If there is one plant that is associated with tropical pleasure, warm weather and an easy life, it is the Banana Tree. The swaying leaves and hanging fruits all conjure up visions of island life and easy living. Yet these plants are not difficult to grow in warmer gardens far from the tropics, and in pots almost everywhere. Given sun, food and water, Banana Trees will bring pleasure and novelty to any garden, and often fruit too. Imagine how it would feel to give your family bananas from your own garden.
Banana Trees make exciting additions to every garden whether you can grow them in the ground, or grow them in pots. Their beautiful form and foliage adds interest to the garden and the prospect of eating your own bananas and sharing them with your family and friends is a real bonus.
Banana Trees are great plants for any sunny location in your garden. They look dramatic near a pool, or planted along a fence. They make a great backdrop to flowering plants and smaller bushes like the Frostproof Gardenia and blend well with Crape Myrtles. They bring a real tropical look to your garden and when they fruit will be admired by your neighbors and loved by your children. In warmer zones they make a great fast growing screen that will give complete privacy in a single season. In cooler regions they make beautiful pot plants that can be grown outdoors all summer and will bring a new look to your patio or pool area.
For fruit the best variety is the Ice Cream Banana, which has fruit with a unique vanilla scent and smooth, creamy, white flesh. Or choose the Cavendish Banana or the Grand Naine Banana, which are very similar to regular bananas. If you live in a colder region and want an outdoor banana, the Cold Hardy Banana (Musa ‘Basjoo’) is a great choice although this is best grown as a foliage plant as fruit is rarely produced and not edible.
Banana Trees are not trees at all, but giant perennials. The trunk is really made up of the bases of the leaves, wrapped around each other to form a strong, wind-resistant core to support the giant leaves. New plants grow from the base and a single tree will soon become a clump. The leaves are usually green but may be red when they are young and some types have striped leaves too. The plant can grow very rapidly and may grow 2 feet a week during warm weather. Most Banana Trees reach 6 to 8 feet in height, but some can grow to 15 feet tall.
The flowers hang down from the center of a mature leaf-cluster and can be the size of a football when in bud. The male flowers are at the lower end of the stem and open first in a cluster called the bell, which is edible and was probably eaten before there were seedless bananas. The female flowers appear next in a spiral, but the fruits which are then produced in clusters called hands need no pollen and make no seeds, just delicious food that everyone loves to eat and even the fussiest child will adore. Wild bananas that do produce seeds have just a small amount of flesh, but the domestic banana produces fruit without seeds. All that is left of the seeds is the little black specks you can see in the center of the fruit.
Banana Trees grow in warmer regions, usually in zones 9 to 11 or warmer. Some fruiting Banana Trees, such as Ice Cream Banana, will grow into zone 8, and the Cold Hardy Banana will grow in zone 7 and even as far north as zone 5 if it is thickly mulched in winter. All Banana Trees can be grown in pots and brought indoors into a porch, conservatory, greenhouse or sunny part of the home, so everyone in every state with suitable indoor conditions can grow Banana Trees and enjoy them as an outdoor plant in summer and indoors in winter. Imagine gazing at the snow through the leaves of a Banana Tree!
Banana Trees need rich soil with plenty of organic material added and applied as thick mulch, as well as plenty of water. They are somewhat drought-hardy when established, but will always do better if well watered. They need a sunny location with as many hours of sun each day as possible. Some shelter from strong winds is also beneficial, although the leaves have evolved to tear naturally in winds and continue to grow well. In pots use normal house-plant soil and don’t allow the pots to dry out completely.
For pot culture, choose a pot 50% wider than the diameter of the pot your Banana Tree arrives in. Make sure the pot has a drain hole and put a stone over the hole to keep the soil from coming out. Don’t put gravel in the bottom of the pot. Use a standard house-plant potting soil and plant an inch or two deeper than it is in the original pot, so some fresh soil covers the root ball.
Some growers add 20% perlite to the soil to ensure good drainage, as although banana trees like moisture they do not like to sit in wet soil. Do not fill the pot right to the top but leave the soil a couple of inches below the rim to leave space for watering. A clay pot is best, although these do need to be watered more often. If you use clay, soak the pot in water for a few hours before planting. Make sure the potting soil is moist before using it and water the pot thoroughly after planting until water comes out the drain hole.
Outdoors, dig a hole two or three times the diameter of the original pot and add plenty of rich organic material. Place your Banana Tree in the center of the hole and put back most of the soil. Water well and when the water has completely drained away put back the rest of the soil. Apply a 2 to 4 inch layer of organic mulch over the root zone. Water once or even twice a week as necessary to keep the soil from drying too much, but don’t keep your plant constantly wet.
Bananas are the oldest domesticated plant in the world. They were first grown 10,000 years ago, in South-East Asia, probably for fiber and to eat the male flowers. Over time these early farmers selected rare forms that produced no seeds, but plenty of edible flesh. The cultivation of Banana Trees spread throughout the Pacific, to Hawaii for example, and also to India. Along the way new varieties were developed and today the banana has been spread by human intervention to all areas warm enough for it to grow.
There are two basic types of banana. There is the Plantain, which is not sweet and is grown as a vegetable. It forms the basic food, equal to bread, in many countries, including the islands of the Caribbean. The second type has more natural sugar and is the kind that is normally eaten as a fruit. Both types come from the original species Musa acuminata and in some cases also Musa balbisiana. Bananas are distant relatives of grasses, not of ‘real’ trees.
Once established, your Banana Tree needs watering as the soil begins to become dry. When young a general-purpose liquid fertilizer is beneficial. Regularly add more organic mulch as the plant grows. Banana Trees reproduce by sending up shoots from around the base and can grow into a large thicket of stems and leaves. To encourage fruiting just allow one or two side stems around the main stem. Stems must reach a certain size and number of leaves before they will flower and this usually takes 12 to 24 months. So it is important to bring potted trees indoors before colder weather stops growth (which happens at 400F) and to keep them growing actively through the winter in a warm, sunny place.
It takes 2 or 3 months for fruit to develop once your tree has flowered. A tree may produce as many as 90 banana fruits. They are ready to harvest when 1 or 2 in the bunch are turning yellow. To avoid a glut, cut some of the lower clusters while still a little green and get them to ripen more quickly by placing them in a closed paper bag in a warm place indoors. Once the fruit has ripened the flowering stem dies and should be cut out. The surrounding stems will quickly grow and replace it.
Banana Trees in pots should be fertilized every week with half-strength general-purpose liquid fertilizer during their growing period. They can be kept outdoors when the night temperatures are above 450F, but don’t put a plant that has been indoors all winter straight into cool nights. Place it outdoors during the day and bring it in at night for about a week to allow it to adjust, then you can leave it outside for the warm season.