|By Brent Moon
he banana-growing bug first bit me back around 1999 when I was working at the Missouri Botanical Garden. We grew two or three different varieties out in our summer beds one year. Having grown up in Kentucky, I was captivated by their huge, gently swaying leaves. In 2003, I moved to Houston, where my new-found addiction really caught fire and I now grow more than 20 different types in my landscape, sometimes much to my wife’s chagrin.
Bananas (genus Musa) have long been cultivated in warm, humid regions of the world. They are native to tropical Southeast Asia, India, the Malay Archipelago, and Australia. Depending upon which taxonomist is giving the advice, there are as many as 80 or as few as 25 species. (I sometimes think the taxonomists switch names on plants just to keep us all confused. I’m convinced, it’s a conspiracy.) All banana and plantain cultivars are hybrids between the two parent species, Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana, both seeded types. These hybrids are sometimes listed as Musa x paradisiaca with a cultivar name listed in single quotes; for example, Musa x paradisiaca ‘Dwarf Cavendish.’
Many people inaccurately call banana plants “trees.” They are not trees at all. In fact, bananas are actually the largest members of the herb family. (Don’t try to convince herb purists of this, however. Some of those little old ladies can be downright vicious!). What is often referred to as a trunk is correctly known as a pseudostem and is comprised of many layers of leaves wrapped around one another in a spiral arrangement; this is what gives the pseudostem its strength. Most people along the Gulf Coast have reduced the banana to almost weed status. However, if you care for them properly, it is possible to harvest buckets of wonderful fruit in many parts of Texas, particularly the Gulf Coast.
Edible bananas are generally planted out from what is known as a sucker or a pup, an exact, miniature replica of the parent plant. If you bought yours from a nursery, it is most likely a sucker that has been severed from the parent at some point and should be well rooted by the time of purchase. Plant your new banana plant at the same level it was growing in the pot into well-amended soil in an area that receives at least half a day of direct sun. Bananas can grow in a surprising amount of shade; however, fruit production will be lower.
Members of the genus Musa love lots of water; however, not standing water, which can rot the roots. In general, try to make sure that your banana plant gets at least one inch of water per week; two inches would be even better. If your soil is well-draining, you almost cannot overwater a banana during the summer.
In general, banana plants are heavy feeders, much like I am. They can be given either synthetic fertilizers or organic fertilizers. If using synthetic fertilizers, be careful not to over apply and burn the leaves. Bananas appreciate an application of fertilizer once per month throughout the growing season. Do not fertilize once the weather begins to cool. Bananas generally stop growing when temperatures consistently fall below 55 degrees. I typically do not fertilize past late September. Those in more northern areas should adjust their fertilization regimes accordingly.
For the most part, bananas are carefree plants with very few pest problems in Houston and other areas of the state. You may occasionally experience damage from leaf rollers or the occasional grasshopper, but damage is usually minimal, not requiring any applications of pesticides. The main thing you will need to do is tidy up a bit by occasionally trimming off any dead leaves once they have turned completely yellow.
There are several edible varieties listed below that do well in our area. For the most part, no major protection is needed most winters to ensure simple survival. However, if you want to increase the likelihood of fruiting, several things should be done. First of all, once the first frost kills back the leaves just trim the leaves back to the pseudostem. Do not cut the entire pseudostem back! Keeping as much height on the pseudostem as possible is one of the keys to getting fruit the next year, especially if you live north of the Houston area. If possible, construct a cage approximately 4’ tall (or taller if you don’t mind the work) and place it around the pseudostem. Fill the cage with dry leaves and wrap with a tarp. This will help to insulate the pseudostem from any freezing temperatures. Alternatively, wrap the pseudostem with a few layers of frost cloth, available at most nurseries, and tie it off with some jute or sisal twine. The farther north you live, say Dallas-Ft. Worth, for instance, the more important it becomes to protect your bananas from freezing temperatures. If you can get your banana’s pseudostem through the winter intact, the likelihood of getting a flower and then fruit goes up dramatically. If the pseudostem is killed to the ground, the chances of fruiting are slim for that year.
Cold Tolerant Varieties
Following are some varieties or cultivars that have proven to stand up to our winter temperatures along the Gulf Coast and provide fruit. If you live in an area of the state that receives more cold weather than the Houston area, stick with ‘Orinoco’ and ‘Raja Puri,’ as they seem to be the most cold hardy of the those listed below.
‘Orinoco’: Probably the most common banana grown all along the Gulf Coast. Reliably produces medium-sized fruits (4”-6”) that can either be cooked when green or allowed to fully ripen and eaten out of hand.
‘Ice Cream’: It is reportedly cold hardy in our area, with one of the best-tasting fruits. Dessert type. Skin of fruit is a bluish color.
‘California Gold’: A recent addition to the cold-hardy bananas. A friend in Lake Charles, La., reports that they are delicious.
‘Raja Puri’: A variety originally from India. Stays somewhat short and stocky. It is reportedly very easy to fruit.
‘Manzano’ and ‘Saba’ are reported to be cold hardy here as well.
Other cultivars, which may prove cold hardy, include ‘Dwarf Cavendish,’ ‘Dwarf Orinoco’ and ‘Hua Moa.’ Keep in mind that dwarf is a relative term, with many so-called “dwarf” bananas still growing 8-10’ tall.
You’ll know that flowering is near when you see the “flag” leaf. And no, contrary to popular belief, bananas in Texas do not shoot up a flag leaf bearing a large white star on it. The flag leaf is normally a much smaller leaf that precedes the emergence of the flower bud. Most edible bananas have a maroon-colored bud that will appear at the top of the plant. At this point, you should not be ashamed to jump up and down and scream “I did it!” at the top of your lungs. Who cares what the neighbors think? Who are they to judge you?
In a few days, the bud will drop over and as the bracts (the maroon part of the flower bud) will peel back to reveal the flowers and you’ll begin to see little bananas forming. The bananas form from the female flowers. Bees, wasps and hummingbirds love the nectar from banana flowers. As long as you continue to see new fruit forming, allow the bud to remain on the plant.
However, eventually, you’ll notice that no more fruit are developing and that you are only getting flowers that fall off. These are the male flowers and the bud should now be cut off several inches below the last fruit so that the plant will put its energy into developing the fruit rather than wasting it on flowers. Be careful when you cut the bud off as banana sap will permanently stain your clothing — and anything else it falls on —brown! From this point, continue to water and feed your banana plant well so that the fruit will fill out. In general, it takes around four months from the time you see the first fruit to be able to harvest it. If cold weather threatens and your bananas are still green, you can cut the entire stalk off and bring it inside to ripen as long as the fruit are filled out well.
The Next Generation
All bananas are monocarpic, meaning that they flower and set fruit once and then die. The good news is that they perpetuate themselves by putting out pups or suckers. Once you have harvested your fruit, cut the entire pseudostem that fruited down to the ground. The pups that have come up around the main plant during the growing season will carry on the next generation for you. In general, allow only two or three pups to remain during the growing season, as any more may impede fruit production.
Many nurseries and garden stores are now carrying a beautiful plant that is related to, but not a true banana. This is the plant known as the Abyssinian banana. It is in the genus Ensete rather than Musa. Members of the Ensete are native to Africa and are more adapted to drier climates than are members of Musa. Ensete-type bananas do not sucker like their cousin Musa, however. They flower once and then die, hopefully after producing a great bunch of seeds, which — along with tissue culture — is the primary form of propagation of this type of banana. In Africa, Ensete bananas are largely produced for their edible, starchy tuber. Here in the States, one of the most common and highly sought after Ensete is E. maurelli, which has beautiful reddish leaves. It can easily grow to 20-plus feet tall and is always an attention-getter wherever it is planted.
If you live along the Gulf Coast, consider trying a banana this year. It’s easier than you think. Don’t be discouraged from trying your hand at bananas if you live in a cooler part of the state — just plan accordingly. A great resource is the International Banana Society, which meets online at www.bananas.org. Here you will find all the information you could ever hope for from professionals and hobbyists alike. Go bananas and try growing a banana this year. I think my wife may even be coming around. Happy growing!