Going bananas over a ‘tree’
by Paula Steers Brown, Contributing Columnist
A banana “tree” is a misnomer. The big trunk of this lush plant that grows with lightning speed from a rhizome is actually a fibrous stalk or pseudo-stem of mostly water.
Musa basjoo is the Japanese fiber banana cultivated to produce textiles. In the American landscape, it is planted for its ornamental value, having gained popularity for its tropical-looking leaves which grow 4 feet long. It lends an exotic vibe to the landscape, but produces no edible fruit.
For actual bananas, the species Musa acuminata will produce the familiar yellow fruit from an astonishing purple flower stalk — but only in the tropics, right? No. In the front yard of a suburban Henrico County, Va., neighborhood, witness a bona fide banana fest.
STALKING THE PLANT
Richard Redd, an amateur plantsman who got a start of his first banana plant from a friend in eastern Hanover County, accomplished this remarkable horticultural achievement. Mind you, his is not an easy hobby for the casual gardener: “I’ve broken a few shovels,” he admits, digging up the plant over the years in the fall to overwinter it in his garage.
However, in Virginia, his results yield a real curiosity crop, worthy of believe-it-or-not status. Each individual stalk will only flower and bear fruit once, so after the harvest, the flower stalk must be cut down and discarded to make room for the new, productive stems to grow up from the rhizome. Usually, the trunk-like bundle you dig up is about five plants, which can be separated. Save the largest stalk as the new mother plant and you can give away her babies to a good home.
Cut the foliage off the stalk except for two leaves, and put the roots in a tub or plastic bag with a little topsoil in the garage. The banana plant goes dormant, but give it about two cups of water each month.
It takes at least nine months to produce the flowering stalk that will hold the bananas, so for fruit to have time to form, you must overwinter the stalk. The plants will grow in containers and can be moved into a sunroom in winter, but, for fruiting, amending the bed every spring and fall with black composted soil seems to be important. The oval-shaped, purple brachts can take from three to 15 days to open and reveal the smaller white flowers, which eventually develop into bananas.
The exotic botanical parts are fascinating at every stage, and the process is educational for children and horticultural enthusiasts who enjoy watching the plant grow about 2 feet a month, up to 20 feet before frost. The plant needs four to six hours of sun a day and plenty of water. You cannot overwater it.
For gardeners who merely want the tropical look of the banana plant’s fabulous leaves, growing Musa basjoo as an herbaceous perennial (cold hardy in ground to zone 4) is relatively easy. The plant’s rhizomes form a colony underground, so be sure to prune out new shoots as they emerge in April to control spread.
When frost hits, the dramatic leaves will go brown, so chop down stalks just before frost. Leave an 8- to 10-inch stump and heavily mulch with a pile of hardwood chips, or, if you want to discourage a colony, remove the mother plant in fall and replace her with a baby, then mulch.
Growing the plant in a big pot you roll into a sunny room for winter is also an option. For now, just make the most of summer: Channel the Beach Boys for a party with banana plant as your backdrop. Cut a few luxuriant leaves to use as placemats and follow chef Rick Bayless’ suggestion to wrap skewered chicken in banana leaves, making exotic tied “pockets” for grilling to impart a delightful, smoky flavor.