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Musa basjoo

Angus White takes a detailed and sometimes amusing look at the hardy banana.
Angus White, Architectural Plants, Cook's Farm, Nuthurst, Sussex
Chamaerops No. 4, published online 23-11-2002

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Musa basjoo - the hardy banana.

A preposterous idea growing bananas outside in Britain? Bananas grow in the tropics - we're nearer the North Pole than the Equator. Ridiculous.

Well, yes, I must admit that of all the 'hardy' but exotic looking plants that one CAN grow at this latitude, the hardy banana stretches even my credibility more than any of the others. I agree, it is ridiculous. Every time I glance out of our office window at that great pile of paddle-shaped leaves, something seems to tell me, "no, it can't be true, they can't be bananas, not BANANAS, it's probably just some ghastly misunderstanding. Bananas grow in Columbia, Java, Fatu Hiva. Places like that. Not Sussex. Not English gardens".

Then the frost descends into this dreadful frost-pocket of ours in November and this wonderful (by now) mountain of monster leaves looks like a pile of boiled spinach. Then January comes, and February with severe ice and snow (last February we recorded -17 c) and by now there's nothing left, just bare earth and it's so cold that if you were on a skiing holiday you'd probably decide to stay indoors and play 'racing demon', and yes it was all a ghastly misunderstanding, and they'll never come back because they're totally dead, and you've been telling everyone that you can grow them outside and now you're really going to have egg on your face aren't you. You twit, you fool, you poltroon!

And then you forget about it. Best thing really - silly idea anyway. Hope nobody mentions it.

Then April comes and things start moving. Very busy in the nursery business, masses to do. Hardy bananas? Oh yes well of course they're not hardy everywhere - you don't happen to live well west of Penzance do you? They're quite good in conservatories actually.

And then someone says, "What are those great fleshy green things sticking out of the ground behind your office?" And you go off to have a look at some horrid new weed where your beloved bananas used to live.

YIKES!! They're back! Outrageous! They've done it again! I still can't believe it and yet, every year, without fail, those mad plants come - WHOOOMPH - up again.

The facts:

The plant under discussion is called MUSA BASJOO (formerly M. japonica). It's a native of the Ryukyu archipelago - a string of islands (part of Japan) between southern Japan and northern Taiwan, and has long been cultivated in Japan both as an ornamental and a provider of strong fibre. Botanically speaking it's not a tree, but a giant herb. It was first introduced into this country by Charles Maries in 1881.

We've already acknowledged the frost-tenderness of the above-ground parts of this plant but the Japanese have never stopped minor details like that from getting in the way of them growing what they like, where they like. Clearly Musa basjoo is cultivated as an ornamental even in the colder northern regions and in order to preserve its size, the leaves are cut off following the first bad frost, and the stem (often 25/30cm in diameter at the base and 2.5m tall) is beautifully wrapped in rice straw to protect it during the winter.

The following spring the plant carries on, flowering, fruiting and dying in the normal way as with any other banana. To answer the question that everyone asks: No, they are not edible, they're only 8 or 10cm long, but in conjunction with the flower itself, are an appropriately exotic-looking excrescence. The dead plant is, of course, replaced by one or more suckers from the base. In order to get Musa basjoo to reach flowering size, it must be protected if the winter is very cold, even in very mild areas (even in S.W. Cornwall they were flattened in February '91) and probably every winter in colder areas (i.e. frost pockets in Sussex). The resourceful exoticist will find a way; there's someone down the road in Horsham who (much to my astonishment and nothing to do with us) grows Musa basjoo and protects it every winter by slipping what looks like a grey 25cm plastic drainpipe over it. Very effective and much easier to get hold of than rice straw, though not a pretty sight. So far, here at Cooks Farm, we've never used any winter protection, BUT we do observe certain golden rules about positioning, and soil conditions.

Where & How

Number one priority is to grow it where it's very, very well protected from the wind in the summer. The winter will only matter if it retains its leaves, and that will only happen if the temperature doesn't drop below about -2 c. A combination of such mildness and lack of damaging wind will probably only happen during a mild winter in central London, or deep in a wood on the Atlantic Seaboard.

Next thing is to choose somewhere quite shady, as too much sun will cause the leaves to take on a slightly yellow look, whereas some shade will cause the leaves to be a lush, dark green. They also need to be hidden during the winter when they're rarely a pretty sight - behind something low and evergreen. A position so that you'll only see those wonderful big leaves sticking up from behind something when they're worth looking at - and not when they're not.

Next thing is to make sure they're going to grow at the fastest rate possible - the faster they grow, the bigger and better they'll look. As with all gross feeders (and these are definitely gross feeders) they need to go into very deep and very rich soil, given frequent top dressings of a high-nitrogen feed (we use 'blood, fish & bone') and have all competition from other plants kept to an absolute minimum. Oh, and plenty of water in summer.

Right little fusspots. The wind is the most important they really look a terrible mess when ripped to pieces.

First encounters

The first encounter with a plant you didn't know existed is memorable. Very memorable. June 1985, Ventnor Botanic garden, Isle of Wight. A huge clump of something that looked absurdly like a banana plant, some trunks 4m or more high, some of which had great rude dangly things hanging off them and little fruits that looked like bananas. But this was England. Impossible.

Utterly intrigued by this sight, I soon scoured the botanical reference books to satisfy my curiosity. At the time, my main source of interesting plants was the plants sales area at Wisley. I approached the man in charge and taxed him on the subject of this implausible sounding 'hardy banana'. "Oh yes, there's a clump of them growing up behind the glasshouses". He didn't sound too interested in them, and I thought I'd mis-heard him. "You mean growing IN the glasshouses?", I said. No, I hadn't mis-heard, there they were, a great mass of broken leaves, in a windy, south facing narrow border by a glasshouse miles from anywhere, where no one ever went. Been there for years, he said. Ten miles from Guildford. A great clump of bananas. Been there for years. Outrageous. And nobody cared. Except me.

Later, he kindly let me have a division. This eventually became our stock plant from which we now produce hundreds of babies in a laboratory, by micro-propagation. Bananas for the people.

Other places that well established clumps of Musa basjoo can be seen: Trebah gardens, Mawnan Smith, near Falmouth in Cornwall, and Fox Rosehill Garden, a public garden in Falmouth. Undoubtedly there are masses of others. I've only mentioned the ones I've seen. On trips to northern Italy, I've seen them not infrequently in Venice and quite a long way north of there in the foothills of the Dolomites - also in an area of Tuscany not far from Florence. Both of these areas suffer from frequent severe frosts in winter but it should also be remembered, hot summers, for rapid banana growth. Because these specimens have been observed from a car window, they are highly visible, and as with anything that's highly visible, they are also extremely exposed. Thus they often present a pretty forlorn aspect their enormous leaves smashed to pieces by the wind. So it's interesting to know that they survive (indeed, grow up to 5m very often) in these cold districts but they also serve as a reminder that they're only worth growing if they're extremely well protected from damaging wind.

In winter they look even worse with their dead, frosted brown leaves hanging down by the stems - possibly affording protection to the trunk itself.

Further proof, I hope, that it's worth observing some of the suggestions made earlier for successful Muss basjoo cultivation.

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