Why is My Bamboo Turning Yellow and How To Fix It

Most potted bamboo sold today is not actually bamboo at all. Despite its deceiving appearance, lucky bamboo (Dracaena sanderiana) is more closely related to asparagus than real bamboo. However, a few species of authentic bamboo can also be grown indoors with great success.

Regardless of its true identity, bamboo makes an attractive, often low-maintenance houseplant. Many inexperienced gardeners are drawn to this plant, which can make the sudden emergence of sickly, yellow leaves, feel absolutely devastating.

In this article, I’ll explain why your bamboo is turning yellow and the steps you can take to fix it. Keep reading for troubleshooting tips that can be applied to both lucky bamboo and true bamboo grown indoors.

Why Does My Bamboo Have Yellow Leaves?

All photosynthesizing plants produce chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is the pigment that gives foliage its distinctive green colour. Leaves lacking adequate chlorophyll (a condition called chlorosis) tend to appear yellow in colour.

Chlorosis is often one of the first signs that a plant is ill or struggling in its current environment. Even if your bamboo otherwise seems fine, this likely won’t last for long as the lack of chlorophyll production impacts its ability to photosynthesize. And that’s not to mention that yellow foliage is generally seen as unattractive in comparison to healthy green leaf tissue.

It’s important to note that chlorosis can occur for a number of reasons. You can think of it as a label for the visible symptom rather than an actionable diagnosis. But that still doesn’t mean yellowing leaves should be ignored. Instead, your goal should be to narrow down the root cause of this discolouration so it can be addressed as quickly as possible.

Common causes of chlorosis in bamboo include nutritional deficiencies, improper watering, environmental stress, and pest damage. Fortunately, most of these problems are easily fixed as long as diagnosis and treatment are applied early on.

Watering Problems With Bamboo

In the absence of any other symptoms, my first assumption when a bamboo plant starts turning yellow is that something is off with its water schedule. There are several factors to consider here, including watering frequency, quality, and (for bamboo planted in potting soil) drainage.

Excessive Watering

While many people assume that underwatering is to blame for their bamboo’s yellow leaves, overwatering is more likely the problem. Soil that contains too much moisture can’t hold onto oxygen. When plant roots lack access to oxygen molecules, they essentially drown.

Bamboo likes moist conditions, but should never be left to sit in overly damp, soggy soil. This can occur because you are watering too frequently or your bamboo container lacks adequate drainage.

As a general rule, you should water potted bamboo when the soil is about 50% dry. Most bamboo varieties can tolerate slight drought, and it’s better to let the soil dry out than to drown the plant with excess water.

If your bamboo’s soil remains wet for a long time after watering, check that the container has plenty of drainage holes and that they are not blocked by soil or debris. You should never leave potted bamboo sitting in a collection saucer filled with standing water.

A further complication with overwatering, albeit less likely in houseplants, is nutrients being washed out from the plant’s soil. Dr Carl Crozier of N.C. State University Soil Science Department refers to these nutrients as ‘mobile nutrients’, including nitrogen, potassium, sulfur and magnesium. This can lead to nutrient deficiencies which I will talk about in more detail later.

Using Unfiltered Tap Water

Bamboo is more sensitive to minerals found in unfiltered water when compared to many other plants. While such problems tend to be more common when using hard water, it may be best to avoid all tap water when caring for potted bamboo.

In the case of lucky bamboo, chlorine and fluoride are the most problematic minerals found in tap water. Many types of true bamboo will also react to these elements. Even trace amounts may trigger leaf discolouration or overall plant decline if allowed to build up in the bamboo’s soil or container.

I recommend using distilled bottled water or rainwater on indoor plants. Note that not all distilled water is fluoride-free, so be sure to check the label first.

If you don’t have access to high-quality distilled water, you can reduce the number of minerals in your tap water by letting it sit in a container or jug, uncovered for at least 24 hours. This allows some of the minerals to evaporate before the water is applied to your bamboo.

The further problem associated with tap water is the salt content, often showing itself through leaves with brown edges, as the salt builds up in the soil over a period of time.

Incorrect Soil Conditions

Bamboo grows best in deep loamy soil that drains very quickly, allowing for good aeration. For potted bamboo, I recommend using a soil mixture intended for cacti and succulents and then adding a peat moss or general compost mix at a rate of 1:1. Or if growing outdoors, soil with a mix of sand, silt and clay at a rate of 1:1:1 is ideal.

Amending your bamboo’s soil with rich organic matter is a great way to minimize compaction while also providing some key nutrients. But be sure to incorporate grit, perlite or sand to add the additional drainage required.

Remember that no soil can make up for a poor-draining container. For potted bamboo, be sure to select a pot that is the right size and has plenty of drainage holes for your plant.

Bamboo requires a soil pH of 5.0-6.5, if the pH is wide of this your plant will struggle to utilize the available nutrients within the soil, which can be another common cause of nutrient deficiencies. So let’s move on to this topic in more detail.

Nutrient Deficiencies 

Bamboo generally thrives with minimal fertilization. While this contributes to the plant’s low-maintenance reputation, it also means that bamboo is susceptible to both over- and under-feeding.

Below are the most common symptoms of several nutrient deficiencies as well as what to do if your bamboo plant has been overfertilized:

Nitrogen

Potted bamboo may not require heavy feeding but it still relies on nitrogen to put out new growth and produce chlorophyll. A lack of nitrogen is one of the most common causes of yellow foliage in any plant, and bamboo is no exception.

Chlorosis triggered by a nitrogen deficiency usually impacts the oldest leaves first. You might notice your bamboo dropping older foliage more rapidly than normal.

Nitrogen is provided to houseplants via organic material in the soil and synthetic fertilizers. For bamboo grown in water or a non-organic potting mix, fertilizer is the only source of nitrogen available. 

Be careful not to over-apply nitrogen fertilizers to your bamboo plants. Excess nitrogen can cause serious damage (including yellow leaves) and all applications should be carefully measured. I would always recommend halving the dosage recommendation provided by manufacturers of fertilizer.

Iron

Iron chlorosis is nearly as common as that caused by insufficient nitrogen. Although iron is categorized as a micronutrient, it is still crucial to plant functions such as photosynthesis.

Most cases of iron chlorosis are distinguished by yellowing that starts with the newest growth first. Note that not all fertilizers contain iron, so deficiencies can arise even with routine feeding.

Iron availability is closely related to soil pH. In my experience, however, pH is rarely a concern when working with container-grown plants. Simply adding an appropriate iron supplement to your bamboo’s soil or water should suffice as treatment.

Magnesium

Another micronutrient sometimes responsible for chlorosis is magnesium. As is the case with nitrogen deficiencies, a lack of magnesium typically manifests in the oldest leaves first. According to the University of Florida, you may notice a thick band of yellowing that follows the shape of each leaf margin.

Some people recommend Epsom salt as a source of magnesium. In my opinion, however, this method is imprecise and not well-suited to more sensitive plants like bamboo. 

magnesium deficiency in bamboo Bamboo Turning Yellow
Symptoms of magnesium deficiency

My personal recommendation is to select a houseplant fertilizer formulated with magnesium. Applying such a fertilizer according to the manufacturer’s guidelines will not only treat existing deficiencies but will also prevent new ones from occurring.

Over-Fertilizing

Just like bamboo is sensitive to minerals in tap water, excess fertilizer can also take a toll. Most fertilizers contain nutrient salts that can build up in the soil or container. These salts can impact your bamboo’s ability to take in moisture or otherwise place stress on its root system.

All types of potted bamboo perform best with light fertilization. Depending on the exact formula used, it may be best to feed bamboo as little as once per year. Select a low-nitrogen fertilizer designed for houseplants and read the label carefully to avoid overfeeding.

If you suspect salt buildup in the soil is to blame for your bamboo’s sorry state, I recommend flushing the soil with clean water. 

If too much fertilizer has been added to a container filled with only water, replace the water completely. You may want to rinse the empty container and the bamboo roots to remove any lingering fertilizer as well.

Excessive Light Exposure

Lucky bamboo and true bamboo may have differing needs when it comes to sunlight. While lucky bamboo is susceptible to excess light exposure, true bamboo prefers full sun.

Lucky bamboo grows best in filtered sunlight such as that coming through a moderately bright window. In my experience, excess light exposure usually isn’t an issue in lucky bamboo kept as a houseplant. Remember that modern windows block a good bit of UV light, so even plants placed directly on a windowsill will not receive the same exposure as those grown outdoors.

With that said, keep an eye on lucky bamboo placed near exposed, south-facing windows. (If you live in the Southern Hemisphere, this instead applies to north-facing windows.) Such plants may receive too much sunlight on particularly bright days, especially if windows are left open. 

Lucky bamboo grown on a patio or in a sunroom should be placed in a partially sheltered location that receives either direct sunlight or is shaded throughout the brightest part of the day.

Meanwhile, many species of true bamboo turn yellow in dim light whilst a few will scorch in direct sunlight. These varieties prefer shade over direct sunlight. Himalayan Blue (Himalayacalamus hookerianus) and Walking Stick (Chimonobambusa tumidissinoda) are two wonderful examples of bamboo that prefer shade over the sun. So it’s important to understand your specific bamboo type and locate it in the right position.

Rapid or Frequent Temperature Fluctuations

All types of bamboo commonly grown indoors tolerate average household temperatures. Some species, e.g. golden bamboo, have surprising cold tolerance for a plant that is often associated with subtropical climates. Regardless of your houseplants’ hardiness, no plant is built to handle sudden, frequent changes in the environment. 

Excess heat exposure may cause yellow or brown foliage that feels dry and crisp to the touch. This damage is usually acute and the plant will heal itself once moved to a more appropriate location.

bamboo frost burn.
Bamboo with frost burn

Cold damage can be more subtle at first. While sub-freezing temperatures may kill bamboo outright, even conditions slightly below room temperature can trigger stress. This stress is only exacerbated when the air temperature around the bamboo is constantly going up and down. The image above shows the symptoms of frost burning on bamboo grown in my backyard.

When selecting a location for your potted bamboo, take a moment to identify any potential drafts or heat sources. I never advise placing container-grown plants near drafty windows, radiators, open fireplaces, or HVAC vents. While the room temperature may stay consistent overall, your bamboo could be subject to dramatic temperature changes throughout the day. 

Pest Infestation

Bamboo may be tough but no plant is impervious to pest damage. Some of the most common pests found on lucky bamboo and true bamboo grown indoors are mealybugs, spider mites, and aphids. All of these infestations may include yellowing leaves as a symptom.

Mealybugs

There are several mealybug species that can affect bamboo plants. They like to feed on new growth and hang out in bamboo leaf sheaths. Infestations typically go unnoticed until the mealybugs are well-established on the plant.

Mealybugs are very small but do leave behind some evidence of their activity. In addition to overall plant decline, look for signs like honeydew droplets — a sticky liquid excreted by feeding mealybugs — and black sooty mould.

You can manage mild infestations by spraying the bamboo with a strong nozzle to remove the mealybugs. More serious cases of mealybug activity should be treated with horticultural oil or a chemical pesticide.

Spider Mites

Lucky bamboo in particular is susceptible to spider mites. But if you have any past experience keeping houseplants, I’m willing to bet you’ve encountered this all-too-common pest. 

The earliest visible sign of spider mite activity is usually a fine webbing strung between the plant’s foliage. A closer look at affected leaves will typically reveal the presence of tiny mites moving about.

Most spider mite infestations can be treated by either physically removing the pests (such as by spraying the bamboo with water) or chemical control. I strongly recommend applying something like neem oil or insecticidal soap before turning to more potent pesticides. According to Clemson University, these are less likely to harm beneficial insects in the area.

Aphids

In houseplants, most aphid infestations closely resemble those of mealy bugs. Aphids also gather at plants’ growth points and produce honeydew excrement after feeding. Fortunately, since both pests respond to the same control methods, identifying the culprit of your bamboo’s ailment is not necessary to start treatment.

Remove existing aphids by spraying bamboo stalks and leaves with a hose or handheld faucet nozzle. Horticultural oil or insecticidal soap can be applied to smother the aphids. Be aware that aphids are very mobile and can easily spread to other plants in your home.

Old or Spent Leaves

I know one’s first response to seeing yellow leaves on any houseplant is rarely good. However, there could be a perfectly natural and unavoidable reason your potted bamboo is turning yellow.

As plants age, they shed old leaves. Part of this process is photosynthesis within the affected leaves slowing and eventually stopping, which affects their colouration. If only the oldest leaves on your bamboo plant are changing colour and it continues to put out new growth, there’s a very good chance this is what’s happening.

Both lucky and true bamboo may drop leaves in this manner in winter, to allow new leaves to shoot in spring. While there’s generally no need to change your potted bamboo’s care or environment, be on the lookout for changes in the number of leaves dropped or the speed at which they change colour. Excess leaf shedding, even if only the plant’s oldest leaves, could be an indication of poor health.

FAQ Yellow Leaves on Bamboo

Verdict: Why is My Bamboo Turning Yellow

Yellow foliage is often one of the earliest signs a plant is suffering, and in the majority of cases, it is related to overwatering, or poor drainage, which is simple enough to resolve. However, it’s important to take this symptom seriously whether you’re growing lucky bamboo or a type of true bamboo.

While there are some key differences between these plants, most potential causes of yellow leaves remain the same. Proper lighting, soil quality, occasional feeding, and consistent watering will go a long way in keeping your bamboo looking its best. Just remember that some leaf shedding is entirely normal even in the healthiest of plants.

Citation

Dr. Carl Crozier of N.C. State University Soil Science Department – Soil nutrients depleted by heavy rains

University of Florida – Deficiency of Magnesium in plants

Clemson University – Integrated Pest Management

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Ben's horticultural interest grew when graduating from Hertfordshire University in 1997. Having contributed to numerous publications including Better Homes & Gardens, Garden Design Magazine, and The English Garden. He is also the author of Propagating Houseplants Made Easy.