The fourth largest fruit crop in the world is the bright yellow banana that has become a year-round staple, available in grocery stores throughout the U.S. and elsewhere. Its rise to fame in nontropical countries is nothing short of stellar; good marketing helps, but the truth is that bananas are high in potassium and easily digested, making them healthful for almost everyone, from babies to oldsters.
Selective breeding has produced a very uniform and seedless fruit, and thousands of acres are devoted to their culture, with bananas being shipped quickly and efficiently from those tropical spots to the arctic and all points in between. That ubiquitous presence belies the fact that there are a huge number of selections. There are even sweeter fruited varieties that grow on dwarf plants, only a foot or two in height, and giants that tower 15 feet or more. Fruit size and flavor also vary from the standard supermarket fare. Some are good for eating out of hand, and others more suited to cooking. Many of them can grow and fruit successfully in our home gardens.
Banana plants are herbaceous perennials that grow from an underground rhizome. Each stalk will, given the right conditions, bloom and produce a cluster of fruits. That stalk will die once this cycle is completed; however, other stalks will grow, and individual plants can thrive for several decades. Each flower stalk will produce dozens of flowers that bloom successively from the top of the stalk down. The flowers at the farthest (lowest) point on the central stalk are functionally male and will not produce the succulent, fleshy fruits. Clusters of pendant bananas will usually ripen at about the same rate as the flowers opened from the top to the bottom. Bananas will continue to ripen if left attached to the stalk, so pick the entire bunch while still green, but plump, and when the flowers have withered and dropped.
Knowing that the main stalk that produced the flowers and bananas will die once it has fulfilled that destiny makes harvest interesting. Instead of cutting down just the stalk with bananas attached, it is more efficient to fell the entire plant (remember, there will be other, younger shoots coming on around it). Banana plants are not very fibrous, so a machete or other sharp blade will suffice to chop a wedge-shaped wound in the plant, and the whole thing will topple over. This should happen sort of in slow motion if done carefully. Try and be prepared to catch the bananas so that they don’t become bruised by hitting the ground. Once it’s down, remove the stalk of bananas and hang it somewhere cool and shady. Harvest individual fruits as they turn yellow.
Bananas require consistent soil moisture and above-freezing temperatures to thrive. Sites on south-facing slopes and against walls with maximum sun exposure will provide the heat to ensure good flowering and sweet fruits. Soil with a high organic component and mulch with regular irrigation will not only keep the root system happy but also increase the humidity of the air. Mist or micro-spray systems can increase it even further in inland gardens. Bananas are perfect to plant near a gray-water system that can provide the consistent moisture that they require.
There are dozens of varieties to choose from. Look online for sources and descriptions. Just go bananas!
Virginia Hayes, curator of Ganna Walska Lotusland, will answer your gardening questions. Address them to Gardens, The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., S.B., CA 93101. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.