Julian W. Sauls
Broad, long, graceful leaves and rapid growth-commonly reaching full size in just a few weeks-make banana a favorite plant for providing a tropical look to pool and patio areas. The development of bananas following a frost-free winter is a source of both pride and amazement to those unfamiliar with banana culture.
Banana is a tropical herbaceous plant consisting of an underground corm and a trunk (pseudostem) comprised of concentric layers of leaf sheaths. At 10 to 15 months after the emergence of a new plant, its true stem rapidly grows up through the center and emerges as a terminal inflorescence which bears fruit.
The flowers appear in groups (hands) along the stem and are covered by purplish bracts which roll back and shed as the fruit stem develops. The first hands to appear contain female flowers which will develop into bananas (usually seedless in edible types). The number of hands of female flowers varies from a few to more than 10, after which numerous hands of sterile flowers appear and shed in succession, followed by numerous hands of male flowers which also shed. Generally, a bract rolls up and sheds to expose a new hand of flowers almost daily.
Banana is a tropical plant which grows best under warm conditions. Frost will kill the leaves; temperatures in the high 20s can kill the plant to the ground. In the lower Rio Grande Valley and other protected areas, the plant will regrow from below ground buds. In colder areas where banana is used mostly as an ornamental, new plants are obtained and planted each spring.
The leaves are tattered badly by strong winds, rendering the plant less attractive. Strong winds, in conjunction with saturated soil and the weight of a stem of fruit, can result in significant blow down unless guying or other protection is provided.
Soil and Site Selection
Banana grows in a wide variety of soils, as long as the soil is deep and has good internal and surface drainage. The effect of poorly drained soils can be partly overcome by planting in raised beds, as the plant does not tolerate poor drainage or flooding.
The planting site should be chosen for protection from wind and cold weather, if possible. The warmest location in the home landscape is near the south or southeast side of the house.
There are numerous named varieties and several unnamed types. For purely ornamental use, both unnamed seedy types and named varieties will suffice. Most are tall-growing and have green leaves, but ‘Dwarf Cavendish’ only reaches about 6 feet in height, and there is a mottled or splotchy red-leafed ornamental which can sometimes be located in the nursery trade.
From the standpoint of fruit production, ‘Orinoco’ or ‘Horse’ banana has a coarse-looking fruit about 6 inches long by 2 inches in diameter that is primarily used in cooking. ‘Dwarf Cavendish’ is a short, compact variety that produces fruit typical of those in the supermarket. Because of its size, wind damage is less severe.
‘Lady Finger’ is a standard-size plant which bears thin-skinned fruit about 1 inch in diameter and 4 inches in length. Its flavor is superior to supermarket bananas.
‘Apple’ or ‘Manzana’ is very similar to ‘Lady Finger’ in all respects except that its fruit imparts an aftertaste very much like the taste of a fresh apple.
Plantains are cooking bananas, but they apparently are not available in South Texas. Other varieties which may be found in the nursery trade include ‘Cavendish’, ‘Ice Cream’ and others.
Propagation and Planting
Suckers are used for propagation, being taken when they have a stem diameter of 2 to 6 inches. The leaves are commonly cut off in nursery trade, but decapitation at 2 to 3 feet is satisfactory. The sucker should be dug carefully, using a sharpshooter or spade to cut the underground base of the sucker from the side of its mother rhizome. Large suckers can be decapitated at ground level and halved or quartered (vertically) to increase planting material.
Nurserymen transplant from the field into containers for retail use, so planting these bananas is much the same as planting any container-grown plant. Sucker transplanting should be at the same depth as the sucker was growing originally.
For ornamental purposes, bananas may be planted as close as 2 to 3 feet apart, but those planted for fruit production should be spaced about 8 to 10 feet apart.
Weed and grass competition should be eliminated prior to planting. Mulching is useful to prevent weed regrowth, but turfgrass may need to be controlled by hoeing or with herbicides.
Irrigation should be applied periodically to thoroughly wet the soil. Avoid standing water, as bananas do not tolerate overly wet conditions.
Fertilization requirements under Texas conditions have not been researched. However, it is reasonable to presume that nitrogen will be the only limiting nutrient in most situations. For new plants, one quarter cup of ammonium sulfate (21-0-0), watered in, after the plant commences regrowth should be applied monthly for the first three to four months. The rate can be increased over time to two cups per month when fruiting begins.
Established plantings of several plants together should receive about two cups of ammonium sulfate every couple of months throughout the year.
Cold protection of the top is possible by use of coverings and heat sources, but such is not often practical. However, in colder locations, soil can be banked around the trunk just before a projected cold spell to better protect the underground buds, which will allow the plant to regenerate in the coming spring. Unprotected but well-established bananas across South Texas, with some exceptions, regenerated after both the ’83 and ’89 freezes.
Some people dig the entire plant, rhizome and all, remove the leaves and store the plant, dry, in a heated area over winter. To assure survival, it is easier to dig small suckers, severed very close to the parent rhizome, and pot them for overwintering indoors.
Pruning is normally practiced only to provide suckers for propagation, as most banana plantings are allowed to grow freely in mats of several plants of varying age and size. For fruit production, some pruning would be desirable to limit the number of plants per mat to 5 or 6. Suckers can be quickly dispatched with a sharpshooter or machete when they are only a few inches tall; however, the sucker must be severed from its mother plant underground.
After fruiting, the mother plant which bore should be cut off near ground level, as it can never produce again. The old trunk will quickly decompose if cut into three or four pieces, with each piece then being split lengthwise. Use the remains in a mulch bed or compost heap.
After a major cold period in which there is no doubt that bananas were killed to the ground, cut the plants off at ground level within a couple of weeks of the freeze. Dead bananas are not very attractive and they are much easier to cut off before decomposition starts.
Tattered older leaves can be removed after they break and hang down along the trunk.
Production, Maturity and Use
Most bananas will produce the flower bud within 10 to 15 months of emergence as a new sucker, depending mostly on variety and extent of cool/cold weather. Most production north of the lower Rio Grande Valley occurs in the spring and summer following a particularly mild winter.
The reddish purple bracts of the flower roll back and split to expose a hand of bananas, usually at the rate of one per day. After all hands with viable fruit are exposed, the bracts continue to roll back and split for several weeks, leaving a bare stem between the fruit and the bud. There is no advantage to leaving the bud longer then necessary; it may be broken off a few inches below the last viable hand of fruit.
Well-tended bananas in commerce produce fruit stems approaching 100 pounds, but such yields are rare under Texas conditions. The more delicately flavored, small-fruited varieties may attain stem weights of 35 to 40 pounds. Most Texas producers readily accept production of stems having only two or three hands, although six to eight hands per stem is common for well-tended plants.
Bananas do not always attain best eating quality on the tree. The entire stem (bunch) should be cut off when the individual bananas are plump (full) and rounded. Although green in color, the fruit is mature and will ripen to good eating quality. The stem of fruit should be hung in a cool, shaded place to ripen. Ripening will proceed naturally in a few days (if properly harvested), but can be hastened by enclosing the bunch in a plastic bag with a sliced apple for about a day. Once ripening starts on the oldest hand, the entire bunch will ripen within a couple of days.
Ripe bananas are consumed fresh out-of-hand, in salads, compotes, ice-cream dishes and pudding. Overripe fruit can be pureed in the blender for use in ice cream and baking. Both dessert and cooking bananas may be fried or baked, but the cooking bananas are generally more starchy until nearly spoiled ripe, and their fresh flavor is not so good. Green (mature but not ripe) bananas and plaintains can also be sliced thinly and fried for a starchy treat.
Disease and Insect Pests
Bananas in commerce are subject to a number of serious diseases and pests, but few problems have been documented in South Texas. An unidentified fungal leaf spot has been observed, but no serious damage has resulted. Leaf tattering by wind is the most common problem.
The information given herein is for educational purposes only. Reference to commercial products or trade names is made with the understanding that no discrimination is intended and that no endorsement by the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension is implied.
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