is because dracaena is a hardy plant and looks like bamboo.

Anonymous said...

Dracaena sanderiana is now lucky enough to be sold at chain pet stores as an aquatic plant for fish tanks (4 for $6). They are drowned to death in the aquarium, but hey, they look great for a while!!

mr_subjunctive said...


I know. I've seen that around here, too. Also Spathiphyllum, Syngonium, and Ophio-fucking-pogon (!), none of which will work any better. It's sad.

Anonymous said...

I'm confused why this article was even written. The individual seems annoyed with this plant because it has been given a different name and sold world-wide....if you hate dealing with them at work, find a new job.

mr_subjunctive said...


I'm confused why your comment was even written. You seem annoyed with this post because someone has an opinion about a plant that differs from yours. If you hate reading comments that disagree with you, stay off the internet.

Anonymous said...

The "Lucky Bamboo" plant doesn't need much care correct? I was wondering if anyone scrolling around this article knows a little more information about this plant itself. Like maybe what area it is found most commonly found growing in or so.

foxhead128 said...

From what I know, water rooting seems to offer a good success rate. I frequently visit a particular office at school, which has several Dracaena sanderiana plants growing in water. I was informed by at least two people there that they root in water quite readily. Later, I asked if I could try doing this myself, and they gave me a shoot, which I stuck in a water bottle and left alone in a shady corner for about two and a half weeks. After I checked it again, there were indeed small roots starting to grow out of the bottom and even along the stem, so I can say with some confidence that yes, it does actually work.