How lucky is this "bamboo?"

Lucky bamboo                                                               Wicker Paradise/Flickr

Lucky bamboo                                                               Wicker Paradise/Flickr

Less than a week ago, the Chinese celebrated a brand-new year – the Year of the Dog, according to their astrological calendar.

It’s quite possible that you aimed yourself toward some dim sum and jumped on the appropriate horticultural bandwagon by scoring some "lucky bamboo." A traditional accessory in home decorating (according to the principles of feng shui), lucky bamboo is said to contribute to positive vibes in the home environment.

In China, the plant is known as fu gwey zhu, translating literally to “wealth power bamboo.” The traditions associated with the plant are so elaborate that different shades of meaning are conveyed by different combinations of stalks. It gets a little complicated.

If one stalk is generically lucky, three signify happiness and longevity. Five will get you a concentrated dose of wealth, seven will bring good health, and 10 stalks offer “complete and perfect” luck.

For special, auspicious occasions, like the opening of a new business, the Chinese often order up a tower of 21 stalks or more for guests and patrons. Couples just married will give three stalks to each wedding guest to bring everlasting happiness and success to their new union.

These beliefs, coupled with complete ease of care, have made lucky bamboo a trendy item in the years since retailers began importing and marketing it. I don’t like to throw cold water on any tropical plant (they prefer it at room temperature), but I have to point out that while lucky bamboo may be lucky, it ain’t bamboo.

The plant’s correct botanical name is Dracena sanderiana and it’s a member of the lily family, native to southeast Asia. True, it has a woody, segmented stalk and resembles bamboo, but that’s about where it ends.

Dog, with lucky bamboo squeaky toy                     flashingfuchur/Flickr

Dog, with lucky bamboo squeaky toy                     flashingfuchur/Flickr

You don’t have to worry about lucky bamboo taking over the garden like the real McCoy would. In fact, since it’s not winter hardy like many species of bamboo that grow in New Jersey, you can’t plant it permanently outdoors — it would perish in the winter cold, which wouldn’t enhance your luck one little bit.

Lucky bamboo is sold by florists, in garden shops and on the web in stalks about 6 to 10 inches long. The stalks will not grow further, but lush green foliage will sprout from the end, growing perhaps another 10 to 12 inches.

A variation on the theme is stalks that curl in a spiral, sort of like a raffish, green pig’s tail. This is not a natural variety, but the result of plant manipulation. Farmers lay straight stalks on a growing table in their greenhouses, cover three sides to exclude light, and wait until the exposed portion of the stalk curls toward the light source. They then rotate the stalk and repeat the process; it can take up to a year and half to produce a curly stalk of decent size — which is why you’ll pay a premium for it.

Lucky bamboo makes few demands. Chiefly, you need to keep it in clean, fresh water (no need for potting soil). A very minor, diluted dose of fertilizer every two weeks or so will supply all the nutrients the plant needs.

Since it grows naturally under the canopy of dense tropical rain forests, lucky bamboo dislikes direct light, and will thrive in low-light areas like bathrooms. If leaves burn or brown, it’s a sign your plant is getting too much sunlight. Generally, it’s hard to kill these guys, which is probably lucky for them.

One unlucky thing about this plant is that shipments delivered to maritime ports in southern California some 15 years ago were found to have hitchhikers aboard. The tiger mosquito (Aedes albopictus), an Asian species known to carry disease-causing viruses, was discovered among the plants. The Centers for Disease Control jumped right on that to advocate for pesticide baths as a mosquito control.

It wouldn’t be lucky at all to have a bamboo impostor unleash yet another flying pest to torment us. Changing the water frequently and being alert to any wrigglers should take care of any strays. But on second thought, maybe I’ll just stick to hunting down some lucky four-leafed clover.