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Lucky bamboo: A fortuitous plant for Chinese New Year

February 23, 2015

Three stalks of lucky bamboo symbolize happiness. One of the luckiest aspects of this plant in the Dracaena family is that it's very easy to care for, and propogate.

Lucky bamboo is not bamboo at all ó though it bears an uncanny resemblance. Rather itís a plant called Dracaena sanderiana.

As for whether itís lucky, that pretty much depends on you. Or does it?

Growers and retailers are certainly doing what they can to stack the cards in your favor, using the principles of feng shui (the ancient art of harmonizing living spaces) to train plant stalks into the shape of hearts or coils, weaving stalks together to make decorative braids, and potting a "lucky" number of plant stalks together and wrapping the whole in a decorative and auspiciously colored ribbon.

All this makes the plant an appropriate and usually affordable salute to the arrival of the symbol-rich Lunar New Year (also popularly known as Chinese New Year) on Feb. 19.

A few websites have described the appeal of lucky bamboo for its ability to intertwine Eastern mysticism with Western New Age culture. Dracaena sanderiana (dra-SEE-na san-dur-ee-AH-nuh) is native to Cameroon in Africa, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It is also known as Belgian evergreen and ribbon plant.

As for its more popular moniker, lucky bamboo, Mario Vega, nursery specialist at San Franciscoís Conservatory of Flowers, says the plantís stalks resemble bamboo, and the leaves are similar in shape. But D. sanderiana grows more slowly, more neatly and more compactly than bamboo, he said, which makes it good for indoor use. Vega views the plantís "lucky" element in a different light.

"The lucky aspect, thatís a curious one," he said. "Bringing any plant into your home or any work with plants can give a positive effect on your psyche and therefore have positive energy ó potentially improving your luck, so to speak."

Given whatís done to lucky bamboo plants in the name of good fortune ó all the pruning, braiding, shaping, grouping ó itís clear D. sanderiana is one tough number. But itís not so lucky for pets and their owners, who should think twice about having the plant in their home: Plants in the Dracaena family are toxic to dogs and cats, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

The plant can be grown in soil or water, in normal household temperatures (65 to 75 degrees). Give it sunlight but not too much, Vega says ó moderate to bright indirect light is preferred. If youíre growing the plant hydroponically, Vega says to make sure to flush out the water regularly to prevent algae growth. If it is in soil, be sure the pot has good drainage, and water as you would any houseplant: Stick your finger in the soil and water when itís dry about 1 inch down. (Donít overwater.) Fertilize sparingly.

FlowerShopNetwork, an online marketing service for florists in Paragould, Ark., has blog posts about care and training of lucky bamboo. One entry suggests using distilled water with the plant because it is "sensitive to the salts and chemicals in tap water." If tap water is your only choice, let the water sit overnight to allow the chlorine to evaporate, they advise.

When the plants get too tall, no problem, writes Barbara Pleasant in "The Complete Houseplant Survival Manual" (Storey): Cut off the cane at any height, and new leaf clusters will grow just below the cut. It is easy to propagate new plants from the stem cuttings too. Online tutorials (we found several on YouTube) offer instructions on training the growing stem to curl around in a spiral, but remember, this can take a while because Dracaena is a slow-growing plant.

"Itís basically bulletproof," says Jason Lopez, living collection manager at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables, Fla. "Itís one of the easiest plants you can pick."

Lucky bamboo plants are often sold as multiple stalks. What the numbers mean may differ according to various sources. Mandy Maxwell, writing on the website of the Flower Shop Network, notes that three stalks are the most popular ó and represent happiness ó while four stalks are "almost never given" because "four could draw negative energy, according to Chinese culture." Two stalks symbolize luck in love and marriage, and eight stalks represent luck in wealth.

Flowers for Lunar New Year

The Lunar New Year, which takes place Feb. 19, is a holiday ripe with symbolism, especially in food and flowers. Terese Tse Bartholomew, author of "Hidden Meanings in Chinese Art," wrote a pamphlet for San Franciscoís Asian Art Museum on "Fruits and Flowers for the Chinese New Year." Here are her floral picks:

Quince: According to Bartholomew, quince flowers around the Lunar New Year in San Francisco and has become a substitute there for the flowering peach or plum trees of China. "It is customary for Chinese to decorate their homes with blossoms during Chinese New Year," she writes. "For without flowers, there will not be any formation of fruit." Blossoms will "bring prosperity," she adds.

Peach: "The peach tree with its pink blossoms is a standard decoration for the new year," she writes, noting the peach is an "emblem of longevity."

Narcissus is a "symbol of good fortune and prosperity," according to Bartholomew. Flowers in the narcissus family include paperwhite narcissus, which are especially easy to force in winter. The National Gardening Association website shows how.

Pussy willow: "Since the Chinese like numerous blossoms on a branch, the many buds of the willow make it a favorite flower for Chinese New Year," Bartholomew writes. "The fluffy white blossoms of the pussy willow resemble silk, and they soon give forth young shoots the color of green jade. Chinese enjoy such signs of growth, which represent the coming of prosperity."

ó B.D.

 

 


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