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
on this article:
Click here to read them or to add your own.
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
Right little fusspots. The wind is the most important
they really look a terrible mess when ripped to pieces.
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
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