Nothing says the tropics quite like the sight of a grove of banana trees. The good news is that these versatile and tasty fruit-bearing trees aren’t exclusive to the tropics, although they do tend to grow best in warm and humid climates. There are a lot of banana tree varieties, and with the right care, sufficient water, and bright sunlight, you will find a banana tree to be a lovely addition to your home, greenhouse, or your outdoor spaces.
Learning About The Banana Tree
An interesting fact that even the most experienced gardeners aren’t aware of is that the banana plant is actually not a tree at all. It belongs to the herb family and is actually the largest flowering herbaceous plant. The plants can grow as tall as 25 feet tall, with a pseudostem that grows out of what is known as a corm. A corm is very closely related to a tuber or bulb root system.
Each pseudostem is capable of producing one bunch of bananas, and it typically dies off after the bananas have ripened. This doesn’t mean that the plant dies however, as the banana plant will continue to produce pseudostems that develop from the corm base. Because many banana varieties are perennial, one plant can produce fruit for several years, under the right conditions.
Bananas are one of the oldest cultivated fruit plants, with archaeologists finding evidence of these tasty and useful fruits going back as far as ancient Egypt. Africa is home to several banana plant varieties, including many that would be unrecognizable as bananas to those of us who are much more familiar with the bright yellow bunches of long bananas in the grocery store.
There are actually thousands of banana types, but the ones that most of us are familiar with include the following:
- The Cavendish banana. This banana is the type most often found for sale in the United States. They are often also referred to as the “Chiquita” banana, but this is primarily because Chiquita is one of the largest producers of bananas across the planet.
- The plantain banana. The plantain has much less sugar in it than the Cavendish does, and it needs to be cooked before eating. Once cooked, it has a starchy, sweet flavor that makes it a great addition to any meal. In the Caribbean, they even prefer eating plantains to rice or potatoes. When plantains are ripe they are almost black in color, with the inside of the banana a creamy yellow or pink color.
- The red banana. These bananas are actually much sweeter than the Cavendish banana, but they are maroon in color, sometimes to the point of being black; this can make them appear unappetizing to consumers. The flesh of the red banana is pink in color and actually has a mild raspberry flavor to it.
- The burro banana. This banana is not as long and elegantly tapered like the Cavendish banana; it is smaller and much more rectangular in shape. The ripened bananas will have yellow skin that is speckled with black spots, with white creamy flesh that has a bit of a tangy flavor.
- The baby banana. Small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, this banana packs a nutritious punch with sweet flesh that is chockfull of potassium and vitamin B6.
What some might not know is just how the bright yellow bananas they see in the store actually get their vivid color. It is common knowledge that most fruits and vegetables are picked just prior to being at peak ripening stage, and this is definitely true for bananas. The bananas are picked when they are still green, they are exported to their destination while still green, and they are then ripened once they arrive at their destination. The rooms that the bananas are ripened in are airtight and flooded with a gas called ethylene, which induces the ripening process; the bright yellow color is a side effect of the artificial process.
Tree ripened bananas, like any fruit or vegetable allowed to ripen naturally, are much sweeter and also don’t have that almost unreal yellow color to them. They tend to be a duller yellow, with brown speckles on them.
Growing Your Own Bananas
Cultivated bananas are almost always sterile, which can also pose a few problems for banana farmers or the average gardener looking to grow their own bananas. Propagation generally requires that farmers transplant pieces off of the primary corm by removing the suckers or secondary shoots. Sympodial corms, which are very similar to the little nubs seen on orchids or the common pothos ivy plants, are actually easier to remove from the primary corm and tend to do better when shipped out to their new growing sites.
Tissue cultures are another method of propagation, and this is often considered to be the better method because it tends to cut down on the risk of diseases that could be devastating to a banana farmer relying on the crops as his livelihood.
There are a number of resources for getting your hands on a few live plants or corms. Any number of organic garden suppliers will offer banana plants at varying stages, so do a bit of research into each company and make an informed purchase. If there is a retailer you are more familiar with, then you may find that they can do a special order for you to get the varieties that you are most interested in.
Once your banana plants arrive, you will need to ensure that they have the right type of growing conditions in order to see them grow taller, produce flowers, and produce those gorgeous bunches of bananas.
Your first consideration should be the climate you are growing them in. Bananas are not typically very frost tolerant, which can make growing them outdoors in certain zones an impossibility. If temperatures will not dip much below freezing for very long, then the corm is likely to survive just fine, especially if you wrap it with a blanket or landscaping sheeting. If the plants are very small or low temperatures are predicted, then be sure to cover the plants as best you can, or at the very least provide a wrap for the pseudostem if the plants are bearing fruit.
You may find that your banana plants will be best served if you can plant them in large containers that can be easily moved into your greenhouse, shed, sunroom, or living room once the winter temperatures start to settle in. Indoors your banana trees will require adequate warmth, moisture, and air circulation, much like your orchids would.
Bananas are well suited to a variety of soil types but tend to perform their best when they are grown in rich and well-drained soil. Too much moisture trapped around the base of the plant will quickly lead to rot and the loss of the pseudostems. Banana plants do prefer acidic soil that has a pH between 5.5 and 6.5, so check your soil’s pH before planting.
In the summer months you will need to ensure that you provide sufficient moisture for the roots of the plant, but again, be sure not to overwater during the cooler months. Periodic deep watering will help to get the plant the water it needs, while a good layer of mulch will help to retain some of the moisture in the soil.
Bananas are known for their rapid growth, which can also leave the plant starving for nutrients. A well-balanced fertilizer or fresh compost from your compost barrel will help to nourish the plant as it grows and produces fruit. Keep in mind that container plants will not require as much fertilizing as their outdoor counterparts because there is no competition for the nutrients from weeds or other surrounding plants; also, the fertilizer is less likely to run off during watering or rain storms.
Your banana plant could grow as much as 6 feet in a month, which is an astounding rate of growth for any gardener to see. Only allow one primary pseudostem to grow at one time, as this will help the plant to focus all of its energy onto producing fruit on that one stem versus expending energy into growing multiple stems and multiple fruit stalks.
A healthy banana plant will form stalks towards the end of the summer months. The stalks will spend the better part of the winter growing and getting nice and plump. In ideal situations, your bananas will ripen on the plant in March and April. If you pick the fruit when it is still green, you can hasten the ripening process by covering the bananas with a clear plastic bag. Ethylene isn’t just used to artificially ripen commercially grown bananas; it is actually produced by the fruit once picked, which can help to speed up ripening in your greenhouse.
The great news is that bananas do not have many natural predators when they are grown outside of the tropics. By far the largest concern that you will have with your banana plants is too much moisture causing root rot.
Not only are bananas a tasty and nutritious addition to your daily diet, but the leaves of the plant can be incredibly useful to use as kindling for fires when dried out. Fresh, the leaves can be wrapped around meats and vegetables to impart a sweet flavor to the food when cooked over a fire.
Once you experience the delight of eating a banana fresh from your very own plant, you are sure to want to add more bananas to your personal orchard.