Bananas in Virginia
Plants are relatively easy to grow in Virginia and are worth planting just for
the striking foliage and tropical ambiance. Fruiting, however, takes a bit
of effort. Banana plants
require about 15 frost-free months before they bloom and then a couple of
months for the fruit to mature. In Virginia, banana plants need to be kept
indoors over winter under conditions conducive to growth, then planted
outside when the weather warms in late April or early May.
heated greenhouse is perfect, but a sunny room that is not too dry can keep
the plants growing well enough to fruit outdoors during the summer. When we
built our house, we included a solarium specifically designed to keep
plants happy in winter – lots of south-facing glass with brick knee
walls and a slate floor to collect and hold heat. Perimeter drainage allows
us to hose the plants and floor daily to keep the humidity up. This plan
has worked and we have enjoyed fresh, tree-ripened bananas.
are not too severe, banana plants can be cut close to the ground and mulched
heavily or the stem can be cut off several feet high and surrounded by a cage
of rebar and netting filled with shredded leaves. Plants can also be
over-wintered by digging up the roots, removing the leaves, allowing them to
go dormant and storing them where they cannot freeze. Some people put them in
the crawl space under the house or try to keep small plants going inside.
These methods will usually not result in fruit.
plants only fruit once and are succeeded by offshoots, or pups, that spring up around the main stem. In
tropical climes, the first offshoot, known as the follower is allowed to grow in order to replace
the mother plant after fruiting. In temperate climates it is better to remove
early offshoots to encourage fruiting, then allow the pups to grow when the
mother plant flowers. Mature plants are quite large and difficult to handle
or to pot. The easiest way to keep bananas going is to harvest the offshoots
in late fall. Dig up the root ball and separate the pups, along with their
roots, for potting indoors and giving away to friends.
In 1999, a banana started blooming in September
– too late for the fruit to mature before cold weather, so I built a
straw-bale greenhouse around the whole banana grove. The back wall was
lined with 55-gallon drums full of water to function as thermal
installed a hot tub in the front for the same reason. I had a thermal curtain
that I could roll up during the day and roll down at night to keep in the
heat. I had electricity and running water and music and privacy.
brought in the Millennium by streaking barefoot through the snow to the greenhouse,
soaking in the hot tub, listening to some good old-time raunchy blues,
smoking a fine cigar of undeclared origin, sipping a beverage of undeclared
origin and eating a tree-ripened banana. Friends, life just doesn't get
are hundreds of named banana plants available through nurseries and online.
Most are ornamentals grown for their striking foliage, but many can bear
delicious fruit. As with apples and grapes, bananas come in a variety of
sizes, shapes, colors and flavors. Unfortunately, grocery stores only carry
bananas from the Cavendish genetic grouping. Cavendish bananas are prolific and ship well, but are
rather insipid when it comes to flavor, especially when handled for
commercial markets. Stalks of fruit are harvested when the bananas are
green, shipped in refrigerated containers and then artificially ripened
with ethylene gas. Tree ripened Cavendish bananas (such as those pictured
here) taste much better, but you have to be where they grow naturally or
grow your own.
Now there is a more sinister and serious
problem threatening the commercial banana industry as a result of intense
monoculture - disease. Most bananas, including the Cavendish type, are
sterile and are propagated vegetatively by offshoots or tissue culture.
Therefore all of the commercial (Cavendish group) bananas are from the same
genetic stock. Likewise, the commercial banana marketed during the first half
of the 20th Century, a variety called Gros Michel, was genetically uniform and therefore
susceptible to a strain-specific disease. The Gros Michel was decimated by a
fast spreading fungus known as Panama disease and was subsequently replaced by
Cavendish group bananas, which are resistant to the specific strain of fungus
that destroyed plantations of Gros Michel.
bananas, though inferior in size and flavor are also well suited to
commercial production, shipping and marketing. In recent years a virulent
strain of Panama disease has evolved which has wiped out Cavendish group
bananas in most of Asia. When (not if) it reaches the Caribbean and
Central and South American plantations, cheap bananas will quickly disappear
from grocery shelves. Geneticists are trying to develop a resistant
replacement suitable for mass marketing. Most of the best-tasting
varieties, such as Ice Cream, do not ship well and are only suitable for
gardeners or local markets.
Others are brown or red in color or have
distinctive flavors. Breeders are concerned about consumer acceptance. The
most likely candidate to replace Cavendish bananas at this time is the Goldfinger cultivar developed by breeders in
Honduras. The Goldfinger is an outstanding banana with good production and
shipping characteristics and a slight tart-apple flavor. Let us hope that
producers will see the light and market a number of different and distinctive
bananas for genetic diversity and so that consumers can have choices.
Dan Gill - Published in Pleasant Living November
– December '11
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