Going Bananas in Virginia
By Dan Gill, Ethno-Gastronomist

Banana 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.

 

A 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.

If winters 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.

Banana 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 fly-wheels. 

I 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.

 

 

 

 

I 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 much better!

 

There 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.

 

Cavendish 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.

 

(c) Dan Gill  -  Published in Pleasant Living November – December '11
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