If you want a tropical look in your garden almost anywhere, give a cold hardy banana tree plant a try. Banana trees, the genus Musa, a rugged choice that grows well and will over winter in USDA plant hardiness zones up to Zone 4.
The name Musa honors the 1st century B.C. Roman physician honors Antonia Musa.
With plenty of space, ample sunshine and rich, well-drained soil, you can enjoy the beauty of exotic banana trees in your yard during your area’s growing season year-after-year.
In this article we will share valuable information to help you successfully grow banana trees, even in challenging climates. Read on to learn more.
Bananas Are Not Really a Tree!
Let’s begin by dispelling the notion that bananas grow on trees. In fact, some people refer to them as a “Banana palm tree.” However, banana leaf plants are actually very large herbaceous perennial herbs in the order known as Zingiberales. Other members of this order include:
The trunk or main stem of a banana is a pseudostem (false stem). The developing banana stem leaf stalks wrapped one within the other make up the pseudostem.
All growth takes place in the pseudostem. New leaves begin growing in the interior of this stalk and emerge as they begin to mature. The flower stalk also begins growing inside the pseudostem and emerges from the top. Eventually, developing into a bunch of banana fruit.
Is It Hard To Grow Banana Plants?
Surprisingly, these exotic tropical plants have very basic requirements; however, the care you provide must be consistent and ample. Take a little time to learn how to grow bananas successfully, make them happy and keep them happy.
To grow banana successfully you must provide generous amounts of:
- Organic Matter and Mulch
- Potassium and Nitrogen
- Consistent Warmth
- Consistent Moisture
- Consistent Humidity
- Fertile, Dark, Rich Soil
In addition to providing these conditions, you must also understand that a banana tree plant do not like to stand alone.
They grow from a central corm (rhizome). In nature the parent plant dies back after producing fruit and its offspring shoot up from the corm to take its place.
This growth pattern, allows the plants to grow in small groves, the way nature intended. They need the shelter of one another as protection against wind and sun. Allowing them to grow in small groups helps them make the most of available nutrients.
This also helps create the humidity needed in order to thrive. Growing together in small clumps helps to protect banana plants against extremes of heat and cold, periods of drought and excessive exposure. This is essential in keeping them healthy and happy.
Popular Types Of Cold Hardy Banana Trees
When seeking the best banana plant for your area, choose from the more popular and hardier choices. Here are a few to consider:
- Musa velutina: Because this variety blooms early, you have more of a chance of having it develop fruit. A pink fruit grown as an ornamental, as opposed to an edible plant.
- Musella lasiocarpa: A dwarf banana tree variety not actually a banana but a banana relative. The plant produces a very large yellow fruit shaped like an artichoke.
- Musa basjoo: A very large variety that is extremely cold hardy.
These are a few of the most popular types. There are many excellent varieties of hardy banana plants available. Confer with your local nursery, garden club and fellow gardeners to find out which types work best in your area.
Popular “Tropical” Banana Trees
Musa x paradisiaca
- A cross of (Musa acuminata x Musa balbisiana)
- A large, fast-growing, herbaceous perennial, a sterile triploid, suckering hybrid likes a well-drained soil
- Grows in USDA Zones 9-11 for its tasty yellow-skinned fruit
- Commonly known as the edible banana or French plantain
- Produces huge oblong to paddle-shaped leaves up to 8′ feet long
- Yellow flowers with purple-red bracts
- The pseudostem dies after flowering and fruiting
Ensete ventricosum “Maurelli”
- Commonly known as the Ensete Banana, red Abyssinian banana
- Grown for the bright olive green, ornamental foliage with prominent strong leaf midribs
- Huge, banana-like, evergreen perennial
- Generally ventricosum does not produce suckers
- Fast-growing reaching 12-20′ tall
- Huge paddle-shaped leaves (to 10-20’+ long and 2-4’ wide)
- Produces inedible, dry 3″ inch long fruit
One banana plant variety offered over 50 years ago as an indoor banana tree is the “Dwarf Cavendish.” It was described in catalogs as:
“A fascinating topical plant for growing indoors in winter. Makes excellent patio or landscaping plant in summer. Compact grower with attractive, large wide leaves. Bears delicious banana in 12 to 18 months”.
Banana Plant Care – Understand The Growth Process
As mentioned, banana plants grow from a corm or rhizome and produce a pseudostem made up of furled leaves and the start of the banana flower.
As the plant grows and matures, the leaves emerge and the flower blossoms transform into a berry like fruit that start out curling up toward light.
Collectively, all the fruit is called a “bunch”. As the bananas mature they begin growing downward separating into smaller groups called “hands”. Each individual banana within the hand is referred to as a “finger”.
It takes approximately nine months for banana plants to mature, grow leaves, flower and produce fruit. Once completed the parent plant dies back and baby plants (a.k.a. suckers or pups) take its place.
It’s important to understand that in non-tropical settings your banana plants will not produce fruit. Still the large, lush leaves are attractive as are the flowers. If your plant does produce bananas, don’t be surprised if the fruit is of only ornamental (as opposed to edible) value.
Propagation – Care and Growing A Banana Tree Plant
So, how to grow a banana tree?
Just as with other rhizomes, you should divide your banana plants from time-to-time to prevent overcrowding. Separate them annually if you wish. If you are not that industrious, once every three years will do. Division is the best and most efficient means of propagating banana plants.
To divide banana plants, separate the suckers or pups from the rhizome using a very sharp spade and quite a bit of strength. When dividing, make sure the suckers have plenty of roots to get a good start when replanted.
Once you separate the sucker from the parent mother plant, allow the surface of the rhizome section to dry for a day or so. At this point, it will be ready for replanting in any desired location.
You may wish to plant banana pups in pots to keep them indoors as potted plants through winter. Once all danger of frost passes, replant in larger containers or directly into the ground outdoors.
Remember, young plants of all kinds are delicate when first placed outdoors after winter. Take steps to acclimate the young banana trees before putting them out, and protect them from the direct rays of the sun for a couple of weeks after transplanting banana trees.
Steps To Grow Banana Trees Successfully
To avoid temperature extremes, plant new banana trees after all danger of frost passes. Do not expose tender young plants to temperatures lower than 57°F as this can slow down their growth process.
Most types of bananas prefer full sun. Some variegated varieties with their leaves ability to easily scorch do better in partial shade.
Give bananas plenty of room to grow by digging a deep hole to accommodate it. For the best results, prepare the soil well before planting. The soil should be well-drained, deep and organically amended. Slightly acidic soil (5.52 6.5 pH) is preferred.
Banana plants require lots of nourishment. These heavy feeders need ample amounts of organic matter, such as green sand. Pay close attention to potassium levels. Potassium is an extremely important element as bananas are filled with potassium, so this is a very necessary nutrient for the plant.
Remember banana trees are tropical and hail from rain forests. They need a lot of water, and they need plenty of moisture in the air. This is one reason why they do best planted in groups rather than as single specimens. Being close together helps them retain moisture in the leaves. Provide one or 2 inches of water weekly and check frequently to make certain the soil stays evenly moist.
Position your plants in such a way to protect them against strong winds. Their large leaves damage easily with inclement weather. Strong winds (30 mph) will merely shred the leaves; however, exposure to winds over 40 miles an hour will break the pseudostem and knock the plant down.
Being broken and knocked over won’t kill the plant, but it will mean the growth process will need to start all over again and prevent any fruit production for the current year.
Protect plants against temperature extremes as much as possible. Even very hardy, cold tolerant banana plants like consistent temperatures ranging between 75°F and 95°F.
When temperatures drop growth slows down, and very cold temperatures cause plants to die back. To guard against temperature extremes, plant in sheltered locations. Provide more protection by bringing your plants indoors or taking winterization steps when cold weather hits.
Can Banana Plants Grow In Containers?
Banana trees will grow in containers but realize the containers must be very large. Fifteen gallon pots is the minimum size required for optimum growth.
The advantage of growing bananas in containers gives you complete control over the plant’s environment. You can protect it very well against cold and inclement weather.
Growing banana trees in containers does present particular challenges, though. Because these are very hungry and thirsty plants, you may find it difficult to keep up with the feeding and watering requirements.
Younger, smaller plants may do fine with watering every couple of days; however, larger more mature plants need a daily drenching daily. All potted banana plants need very frequent and copious applications of banana tree fertilizer.
Repot and divide container grown banana plants at least once every three years. Use a very high quality of potting mix and make sure to fertilize regularly.
In wintertime, move container banana plants indoors and keep it as a houseplant – provided you have enough room to accommodate it. Remember banana plants can grow to reach 12 to 18 feet high.
In addition to plenty of headroom, provide your indoor banana plant with ample light, warmth and humidity.
It is quite challenging to keep a banana plant as an indoor plant in the wintertime. Many gardeners choose to overwinter plants in a cool dark space, such as a basement. Others take steps to winterize their plants inside.
Care Of Banana Plants In The Wintertime
During winter you can protect banana plants against temperature extremes in many different ways. We’ve already touched upon the concept of keeping a banana plant in a container and moving it indoors or into a warmer location during the colder months.
For some potting, isn’t an option. However, you can dig a plant up in autumn and store it in a cool location where it will be safe from freezing. When you do this, the plant will go into a dormant phase for overwintering.
It is also possible to leave your banana plant in place, cut back the leaves, insulate the pseudostem and mulch heavily. Or simply cut the plant back almost to the ground and mulch very heavily over and around it.
What’s the difference between these two choices? If you can successfully protect the pseudostem throughout the winter, your banana plant will start growing from that point again in the coming year.
If you cut the plant all the way down to the ground, it will need to start from the ground, and not attain as much height. However, with proper care plants can grow to reach 12 to 18 feet high during the growing season!
If you decide that having a very tall banana plant is important to you, you will need to decide how you want to insulate the pseudostem against damage. Depending on the severity of your winter and personal preferences, you can use several different materials to protect the pseudostem and to mulch. You may wish to:
- Insulate the pseudostem with a layer of plastic, insulation material and a second layer of plastic.
- Build a wire mesh cage surrounding the pseudostem and fill it with shredded leaves.
- Insulate the pseudostem with heavy duty bubble-wrap.
All of these are good choices, and you may wish to experiment with all of them if you have several banana plants to protect. No matter which one you choose, you will want to mulch heavily around the base of the plant to keep the soil from freezing.
Keep in mind that even if the insulated pseudostem of your plant dies back, if you have mulched heavily over and around it the rhizome should survive. The main thing is to get good insulation over and around the heart of the plant for the winter.
The very best material to use for mulching is shredded leaves. Whole leaves may tend to hold too much moisture in place. Other materials such as grass, hay and pine straw don’t provide the right balance of aeration and insulation.
Timing Is Important!
No matter what you decide, be sure to do it before the first frost. Prepare your banana tree for winter shortly before the first frost. It should not sit around covered in mulch, insulation, bubble-wrap and/or plastic during warm weather!
Once all danger of frost passes in the springtime, disassemble your winterization steps. You needn’t remove the mulch entirely. Simply spread it around and work it into the soil to help hold moisture in and continue feeding your plant.
Are Banana Plants Subject To Diseases And Pests?
A well cared for banana plant will resist most pests and diseases, but you may occasionally experience problems with insects, such as grasshoppers or spider mites. When this happens, you may need to use a commercially prepared miticide or insecticide for pest control in dealing with them.
Also, keep in mind that in some places banana leaves and stalks are used as livestock fodder. They are edible, nutritious and perhaps tasty to animals such as deer, rabbits or perhaps your own herbivorous pets and/or livestock. You may want to put up fencing to protect plants against being eaten.
In tropical regions, fungus can be an issue for banana plants; however, in areas with very cold wintertime temperatures, this problem is lessened. There is some danger of winter rot if your plant becomes too wet while in a dormant phase.
Avoid fungus damage to dormant plants by waiting until the last minute to insulate them. Use chopped leaves as mulch to prevent excess water buildup. Be sure to remove protective coverings as soon as all danger of frost passes.
Is It Worth All The Effort?
If your idea of perfection is an effortless perennial garden, don’t add banana trees to your landscape. However, you may enjoy young ones as potted specimens and then passing them on to more ambitious gardening friends.
On the other hand, if you consider yourself an avid gardener who enjoys careful care of unusual plants from season to season, banana plants make for a natural addition to the garden. If you already garden with other types of plants that grow from rhizomes, adding care of banana plants is not much of a stretch.
If you like big, beautiful, lush tropical plants with large, impressive greenery, a banana plant makes a very fine choice, indeed. You’ll find a number of hardy banana plants to choose from, to amass a nice collection of varied specimens if you desire.
In the final analysis, the best way to decide if you growing banana plants is to try them. These days, these exotic beauties are affordable and easy to come by. With so many choices in care methods, a little trial and error will surely result in happy and successful in banana tree care!