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The Homeowners Column
The bodacious beauty of bananas
State Master Gardener Coordinator
Ready for a plant that screams "I love humidity"? The big and bold leaves of banana plants in your garden make a statement of tropical grandeur. If you are looking for a landscape showstopper, bananas are it. With a basic understanding of the banana plants we can easily grow them in our summer gardens or in containers.
Bananas are native to Southeast Asia where they have been cultivated for thousands of years. This statement tells us bananas are tropical plants and do best at temperatures between 80 and 90 degrees F. Now before banana bread recipes start dancing in your head, realize banana plants need 10 to15 months of frost free tropics to produce edible bananas. If edible bananas are your goal here in Illinois, start planning your new heated greenhouse. Or visit the conservatory at University of Illinois Plant Sciences Lab where they often have fruiting banana plants to entice you.
Banana botany defies all our common concepts about plants and plant parts. Although they can grow 16-20 feet tall, bananas are not trees but giant non-woody perennials and are considered the largest herbaceous perennial, more like cannas than maples. All that growth is held upright with lots and lots of water rather than woody tissue as in maple trees. Therefore next requirement for successful growth is plenty of water everyday. However keep in mind they do hate long term flooding.
Bananas grow from a rhizome or corm depending on the botanical reference used. Several stems can arise from the initial planting. When I was at a banana plantation in Costa Rica the growers talked about maintaining 3 generations of stems with each plant - mother, daughter and granddaughter. The mother plant is in fruit production. The daughter is maturing getting ready to produce and the granddaughter is rapidly growing to take the place of her mother. Three generations are required since the mother stem dies after production. With decorative bananas manage newly arising stems (called peepers) to one or two to produce a stronger mother plant.
What looks like a fleshy banana trunk or stalk is really a pseudostem consisting of tightly packed leaf sheaths. The actual stem is on the inside of all those concentric layers of sheaths. New leaves push through and unfurl from the center as does the flower stalk if you are lucky enough to actually build the aforementioned greenhouse. The oldest leaves are on the outside of the true stem.
Banana leaves can be colorful with maroon blotches or red undersides. During hot wet weather they can produce a new leaf every week. The immense size of the leaves is the real appeal as they can reach 9 feet long and 2 feet wide. We may not see quite those proportions here in Illinois but it's a good gardening challenge.
With those giant leaves some wind protection is helpful to keep them looking pristine. However the leaves are built to tolerate winds. Remember their origin of typhoon prone areas? The leaves will naturally shred rather than tear off. The leaves are equipped with natural "tear strips" as wind speeds rise. The leaves tear along the "tear strips" but the crucial veins stay intact to continue servicing the leaves with food and water.
Eventually our temperatures will drop, but do not fret for your banana plant. As fall arrives your now massive banana can be dug before temperatures get below 50 degrees F and brought indoors and stored in a basement or heated garage. Despite their intimidating size they are fleshy and easy to dig. Well, at least easier than a comparable woody plant. Leaves can be removed including the leaf sheaths of the pseudostem to produce an easier to haul plant. Next summer replant and enjoy the bodacious beauty of bananas.