If the idea of growing lush, tropical foliage and sweet fruit appeals to you, then you may have considered growing a banana plant. They appear in garden centers and online plant stores, tempting us to take them home. Some promise to grow back year after year, even in cold climates. It could make you wonder if it’s possible to have homegrown bananas. And if that’s possible, why couldn’t you simply collect seeds from a grocery store banana to start your own plant?
There are threads of both truth and misunderstanding surrounding temperate banana plants. We’ll help clear them up, so you can decide whether growing bananas is right for you.
Before you actually start digging and planting, it’s important to understand the type of plant you’re dealing with. Banana “trees” are actually large herbaceous perennial plants in the same botanical order with ginger. Approximately 70 different banana species come from the genus Musa, and another nine from the genus Ensete. They are native to Africa, Asia, and Australia, and have been cultivated in tropical regions worldwide for millenia. Today it is estimated that there are more than 1,000 different varieties of banana all around the world.
Edible bananas include the sweet fruits that are best known in temperate climates, and starchy plantains, or cooking bananas. More than three fourths of all edible banana varieties are plantains. These are important food staples in some countries, like potatoes or rice in other places.
Most of the bananas that produce edible fruit are cold hardy up to USDA zone 9. In colder regions, they thrive indoors during the cold seasons. In fact, the Dwarf Cavendish banana was developed in English greenhouses in the mid-1800s. But they need six or more hours of sunlight daily and a long, warm growing season to set and ripen their fruit.
On the other hand, Musa basjoo, or Japanese banana, is recognized as the most cold-hardy banana. It can withstand temperatures as low as -10° F., and grows to nearly 15 feet tall. Mature plants may even flower and produce fruit, but the fruit is inedible. In temperate landscapes these plants die back each winter, and then regain their full height by the middle of the growing season.
Banana plants grow best in groups of at least three. For the best results, plant them in a full sun location that is protected from strong wind. Add liberal amounts of organic matter to ensure the soil is well drained and slightly acidic. Keep the soil evenly moist but not wet. If they are container grown, the containers must have drainage holes.
Unfortunately, you can’t save seeds from your breakfast banana and grow a banana plant. Banana seeds are contained inside the flesh — the edible part of the fruit. But because the cavendish subgroup is a hybrid plant, its minuscule seeds are not fertile. So, that’s why our bananas don’t have seeds.
Farmers propagate banana plants through vegetative reproduction rather than seeds. These plants grow from thick, underground stems called rhizomes. The rhizome spreads and grows new buds and shoots near the base of the mature plant. The farmer removes these pups and plants them elsewhere on the farm. In an ideal climate, the pup can grow up and produce fruit in about nine months.
Other bananas do grow from seeds, as well as vegetative reproduction. Start them in a protected garden area or in containers indoors. Soak the seeds in water for a day or two to break the seed dormancy. Sow them a quarter-inch deep in moist soil. Depending on the variety, the seeds may sprout in as little as two weeks or it could take several months.
So growing your own banana plant is indeed possible. If you just want the lush, tropical foliage and maybe some flowers or edible fruit, buying a plant could be a great choice. But if you want to grow edible bananas from seeds, you won’t be able to save them from those that you find in the store. It’s a bit of an adventure in horticulture, but the reward will be worth the effort.
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