Banana Plant (Musa, Ensete, Musella)
Apeeling Plants for the Garden
By Dennis Carey and Tony Avent
Plant Delights Nursery, Inc.
9241 Sauls Road
Raleigh, NC 27603
Shop for Banana Trees at Plant Delights
"Yes, we have no bananas", is something said by many temperate zone gardeners. Yet it does not have to be so. Some banana trees are hardier than you might think, since gardeners in the United States can grow many cultivars outdoors with just a little protection. There are several banana cultivars that are even cold hardy into and north of USDA Hardiness Zone 7. Regardless of your climate, you can always enjoy banana plants in containers or as tender perennials. If you crave amazing, tropical, bold-textured foliage and exotic flowers in your garden (plus perhaps some edible fruit), you should try growing a banana ... you just might develop a taste for them. We urge our readers to visit the gardens here at Juniper Level during our Open House and Garden Days in order to see our collection ... summer and fall open houses are when the banana trees are at their peak. We hope this article will prompt you to bring a little tropicality into your garden!
Our focus is banana plants that are reliably winter-hardy in Zone 7b (average winter minimum temperature of 5 degrees F). To this end, we trial as many species and cultivars as possible, looking for those that prove to be reliable garden candidates.
History and Background of Banana Trees
Banana "trees" are tropical herbaceous perennials (not real trees) in the family Musaceae, although the game of rearranging plant families continues as we learn more about plant relationships from DNA testing. The family Musaceae is closely related to other well known ornamental tropicals such as Bird-of-Paradise (Strelitziaceae), Canna Lily (Cannaceae), the tropical gingers (Zingiberaceae) and Heliconia (Heliconaceae). Within the family Musaceae, there are 3 genera of banana plants; Ensete, Musa, and Musella.
Banana trees are native to Southeast Asia, China, Madagascar and Africa. Forty million years ago, banana trees were also native to North America as far north as Oregon, so they certainly should be included in your native plant garden. In the wild, banana plants range from low equatorial elevations to high altitudes in the tropics, where we find the cold tolerant species.
Although bananas have been cultivated as a food for 4,000 - 10,000 years in tropical areas, Europeans were not aware of the fruit until they started exploring the world during the Age of Discovery in the 1500s. Edible bananas were not introduced to America until 1876 during the Philadelphia World Exposition. Today, there are several hundred cultivars of edible bananas grown around the world, but since the 1960s, only one cultivar has been used to produce the yellow dessert banana fruits eaten in the U.S. and Europe; Musa acuminata 'Cavendish'. The 'Cavendish' banana is a sterile triploid, which means it produces fruit in the absence of pollination (parthenocarpy) and therefore does not have any seeds. Most edible banana plants belong to Musa acuminata or Musa balbisiana (or are hybrids between the two). These hybrids are given the species name Musa 'paradisiaca'.
In addition to the sweet dessert varieties, there are starchy, unsweet cooking bananas that are used in a manner similar to how Americans use potatoes. These cooking bananas are sometimes known as plantains and are commonly boiled, baked, or fried. Musa and Ensete may be eaten in other ways too. The Chinese eat the immature male flower and many cultures use the rhizomes and the stem as food or animal fodder. Bananas may also be dried and eaten as a chip or ground into flour. Bananas are the fourth largest fruit crop in the world behind apples, citrus, and grapes and are a staple food in some parts of the world.
The era of the 'Cavendish' banana may be coming to an end. Over the last few years, a fungal pathogen called Panama disease (Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. cubense) Tropical Race 4 has evolved that attacks and kills 'Cavendish' plants. It has wiped out 'Cavendish' in almost all of Asia. There is no known preventative or cure and it spreads extremely quickly. If the fungus ever reaches Central America, the monoculture 'Cavendish' farms that supply the U.S. will be decimated. Ironically it was a different race of the same disease that allowed the 'Cavendish' to become so popular in the first place. 'Cavendish' replaced the sweeter and larger 'Gros Michael' banana in the 1950s which was also wiped out by a race of Panama disease. There is currently no replacement for the 'Cavendish' banana that is tolerant of Panama disease and has the all the traits that American consumers demand. The next best choice is a cultivar called 'Goldfinger' which is not as sweet and has a slight tart-apple flavor. However, the best long term solution is not to replace a single monoculture crop with another monoculture crop, but rather to adopt the sustainable practice of growing and eating multiple cultivars of banana.
Banana plants also have non-food uses. Ensete and Musa banana stems and leaves are used for their fibers. The coarse fibers are called "manilla hemp" and are used to make paper and rope. The fine fibers are used to make high quality cloth called banana cloth. Banana leaves are waterproof and are often used to wrap food for storage or cooking. The Fehi group of banana trees, grown in Polynesia, are used to make a red dye (that will turn your urine red if you eat them). Banana plants are used by certain cultures to treat medical disorders such as bronchitis, ulcers, diabetes, hemorrhoids (don't ask me how!), and diarrhea among other things. Central Americans collect the sap of the red banana and take it as an aphrodisiac, although this may be a "phallacy", while the Hindus regard the plant as a symbol of fertility and place the leaves and fruits on the doorstep of newlyweds. In the 1960s it was popular to smoke banana peel for its alleged hallucinogenic affects (what didn't they smoke back then?) but the original newspaper story (The Berkeley Barb, March 1967) that reported this fad was a hoax that fooled the nation.
Bananas are such an important and profitable food crop that the companies that produce them (primarily United Fruit Company, known today as Chiquita and the Standard Fruit Company, known today as Dole) have grown extremely powerful. Their influence on Central American politics has lead to the term "Banana Republic" (coined by the author O. Henry in his 1904 book Cabbages and Kings) which is a pejorative term for a small, unstable, country run by wealthy, corrupt elites who support the exploitation of people and land for cheap banana production by taking bribes and kickbacks from the banana companies. Hmmm... large companies influencing public policy. Good thing that could never happen in the US.
Depending on who you ask, the genus Musa contains 42-60 species while Ensete contains 6-8 species. The genus Musella is monotypic (has only one species). Musella lasiocarpa had been bounced around between Musa and Ensete before getting its own genus in the 1970s. The taxonomy of the family is poorly resolved due to its worldwide cultivation and hybridization by humans over the last 4000+ years. Only 12 species (with a few dozen cultivars) of Musaceae are cold tolerant enough to be used in temperate gardens. Our choices here in the US are limited, but there are some beautiful options to choose from.
Banana genetics are complex and quite interesting (if you are a banana nerd). Plants in genus Musa generally have a diploid chromosome number of 2n=20 or 2n=22 (one species Musa ingens is 2n=14). There are also many triploid (3n) and tetraploid (4n) cultivars of Musa used in commercial production. The genera Ensete and Musella both have a diploid number of 2n=18.
The banana plant (Musa, Musella, and Ensete) looks like a tree but is actually just a large herbaceous perennial. The banana tree "trunk" is more properly called a pseudostem because it does not lignify or undergo secondary growth like woody plants do. The pseudostem is a cylinder of tightly bound leaf petioles that arise directly from an underground stem, or rhizome. The succulent and juicy pseudostem is not very strong, but can support banana "trees" over 25' tall. The pseudostem color may be green, red, or purple/black and can contribute to the ornamental quality of the plant. The pseudostem of Musella is swollen at the base whereas the pseudostems of Musa and Ensete tend to be the same width over their entire length. Each pseudostem will produce a single terminal inflorescence which hangs down beneath the leaf canopy on a long flower stalk in Musa and Ensete , but faces upward on a short flower stalk in Musella.
Banana trees grow from underground storage organs called rhizomes. Musa and Musella, form offsets freely from the rhizome (suckers) but Ensete almost never forms any. The main pseudostem of banana trees is monocarpic (it dies after flowering) after which the next oldest sucker grows to replace it. As a result, banana plants tend to move around in the garden a few feet over the course of several years. With most bananas, many pseudostems will grow at the same time and form a colony covering a small area. Some gardeners may want to remove all but one or two of the pseudostems in order to preserve the tree-like appearance of the banana plant, while other gardeners enjoy a large colony. Since Ensete plants do not sucker, the whole plant dies after it flowers.
The leaves are the main ornamental feature of the banana plant and impart a bold tropical look to the garden. The smooth, waxy leaves are generally quite large, reaching up to 6" wide by 2' long on dwarf plants, and up to 2' wide by 9' long on large ones. The leaves are normally a dark green color, but variegation is quite common. Variegation appears as white, red or purple/maroon splotches or sectors on the leaf blade. The leaf midrib may have a contrasting color, which is usually red contrasting with the green leaf. Often, the color of the reverse side of the leaf contrasts with the front side and on windy days viewers are treated to flashes of color. New leaves may open up as one color but gradually turn another color as they age. The leaves, which emerge tightly curled, are arranged in a spiral pattern around the top of the pseudostem. A single pseudostem may have as few as four leaves at a time or have several dozen. The amount of leaves that a banana will retain at any one time is due both to plant genetics as well as growing conditions. In moist, rich soils, a banana will retain more leaves than in a dry, unfertile soil. The older leaves eventually die and dry up into a brown husk-like form but remain attached to the stem. Some growers prefer to remove the dead leaves in order to maintain a tidy appearance.
Banana flowers are very exotic looking. In temperate gardens some ornamental banana trees may not flower because the season is too short. Each species has a set number of months that the pseudostem must grow in order to flower. Musa velutina, the pink velvet banana, is the only species that can die to the ground in winter and flower and fruit the following season, requiring only 20 weeks to complete its life cycle. Musella lasiocarpa takes several seasons to produce a pseudostem large enough to flower, but when it does, the inflorescence lasts several months. Reportedly, from research at the Savannah Georgia Experiment Station, the cultivar Musa 'Vente Cohol' will produce edible fruit as a dieback perennial, which we are currently testing to confirm. Other banana trees must retain a pseudostem for more than one growing season in order to flower and produce fruit. In Zone 8, at temperatures of 15 degrees F, Musa basjoo pseudostems will remain viable and subsequently flower the following season. All other banana plants must have their pseudostem protected during the winter to fruit the following season.
Technically, the "flowers" are inflorescences (clusters of flowers on a single structure), and a single inflorescence forms on a spike at the top of the plant. Musa and Ensete flower stalks are long and hang down beneath the leaf canopy, but Musella inflorescences are borne on short stalks and face upward. banana trees generally will not flower until there are 9-12 leaves on the pseudostem, so in banana plants, size matters. The individual florets are slim and tubular and are subtended by very large, brightly-colored bracts that may be red, purple, orange, or yellow. The inflorescence starts off as a large purple tapered bud. The bud elongates as it opens up, revealing bracts which surround whorls of florets. Banana plants are monoecious meaning separate male and female flowers are produced on the same inflorescence. The female florets are grouped together in 5 to 15 rows at the basal end of the inflorescence, followed by a region of hermaphrodite or neuter flowers. Finally, there is a zone of male flowers near the tip of the inflorescence. The flowers open sequentially from the basal end to the apical end. The male flowers are shed a few days after they open, leaving the apical tip of the flower stalk bare, except for the growing point. The female flowers grow into bunches of bananas.
The banana fruits are technically a type of berry (a soft multi-seeded fruit developed from a single compound ovary). The young green fruits resemble green fingers and dangle down in clusters from the top of the plant. All of the bananas on a single stalk are called a "bunch". Each cluster of young bananas (which form at a node on the stalk) is called a "hand" and each banana is a "finger". The number of hands on a flower stalk varies by cultivar. As the fruit matures, it changes color from green to the familiar yellow or to less familiar shades of red or white. The fruit may even be striped with multiple colors. The size of the fruit varies by cultivar. The ubiquitous 'Cavendish' is large for a banana but other cultivars are even larger. Bananas range from 2" to 12" in length and from 3/4" to 2" in width. The flesh of the ripe fruit ranges from pure white to various shades of yellow. Wild-type bananas are filled with 1/8" to 5/8" hard black seeds but do not have very much flesh, while the food-type bananas have few or no seeds and are very fleshy. In the wild, ripe bananas will peel themselves to expose the flesh and seeds. Cultivated bananas are usually harvested when they reach full size but are not yet ripe. They are then shipped green and ripened by exposure to ethylene gas when they have reached their destination.
Getting an ornamental banana to produce ripe fruit in a temperate garden is difficult since many cultivars do not naturally produce ripe fruit until after the growing season is over. A few of the edible varieties take one month for the flower to develop and two-four months after that for the fruit to grow to maturity. Before freezing temperatures arrive, cut the entire stalk of bananas and move them to a warm place (like a garage). If they are nearly mature, just hang them up, but if they need to grow to a larger size, place them in a bucket of water until they mature. In temperate areas with a short growing season, the trick to getting fruit is to start with a plant that has a well-developed pseudostem early in the spring. The way to do this is to protect the pseudostem during the previous fall so that it does not freeze. Refer to the section on winter care for details on this process.
How to Grow a Banana in Your Garden
The earliest that you should plant a new banana is well after your average last frost date. Care should be taken not to expose new plants to temperatures below 57°F (14°C) which will greatly slow the growth. banana trees may be safely planted at any time during the growing season up until approximately 10 weeks prior to the average first frost date.
Most banana trees prefer full sun, although a few varieties with variegated leaves will need a bit of shade to prevent leaf scorch. See the individual descriptions below for details.
Banana trees will grow happily in a wide range of garden soils (sand, clay etc.) but will perform best in a deep, well-drained, organically amended soil. Prepare your banana bed as you would for most other ornamental plants ... dig a wide hole and amend it with plenty of organic material. banana trees prefer a slightly acid soil with a pH of 5.5 to 6.5. Due to the amount and size of their foliage, banana trees are very heavy feeders. A good organic blend is recommended, but keep an eye on the potassium levels, which are very important to keep high for banana plants, so keep plenty of greensand handy, especially if you garden in sandy soils. In containers, a well-balanced slow-release fertilizer is perfect.
Banana trees are native to tropical areas of the world and are adapted to steady amounts of rain over a long season. Because the leaves are so large, their evapotranspiration rate is quite high. Consequently, they generally do not do well in areas with a pronounced dry season of 3 months or more without irrigation. Pronounced drought will retard growth and will result in leaves that burn along the edges. For best results, the general rule of thumb is 1-2" of water per week.
Banana trees (even the cold tolerant ones) prefer warm humid temperatures for maximum growth. They grow fastest when the daytime highs are 80°F to 95°F (27°C to 35°C). Growth will slow drastically below 57°F (14°C). The tops of the plants will die back to the ground at the first sign of frost.
Banana trees are unusually sensitive to strong winds, and the large leaves are easily damaged by wind or by hail. The leaves tend to rip or shred along the minor veins from the edge of the leaf inward to the midrib. This greatly detracts from the beauty of the plant and exposes the sensitive fruit to sunburn. Eventually, the damaged leaves will be replaced by new leaves. Although, winds stronger than 30 mph will only damage the leaves, winds above 40 mph may cause the pseudostem to break and topple the plant. This will not kill the plant, but it will ruin any chances for flower or fruit that year. If a storm topples your plant, the best thing to do is to remove the pseudostem below the point of failure. New leaves will emerge from the cut end in just a few days. Staking the plant may help prevent stem topple during storms, but banana trees should be protected from high winds by planting them in a site protected by a wind break such as a building or a hedge.
How to Grow Banana Plants in Containers
When growing a banana in a container it is best to remember that most banana plants get big quickly, and will require a 15 gallon container or larger. Watering is dependent on the size of the plant and the size of the container. Young plants in large containers may need to be watered every 2-4 days, but when potbound, a daily drenching will be necessary.
Banana growers should re-pot their banana plants every 3 years and replace the old soil with a high quality potting mix. During the winter, gardeners can move the container inside as a house plant. Bananas will grow fairly slowly indoors so care should be taken to provide plenty of light and humidity, and not to over water. Avoid exposing the container to temperature extremes. Gardeners may also elect to let their plants go dormant by slowly withholding water as the weather cools. Remove the main stem and place the container in a cool dark place such as a garage or crawl-space for the winter. Provide only enough water to prevent the soil from separating from the sides of the pot. A dormant banana in a container can withstand temperatures into the mid-30s F (3 °C) using this method.
How to care for a Banana Plant in the Winter
The main purpose for winter care of banana plants is to protect the pseudostem, which allows for large plants that may flower and fruit, along with increasing survivability of marginal plants. There are two techniques for protecting the pseudostem of your banana. First, you can dig and pot the plant in the fall and keep it growing indoors in a warm location. If space is a problem, consider digging the plant in fall and store it dormant in a cool location that can be kept above freezing. If this still sounds like too much hassle, consider mulching the plant in the ground. We prefer the latter, since it has proven the most successful for us and requires less indoor space. Our procedure for overwintering banana trees in the ground is as follows:
1. Once freezing temperatures have caused the leaves to turn brown and collapse, cut off the top of the plant, leaving 3-4' of pseudostem remaining. It is okay to leave the brown leaves on the plant since they will provide additional insulation.
2. Construct a cage around the trunk using rebar and concrete reinforcing wire (this is a sturdier material than chicken wire). Drive the rebar into the ground 2' from the outermost pseudostem to create supports for the wire. Two or three should be sufficient. Use the concrete reinforcing wire to wrap the stakes, forming a cage. Secure the wire to the stakes with zip ties or string.
3. Fill the cage with shredded leaves. It is important to shred the leaves since whole leaves can hold water, clump together and cause the plant to rot. We rake the leaves onto a lawn area and use a mulching mower to bag them for use. Most municipalities which collect leaves run them though a large shredder, and the result is usually perfect for this purpose. Do not use pine straw, hay, or grass clippings since they do provide the proper amount of insulation and aeration. Without this protection, the plant would die to the ground and need to begin from the soil line in spring.
4. When new banana leaves start to emerge in spring, remove the cage and spread the shredded leaf mixture around the base of the plant where it will continue to decompose and provide rich compost for your banana plant.
If the mulching we outlined isn't feasible for you, then dig the entire plant from the ground after it has gone dormant, remove the soil from the roots and wrap the plant first in newspaper and then in plastic bags. This plant can be stored in a room at 45 °F (7 °C) and ignored until spring.
Pests and Diseases of Banana Plants in the Garden
Ornamental banana trees are generally pest and disease free in temperate gardens, but sometimes grasshoppers, spider mites or boring insects can attack your plant and are best treated with general purpose insecticides or miticides. banana trees grown in areas with a pronounced winter are generally not troubled by the fungal diseases that are rampant in tropical regions. Ornamental banana plants may suffer from winter rot if kept too wet during their dormant period.
How to Propagate a Banana Plant
Musa and Musella are easy to propagate from divisions. Collect the suckers that form, taking care to include some roots, then allow the cut surface to dry for a day before re-potting. Leave one or two suckers in the ground to replace your plant in case it dies for some reason. Unfortunately, Ensete almost never produces offsets unless the rhizome is injured.
If you are lucky enough to get ripe fruit, then you can collect the seed, clean off the pulp, soak them in warm water over night and sow them immediately. Seed will germinate in 2 weeks to 6 months depending on cultivar. Keep the seedling out of full sun until the first true leaf has emerged.
Banana plants are also easily propagated using tissue-culture, which is the process of cloning massive numbers of plants in laboratory conditions. Most commercially produced ornamental banana trees are propagated via tissue-culture (using shoot tips as the source material).
List of Cold Hardy Banana Species and Cultivars for the Garden
Here at Plant Delights Nursery and Juniper Level Botanic Garden we continue to grow and trial a wide variety of cold-tolerant (in USDA zone 7 or 8 at least) species and cultivars of banana. The information below is a result of our trials.
Ensete is a genus of very ornamental non-offsetting bananas, most of which are only reliably hardy from Zone 8 south. Ensetes grow best in full sun.
Ensete glaucum (Snow Banana or Elephant Hip Banana)
The snow banana hails from up to 8800' elevation in the Himalayas. The 10' tall, thick bluish trunks support the giant bluish green leaves. Although Ensete glaucum does produce bananas, we are uncertain of their edibility. What we do know is that the blue cast of the plant makes this a stunning ornamental banana for the garden. (Hardiness Zone Zone 8b-10)
Ensete maurelii (Abyssinian Banana)
We have long been amazed at this superb ornamental banana from the high mountains of East Africa. Growing to only 10' tall in temperate climates (20' tall in tropical areas), Ensete maurelii makes a superb ornamental for the summer border. Each leaf can reach gigantic proportions of 10' long. The most ornamental characteristic is that the foliage is flushed with burgundy-red, especially concentrated as the new growth emerges. The higher the light levels, the stronger the coloration. We have also seen this used in large summer containers to great effect. In Zone 7b, Ensete maurelii overwinters well for us if we cover the pseudostem with a 2' pile of shredded leaves after the first frost. (Hardiness Zone 8-10)
Ensete perrieri (Perrier's Banana)
Ensete perrieri is a little known species of Ensete from Madagascar with a robust, beautifully bluish-waxy pseudostem that is distinctly swollen at the base. The straight, ascending leaves with yellowish midribs are held on very short stalks and form a shuttlecock-like crown. The large maroon flower is held on a short spike at the top of the plant above the foliage. Ensete perrieri will make a magnificent ornamental for tropical as well as many temperate regions. (Hardiness unknown)
Ensete superbum (Cliff Banana)
Ensete superbum may reach 12 ft in height with 12' long massive leaves. The short pseudostem has a swollen base of up to 8 ft in circumference at the base. The leaves are bright green in color on both sides with a deeply grooved and short petiole. The fruits are about 3 inches long and more or less triangular with dark brown seeds. The upper parts of the plant die out during a dry season which may give this plant more drought tolerance than other bananas. The native range runs from India into Thailand, where it grows in soil pockets on the steep sides of limestone cliffs, hence the common name. (Hardiness Zone 8b-10)
We are not going to attempt to cover the massive number of Musa species or cultivars, but will only a focus on a few that we have found to make great garden specimens in a temperate garden. Most Musa species prefer full to part sun, but full sun and very dry soils aren't a good combination.
Musa basjoo (Japanese Fiber Banana)
Recent research has shown that Musa basjoo, the world's hardiest banana species, is actually from Sichuan, China and not Japan. This 16' -- 20' tall running species makes a thick, green stem that sports 6' long, narrow, green leaves arching from the top of the trunk. The flower emerges from near the top of the stem like a yellow-orange torpedo. After the flowers open, you will be blessed with clusters of small, yellow, 2" long bananas. Forget eating this one ... just enjoy the tropical look and tease your neighbors. We recommend a good mulch in colder regions until the clump becomes well-established. There are hardiness reports that Musa basjoo is hardy as far north as Zone 4, but we have been unable to substantiate this with reliable temperature data. If a plant in Zone 4 is heavily mulched and the temperature only drops to -10F instead of -30 (which is a true Zone 4), then it probably will survive, but we think these exaggerations are a great disservice to gardeners. We welcome actual temperature data from Musa basjoo's survival without protection. (Hardiness Zone 7-10, probably colder)
Musa ornata Purple Flower Form (Bronze Banana)
This dwarf, fast-multiplying Indian species is prized as a container plant because of its compact, 5-8' tall size, and like Musa velutina, the clump is adorned in late summer and early fall with upright flower spikes of lilac-purple flower buds that peel open in layers, revealing the golden yellow flowers. Forget eating this seed-filled banana unless your spouse kicks you out of the house without dinner. We are just now trialing this outdoors ... reports indicate that it is reliable in Zone 8 and possibly further north. (Hardiness Zone 8-10, guessing)
Musa sikkimensis (Darjeeling Banana Tree, Indian Banana Plant, Sikkim Banana Tree), (syn: Musa hookeri)
Musa sikkimensis hails from high montane forests of the northeast Himalayas. Reportedly, the trunks can reach 14' in height (ours tops out at 10' tall) with a diameter of 18" or, in other words, about the size of an NFL offensive lineman. The leaf backs emerge a dazzling cinnamon-red. To say these bananas are edible is about like saying that Himalayan bathrooms are comfortable ... both have an aroma, but that's about it. (Hardiness Zone 7b - 10)
Musa sikkimensis 'Red Flash' (Red Flash Sikkim Banana)
This seed strain of Musa sikkimensis has a maroon mid-rib, maroon sectors on the top of the leaf and a totally maroon reverse side. The leaves are contrasted by the yellow flower. We have not found this to be a reliable leaf pattern from seed, so if you purchase a plant sight unseen, be sure the vendor is reputable. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10)
Musa textilis (Abacá Banana)
Musa textilis (often mispelled Musa textilus) is commercially grown in the Philippines for its tough fibers, called manilla hemp, that are used in ropes. It grows to 20' tall in tropics, but our plants have topped out between 8 and 10' tall. Musa textilis has typical long narrow green leaves with a striking purple/mauve flower and the pseudostem has a nice glaucous cast. We have grown Musa textilis since 2007, and in that time, it has survived 8 degrees F with no mulch. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10)
Musa thomsonii (Thompson's Edible Banana)
This Himalayan species grows to 15' but our plants have topped out with 12' glaucous grey stems. The new leaves often have a red flush on the reverse side. We have had our plants in the ground since 2007 and in that time they have survived 9 degrees F without mulch. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10)
Musa velutina (Pink Velvet Banana Tree)
There's something mystical about a pink velvet banana that makes you want to start belting out Elvis tunes ... hmmm. Musa velutina was our first introduction to hardy banana trees and is still a favorite in our summer garden. Rarely exceeding 6' tall, Musa velutina produces copious flower stalks near the top of the trunk, starting in late summer. Each stalk is soon home to attractive clusters of small, pink velvet bananas, which peel themselves when ripe. Don't plan on a snack from these seed-filled bananas unless you are exceedingly hungry or exceedingly drunk. Once established, they seem to be quite winter-hardy. Not all strains of Musa velutina are equally winter hardy, so be sure you purchase from a vendor who knows if their strain is the most winter hardy. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10)
Musa yunnanensis (Yunnan Banana Tree)
Musa yunnanensis hails from 8,000' elevation in Yunnan, China and has proven to be an excellent choice for temperate gardens. For us, this giant reaches 16'-20' during the growing season despite being killed to the ground in winter. According to the banana experts, the majority of the plants sold in the US as Musa itinerans are actually this species. Our plants have been in the ground since 2006 and have overwintered at 8 degrees F with no mulch. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10)
Musa 'Ae Ae' (Ae Ae Royal Banana)
At one time, ownership of this banana was restricted to Hawaiian royalty, but today availability has increased slightly. Despite its widespread release, Musa 'Ae Ae' is still one of the most highly sought-after banana trees for ornamental purposes. Musa 'Ae-Ae' will always remain rare, because this variegation pattern cannot be reliably tissue cultured. While Musa 'Ae-Ae' is not the most hardy banana, we have been able to successfully overwinter it using the caged leaf procedure previously described. Of course, winter storage indoors is always a good option. The 15' tall plants are composed of highly variegated green-and-white sectored leaves. When the plants mature, you'll get a crop of edible variegated bananas as well ... how fun! (Hardiness Zone 9-10)
Musa 'Bordelon' (Bordelon Banana)
This ornamental banana was first discovered in the Zone 8b Louisiana town of Bordelonville (near Alexandria). The 10-15' tall stalks are adorned with red-striped leaves that also feature an attractive red leaf back which is especially visible when the new leaves unfurl. Based on trials around the country, Musa 'Bordelon' appears to be the hardiest of the red-striped varieties. If the growing point is protected in winter, Musa 'Bordelon' will flower and fruit, although don't plan to make sweet ice cream from these seeded fruits. (Hardiness Zone 8-10, guessing)
Musa 'Darjeeling Giant' (aka: Musa 'Daj giant' Banana)
We purchased these seeds from India as a naturally occurring giant hardy hybrid banana from India's Darjeeling Hills region, whose mama was the winter hardy Musa sikkimensis, but whose baby-daddy was unknown. We're trying these out for the first time, so we can't confirm the winter hardiness yet. About all we can tell you is that the new growth has a stunning red-purple back, the flowers are dark purple on the outside, and the plants reportedly reach 20' in height. Our plants, installed in 2007 are 12' tall and have survived 7 degrees F without mulch. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10)
Musa 'Helen's Hybrid' (Helen's Hybrid Banana)
This new banana was discovered around 5,000' elevation in the plant rich eastern Himalayan region of Darjeeling, India. Musa 'Helen's Hybrid' is thought to be a cross of Musa sikkimensis and the edible Musa 'Chini-Champa'. The green leaves are occasionally marked with an upper red midrib, but you can consistently count on bright red leaf backs on the new foliage. The fruit is sweet, but seedy ... sort of like the "treats" in a cheap Bangkok hotel. So far our plants have reached 8' tall (on the way to a reported 12' tall) and have survived 9°F (-13°C) in our trials. (Hardiness Zone 8-10).
Musa 'Ice Cream' (Blue Java Banana)
This cultivar is reportedly the best tasting banana available to temperate zone gardeners. The leaves are silver-green in color as is the fruit. The bananas taste like vanilla custard or ice cream. Sounds delicious! (Sun to Part Sun, Zone 8-10, Ht. 180")
Musa 'Little Prince' PP 15,255 (Little Prince Banana)
This Randy Salter introduction occurred as a mutation on the popular Musa 'Novak'. Musa 'Little Prince' makes a stocky, 18" tall bold-texture dwarf with green leaves that are heavily flecked with red (in sun). In colder climates, it can be used as a container plant or bedding plant for the front of the bed ... yes, banana plants and petunias as a bedding scheme. (Hardiness Zone 8b-10)
Musa 'Namwah Dwarf' (Namwah Banana)
This edible variety from Thailand has proven to be amazingly winter hardy, sailing though 8 degrees F without the benefit of mulch. Our two year old plants top out at 8' tall. To get fruit, Musa 'Namwah' will need to be caged during the winter months. (Hardiness Zone 7b-10)
Musa 'Orinoco' (Orinoco Banana Tree)
This amazing banana is one of the most cold hardy of the edible fruiting banana trees, commonly grown for fruit in the US Gulf Coast region. Musa ‘Orinoco’ amazes visitors with its nice fruit clusters in our Zone 7 garden. For us, a height of 10' is common, although Musa ‘Orinoco’ can reach 21' in more hospitable climates. Musa ‘Orinoco’ requires the pseudostem to remain growing for at least 9 months to produce fruit, so we recommend caging the plants in winter to preserve next year's fruiting stalks. (Hardiness Zone 8-10, colder with protection)
Musa 'Siam Ruby' (Siam Ruby Banana Plant)
I first saw this raving beauty when visiting Thailand in 2005. At great expense, (I'm still driving my old vehicle), I procured one to bring home, and over dinner in Thailand, we came up with the name Musa ‘Siam Ruby’. Our research indicated it originated in Papua New Guinea, where banana trees have been cultivated for 10,000 years, as a sport on Musa 'Tapo'. We have never seen it taller than 8', so that's our guess for height. The leaves are a stunning, dark ruby red with tiny green flecks ... the more sun, the more intense the color. This is one banana that loves intense heat and humidity. (Hardiness Zone 9-10, guessing)
Musa 'Truly Tiny' (Truly Tiny Banana Tree)
I fell in love with this 2' tall dwarf while on a trip to Florida ... that is legal in Florida ... isn't it? Shhhh ... I hear my wife coming down the hall. Musa ‘Truly Tiny’ makes a perfectly formed but shrunken plant with leaves that are nicely blotched in red. Musa ‘Truly Tiny’ is great for containers and highly recommended if you are on the South Beach Diet, since if your plant ever produces a banana, it'll be a "truly tiny" one. (Hardiness Zone 9-10 at least)
Musella lasiocarpa (Golden Lotus Banana Tree, Chinese Dwarf Banana Tree)
This magnificent ornamental banana is more of a shrub than the typical taller banana. The stiff, thick, leathery, grey-green, banana-like foliage is borne atop a stalk that can eventually reach 6' in height. Instead of being prized for its fruit, this plant is grown more for its flowers. Each specimen is home to large, bizarrely beautiful, yellow flowers that look like giant golden artichokes. Our plants have sailed through over a decade of winters ... and without any mulch. (Hardiness Zone 7-10)
Cold tolerant banana trees "foster" a tropical look in the temperate garden with their bold leaves, exotic flowers and colorful fruit. Inspire banana-envy in your neighbors by growing this wonderful tropical plant in your garden. If you grow banana trees in a temperate garden, you'll need some patience since they don't really get started growing until the heat of late spring arrives. Once you go banana, you'll never go back.
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