Angus White’s funny and perceptive look at Musa basjoo. Reprinted from the October 1991 issue of Chamaerops, and definitely time for a re-run.
by Angus White, Architectural Plants, Sussex, UK
Chamaerops No.38, Spring Edition 2000
A preposterous idea growing bananas outside in Britain? Bananas grow in the tropics – were nearer the North Pole than the Equator. Ridiculous!
Well, yes, I must admit that of all the hardy but exotic looking plants that one CAN grow at this latitude, the hardy banana stretches even my credibility more than any of the others. I agree, it is ridiculous. Every time I glance out of our office window at that great pile of paddle-shaped leaves, something seems to tell me, no, it cant be true, they cant be bananas, not BANANAS. Its probably just some ghastly misunderstanding. Bananas grow in Colombia, Java, Fatu Hiva. Places like that. Not Sussex. Not English gardens.
Then the frost descends into this dreadful frost-pocket of ours in November and this wonderful (by now) mountain of monster leaves looks like a pile of boiled spinach. Then January comes, and February with severe ice and snow (last February we recorded -17°C) and by now theres nothing left, just bare earth, and its so cold that if you were on a skiing holiday youd probably decide to stay indoors and play racing demon, and yes it was all a ghastly misunderstanding, and theyll never come back because theyre totally dead, and youve been telling everyone that you can grow them outside and now youre really going to have egg on your face arent you? You twit, you fool, you poltroon!
And then you forget about it. Best thing really – silly idea anyway. Hope nobody mentions it.
Then April comes and things start moving. Very busy in the nursery business, masses to do. Hardy bananas? Oh yes well of course theyre not hardy everywhere – you dont happen to live well west of Penzance do you? Theyre quite good in conservatories actually.
And then someone says, What are those great fleshy green things sticking out of the ground behind your office? And you go off to have a look at some horrid new weed where your beloved bananas used to live.
YIKES!! Theyre back! Outrageous! Theyve done it again! I still cant believe it and yet, every year, without fail, those mad plants come – WHOOOMPH – up again.
The plant under discussion is called MUSA BASJOO (formerly M. japonica). Its a native of the Ryukyu archipelago – a string of islands (part of Japan) between southern Japan and northern Taiwan, and has long been cultivated in Japan both as an ornamental and a provider of strong fibre. Botanically speaking its not a tree, but a giant herb. It was first introduced into this country by Charles Maries in 1881.
Weve already acknowledged the frost-tenderness of the above-ground parts of this plant but the Japanese have never stopped minor details like that from getting in the way of them growing what they like, where they like. Clearly Musa basjoo is cultivated as an ornamental even in the colder northern regions, and in order to preserve its size, the leaves are cut off following the first bad frost, and the stem (often 25/30cm in diameter at the base and 2.5m tall) is beautifully wrapped in rice straw to protect it during the winter.
The following spring the plant carries on, flowering, fruiting, and dying in the normal way as with any other banana. To answer the question that everyone asks: No, they are not edible, theyre only 8 or 10cm long, but in conjunction with the flower itself, are an appropriately exotic-looking excrescence. The dead plant is, of course, replaced by one or more suckers from the base. In order to get Musa basjoo to reach flowering size, it must be protected if the winter is very cold, even in very mild areas (even in S.W. Cornwall they were flattened in February 91) and probably every winter in colder areas (ie. frost pockets in Sussex). The resourceful exoticist will find a way; theres someone down the road in Horsham who (much to my astonishment and nothing to do with us) grows Musa basjoo and protects it every winter by slipping what looks like a grey 25cm plastic drainpipe over it. Very effective and much easier to get hold of than rice straw, though not a pretty sight. So far, here at Cooks Farm, weve never used any winter protection, BUT we do observe certain golden rules about positioning, and soil conditions.
Where & How
Number one priority is to grow it where its very, very well protected from the wind in the summer. The winter will only matter if it retains its leaves, and that will only happen if the temperature doesnt drop below about -2°C. A combination of such mildness and lack of damaging wind will probably only happen during a mild winter in central London, or deep in a wood on the Atlantic Seaboard.
Next thing is to choose somewhere quite shady, as too much sun will cause the leaves to take on a slightly yellow look, whereas some shade will cause the leaves to be a lush, dark green. They also need to be hidden during the winter when theyre rarely a pretty sight – behind something low and evergreen. A position so that youll only see those wonderful big leaves sticking up from behind something when theyre worth looking at – and not when theyre not.
Next thing is to make sure theyre going to grow at the fastest rate possible – the faster they grow, the bigger and better theyll look. As with all gross feeders (and these are definitely gross feeders) they need to go into very deep and very rich soil, given frequent top dressings of a high-nitrogen feed (we use blood, fish & bone) and have all competition from other plants kept to an absolute minimum. Oh, and plenty of water in summer.
Right little fuss-pots. The wind is the most important; they really look a terrible mess when ripped to pieces.
The first encounter with a plant you didnt know existed is memorable.Very memorable. June 1985, Ventnor Botanic garden, Isle of Wight. A huge clump of something that looked absurdly like a banana plant, some trunks 4m or more high, some of which had great rude dangly things hanging off them and little fruits that looked like bananas. But this was England. Impossible.
Utterly intrigued by this sight, I soon scoured the botanical reference books to satisfy my curiosity. At the time, my main source of interesting plants was the plants sales area at Wisley. I approached the man in charge and taxed him on the subject of this implausible sounding hardy banana. Oh yes, theres a clump of them growing up behind the glass houses. He didnt sound too interested in them, and I thought Id mis-heard him. You mean growing IN the glasshouses? I said. No, I hadnt mis-heard, there they were, a great mass of broken leaves, in a windy, southfacing narrow border by a glass house miles from anywhere, where no-one ever went. Been there for years, he said. Ten miles from Guildford. A great clump of bananas. Outrageous. And nobody cared. Except me.
Later, he kindly let me have a division. This eventually became our stock plant from which we now produce hundreds of babies in a laboratory, by micro-propogation. Bananas for the people.
Other places where well-established clumps of Musa basjoo can be seen: Trebah gardens, Mawnan Smith, near Falmouth in Cornwall, and Fox Rosehill Garden, a public garden in Falmouth. Undoubtedly there are masses of others. Ive only mentioned the ones Ive seen. On trips to northern Italy, Ive seen them not infrequently in Venice and quite a long way north of there in the foothills of the Dolomites – also in an area of Tuscany not far from Florence. Both of these areas suffer from frequent severe frosts in winter but, it should also be remembered, hot summers, for rapid banana growth. Because these specimens have been observed from a car window, they are highly visible, and as with anything thats highly visible, they are also extremely exposed. Thus they often present a pretty forlorn aspect, their enormous leaves smashed to pieces by the wind. So its interesting to know that they survive (indeed, grow up to 5m very often) in these cold districts, but they also serve as a reminder that theyre only worth growing if theyre extremely well protected from damaging wind. In winter they look even worse with their dead, frosted brown leaves hanging down by the stems – possibly affording protection to the trunk itself.
Further proof, I hope, that its worth observing some of the suggestions made earlier for successful Musa basjoo cultivation.
- WOW!!! Review by Paula
How do you rate this product?
Ok.. so I buy 3 Basjoos in November and overwinter them on my kitchen counter (Im from NY). Planted them outside in the end of May and they were about 14″ tall. Little things.Its September 11th and one is now close to 12 FEET TALL!! All of them have pups!! So out of THREE original plants I now have TWENTY FOUR!!! Yes you read that right. I’m gonna overwinter them outside with mulch etc and next summer I’ll divide the pups and plant them around the pool to recreate that home in Barbados I could never afford….. (Posted on 9/11/2018)
- Majestic Musa! Review by Percussionist
How do you rate this product?
I grew up for most of my life around banana plants and dearly missed having one. I did pick up a few supposedly “hardy” varieties from nurseries but those were hardly hardy! Just about then I decided to look up the web and found Logees. Not expecting much after the previous experience I ordered for the hardy musa. I wish there was a way to share the pictures of the plant I have so it is more telling. Within about 2.5 months, the plant has grown to about 3 foot tall and I am looking to transfer to a bigger pot soon before planting on the soil. Extremely happy with the purchase and since then I have purchased many other plants from Logees, and a special mention goes to the hardy jasmine with fragrant flowers! (Posted on 6/9/2018)
- Great tropical plant for a non-tropical garden Review by Bruce
How do you rate this product?
This banana plant looks exactly like a typical tropical banana. Grows fast, just be sure to water a lot. Spreads by rhizomes. I live in Memphis, TN. We have the occasional cold winter, i.e. below zero with ice and snow. I have never mulched or covered these plants. This winter, and we have had temps in the teens so far and it is currently early Feb., the plants have not even died back to ground level. The leaves have all turned brown, but the stalks are still standing tall, green, and firm. So, I think they are perfect for that tropical lush look without any special maintenance in a more northern zone. We are zone 7b, some sources say that we are zone 8. My experience is that zone 8 plants do not do well here without a lot of special care. I even have to wrap my Chinese windmill palms each winter. Even when the hardy banana has died back to ground level over some of the past winters, they have always come back, larger, and more lush each spring. (Posted on 2/6/2016)
- Worth the price if they flourish!! Review by Andres
How do you rate this product?
After ordering, I was a little impatient as it seemed to take long for them to ship, however I must say….WELL WORTH THE WAIT!! I hope these things flourish and grow to be what I expect. These plants were beyond what I thought I was going to get. The height and leaves left me surprised to say the least. I’ve purchased Banana Trees from other “Big name” companies for roughly the same price, and received stalks, basically that were maybe 7-9″ high. These particular plants were 18″ tall and very healthy!! Can’t wait to see them at their peak! (Posted on 5/6/2015)
- Nice looking, large, and healthy plant Review by Laura
How do you rate this product?
This was my first time ordering from Logee’s, and I was pleasantly surprised with the size and quality of the banana plant. It is at least 4 times the size and much healthier looking than one I had gotten from another retailer for about the same price. I haven’t overwintered it yet, so I can’t speak for that. It was packaged very nicely for shipment. (Posted on 4/15/2015)
Growing bananas in the cold
OKAYAMA, Japan Anyone claiming they can grow tropical fruit in a cold climate, and in a fraction of the time it would normally take, would more than likely get told they were … well, bananas.
But a new breeding method that enables the fruit to grow rapidly in cool temperatures may one day turn Japan into a banana exporter, and potentially see staple crops grown in some of the world’s most inhospitable climates.
Despite being some of the biggest banana-munchers in the world, the Japanese rely on imports for over 99% of its banana consumption. Every year, close to 1 million tons of the fruit are shipped over from the Philippines and other tropical countries.
But now, an agriculture company in western Japan has successfully managed to grow bananas through a technique called the “freeze-thaw awakening method.”
At D&T Farm’s experimental site, bananas grow almost large enough for harvest inside a simple plastic greenhouse.
“It usually takes two years for bananas to grow large enough, but here, they’re ready in four months” said Setsuzo Tanaka, D&T Farm’s officer in charge of technical research.
The method artificially re-creates the Earth’s climate of 20,000 years ago by freezing banana saplings to minus 60 degrees. Once thawed, the saplings are planted.
Back then, plants would wake from a long hibernation as temperatures slowly and gradually rose following the end of the ice age. In the aftermath, maximum daytime temperatures were only 12 to 13 C and during the night, the mercury dropped below zero. Under such cold temperatures, banana plants came out of hibernation and flourished, meaning they could originally grow at very low temperatures.
The path was not a straightforward one, said Tanaka. Over four decades, he suffered one setback after another in his experiments, while at the same time, managing two businesses.
Tanaka said he had invested a total of 500 million yen ($4.3 million) of his own money to fund the research. With the cold-temperature harvesting system now in place, his efforts appear to have come to fruition.
An added bonus is that the method does not involve pesticides or genetic modification.
Japan’s banana imports began in the early 1900s, when the fruit was brought over from Taiwan. They increased after World War II, but the supply of Taiwanese bananas halted in the 1960s.
Crops of the Gros Michel variety imported at the time were wiped out by the Panama disease, a wilt caused by a fungus.
Recently, the Cavendish banana has taken its place. But their yield could fall with a new strain of Panama emerging.
Tanaka’s successful farming method uses a variety based on the Gros Michel, and is sweeter and richer in texture than those widely eaten today.
In 2017, Osaka-based chemical company Air Water is expected to start banana cultivation using Tanaka’s saplings.
The city of Minamikyushu, in southern Japan, will make a similar move through a local cooperative.
OVERSEAS INTEREST Tanaka said U.S. agriculture multinational Dole Food has sounded him out about a potential future joint venture, but the project is also moving forward as a business in its own right. Although D&T Farm was established only a year or so ago, a local bank has offered to provide financing on an unsecured, unguaranteed basis.
Tanaka has also successfully grown and harvested papaya, cacao, mangosteen and cashew nuts using the method.
If banana cultivation spreads, the quick harvest could see the industry grow enormously.
“If bananas were cultivated on 30% of the fallow fields across Japan, that would grow the market to 600 billion yen and create 200,000 jobs,” said a representative of a company offering support to agricultural cooperatives.
Lettuce was not initially grown in Japan, but most of what reaches its salad bowls today is produced domestically, and bananas could be next.
Tanaka’s dream is to develop improved varieties of wheat, soybeans, and corn through freeze-thaw awakening for cultivation in Siberia.
“Siberia has an abundance of water and fertile soil,” he said.
“If these crops could be harvested in such a cold climate, the entire global food shortage could be resolved all at once.”
Choosing a Location for Banana Plants
The best way to succeed is to plan before you plant. Let’s discuss location: Do you know where you want to locate your new plant? Avoid many future problems by considering all aspects of the planting spot, such as:
- Sun and good soil
- Check out the surroundings
- Space wisely
- Leave space for future planting
NOTE: This is part 3 in a series of 11 articles. For a complete background on how to grow banana plants, we recommend starting from the beginning.
Is a pollinator variety present? Cross-pollination by a different variety, of the same type of tree, is key to the success of many fruit trees. In most cases, its absence is why trees don’t bear fruit or produce poorly.
Sun and Good Soil
Your tree would love a sunny place with well-drained, fertile soil. But it will be quite satisfied with six to eight hours of sunlight. Good drainage is required to keep your trees “happy.” If your soil has high clay content, use our Coco-Fiber Potting Medium or add one-third peat to the soil at planting time. We do not recommend planting fruit trees in heavy, pure clay soils.
Even if your yard isn’t the most ideal location, take heart. Fruit trees are very adaptable and respond well to fertilizers, so they can get along well even where the soil is nutritionally poor. Just steer clear of sites with extremely heavy soils or very poor drainage.
If you’d like your tree to become a landscaping asset, choose the planting place with this in mind. Imagine it as a full-grown tree and check everything out: Wires overhead? Sidewalk underneath? Does it obstruct something you want to see? Can you keep an eye on it from the house? Will other trees be in the way, allowing for their additional growth in the meantime?
Even a year or two after planting, your tree will be very difficult to transplant. So take the time to plant it in just the right place.
First-time fruit tree growers often ask about recommended planting distances from patios, sewer lines, water pipes and so on. Ordinarily, patios will not be a problem because the soil beneath them will be dry and compacted. Therefore, the roots will not grow into this area as much. It’s still recommended, however, that you plant at least 8-10’ away from patios, water pipes and sewer pipes. You might not expect sewer and water lines to be affected since they are buried so deeply. But, since sewer and water lines tend to be wet, roots will grow to them and around them if the tree is planted too close. By planting your trees far enough away from these items, you can avoid this problem.
Spacing between trees:
- Dwarf, 8-10’ (sweet cherry: 12-14′)
- Semi-dwarf, 12-15’ (sweet cherry: 15-18′)
- Standard, 18-25’
- Miniature, 6’
- Colonnade, 2’
Space for Future Plantings
Once you’ve found out about fruit growing goodness firsthand, you’ll want to expand your home orchard. It’s important to plan for tree spacing so that the future growth areas will be ready when you are.
One way to help you visualize your exact tree spacing is by staking out the positions of your present and future plantings. But how do you make sure the hole goes where the stake is? One method is to prepare a notched planting board. The planting board is used to show where the original position was after the hole was dug. To use it, simply put the stake in the tree notch as indicated and then put stakes on each end. Then, remove the board and dig the hole. When the hole is big enough to accommodate the roots, replace the board between the two stakes and place the tree in the tree notch. Use the planting board as a guide, keeping the tree erect. The planting board can be used over and over again.
In This Series
- Soil Preparation
Care & Maintenance
- Pest & Disease Control