Popular symbols of the tropics, lush banana trees are not trees at all, but gigantic herbaceous perennials that grow from corms (or pseudobulbs). Thick, fleshy stalks (pseudostems) emerge from the large corms and can increase in height anywhere from 1 to 30 ft. in a year, depending on the selection and location. Each stalk carries spectacular broad, 5- to 9-ft.-long leaves. Each also produces a single flower cluster, which develops fruit; the stalk dies after fruiting, and new stalks then grow from the corm.
Fruiting bananas are often grouped botanically under Musa acuminata. To produce a crop, these plants generally need 10 to 15 months of frost-free conditions and a long, warm growing season. They fruit best in the Coastal and Tropical South, but old, established plants growing in protected spots in the Lower South occasionally bear fruit. Drooping clusters of orange-yellow flowers appear in spring, followed by bunches of bananas. The fruit usually ripens by late summer or fallbut whenever you see that the bananas at the top of the bunch have begun to turn yellow, cut off the whole bunch and let it ripen at room temperature. If left on the plant, the fruit will split and rot. Banana sap permanently stains fabric, so wear old clothes when harvesting or pruning.
Each plant can produce as many as ten suckers, eventually forming a sizable clump. If you want large, high-quality fruit, let just one or two stalks per clump grow; prune out all others as they emerge. After the stalks have bloomed, allow replacement stalks to begin developing for next year's crop. After cutting the bunches of bananas, remove any stalks that have fruited.
Certain types of bananas are grown strictly as ornamentals (see Ensete ventricosum and Musa), but even fruiting types make bold and striking garden plants. Use them for tropical accents near pools, in sitting areas, at the back of a border, or in large containers. Strong winds tatter the leaves, but some selections have wind-resistant foliage.
Dwarf selections are the best bets for most home gardens. They mature at about 715 ft. high and usually ripen fruit 70 to 100 days after blooming. Recommended selections include the following.
'Dwarf Brazilian'. To 8 ft. tall. Excellent fruit. Wind-resistant foliage.
'Dwarf Cavendish'. The most popular dwarf banana, growing only 5 ft. tall. Sweet fruit. Excellent in containers.
'Dwarf Orinoco'. Grows just 56 ft. high, yet produces fruit clusters weighing up to 40 pounds. Good cold tolerance and wind resistance.
'Goldfinger'. Grows 1214 ft. tall. Cold tolerant and disease resistant. Reliable producer of very tasty fruit.
'Grand Nain'. To 68 ft. tall. The Chiquita banana from Central America. Bears up to 50 pounds of fruit per year. Wind-resistant foliage.
'Ice Cream' ('Blue Java'). Fruit tastes like vanilla custard. Grows 12 ft. tall.
'Mysore'. Sturdy plant, 1416 ft. tall. Produces large bunches of sweet, thin-skinned fruit.
'Rajapuri'. Cold-hardy selection from India that fruits reliably in Lower South. Sweet fruit. Grows 8 ft. tall, with stout trunk and extra-large leaves.
Bananas need moist, fertile, well-drained soil and lots of sun. Feed liberally in spring. They will reliably survive winter outdoors in the Coastal and Tropical South (USDA 9-11); in the Lower South (USDA 8), spread a generous layer of mulch around the plant's base in fall to insulate the corm. Gardeners in the Middle and Upper South (USDA 6-7) can save a banana plant from year to year by cutting off and discarding the top (leafy part) of the plant in fall, then digging up the stalk and corm and storing them for the winter in a cool, dark place such as a basement or garage. No watering is required during the dormant period. Replant after all danger of frost is past.