The story of the banana tree
Many people are familiar with the banana tree (Musa) from exotic trips and holidays, since they grow everywhere in hot regions, from Tenerife to Indonesia and from Thailand to Mexico. Although it’s called a banana tree, what looks like a trunk is actually overlapping widened leaf stems which together create the apparent trunk of this perennial plant. The flowers grow on a thick flower stem, often with a purple bract. The male flowers are at the end of the dangling flower stem, and the female flowers that grow into bananas are higher up. Because the flower hangs down as a result of gravity and the bananas want to grow upwards towards the light, the bananas end up somewhat curved. On plantations where bananas are produced, it takes about 18 months from planting to harvesting. The parent plant then dies, but by then it has formed young shoots that provide the next harvest. As a houseplant, the banana tree rarely bears fruit.
Bananas originate from East Asia, and have spread from there across the rest of the world in countries around the equator. The first cultivation by humans dates from around 8000 years B.C. in the Wahgi Valley in New Guinea. Alexander the Great is said to have brought the plants to the West from India. Banana trees were initially used on plantations to protect coffee, cocoa and pepper plants from the bright sun thanks to their large leaves. Only later were they appreciated for their fruit.
What to look for when buying a banana tree
When buying banana trees look at the pot size, the height of the plant and the number of plants per pot. Because the plant’s leaves are rather fragile, they must be sleeved in order to prevent leaf damage and cold damage.
The plant should be free of diseases and pests: aphids and scale insects are the most common. Also look for the presence of sticky clear honeydew, which is a sign that there are ‘beasties’ living on the plant. The plant can have red spider mite if conditions are too dry.
If the banana tree has been kept too wet, this can cause root rot, disrupting the plant’s growth.
Banana trees cannot cope well with temperatures below 12-15°C, which is something to bear in mind when transporting them during the cold months.
Choice of range
The range of banana trees is limited. The most common varieties are Musa ‘ Dwarf Cavendish’ and Musa ‘Tropicana’. Most banana trees are offered as dwarf banana trees, and their size also makes them suitable for the living room. All plants are characterised by the large, smooth-edged leaves, often with a slightly wavy edge. There are sometimes darker markings on the leaf which further enhance the decorative value. With hardy bananas it’s useful to know that only the rhizome is properly hardy, and the aboveground parts are sensitive to frost.
Wrap carefully for the journey home during the colder months.
Banana trees like a warm and light position. The large leaf area means that the plant evaporates quite a lot of moisture, and therefore needs some extra water. Avoid getting the soil too wet, since this can cause root rot.
To get a banana tree to flower, you need both patience and space where it can keep growing with plenty of light and high temperatures, such as a conservatory. The plant may then flower and produce fruit after 3 to 4 years.
Houseplant food once a month will keep the banana tree strong and beautiful.
The banana tree can be placed in the garden in a sunny, sheltered spot as a container plant from mid-April to mid-October. Allow it to overwinter indoors, and allow it to gradually acclimatise to bright sunlight in the spring to prevent scorching.