More on Musa

We read lots about M. basjoo, but its giant cousin Ensete ventricosum gets limited attention. Richard redresses the balance.
Richard Willmer, Purley, Surrey, UK
Chamaerops No.26 Spring 1997

Chamaerops 11 contained an interesting article about banana plants and in particular the Chinese Banana (Musa cavendishii). This article describes the experience I have had in recent years growing the Abyssinian Banana (Musa ensete (syn. Ensete ventricosum)). These plants can be easily grown from seed and do not require any special equipment to germinate them . They can be kept in home, office or garden (when frost is not a danger). They grow quickly, providing a rapid return on the investment in seeds and time.

In the early 1980s I worked in a building with south facing glass windows which provided the ideal conditions for rapid growth and one plant reached the ceiling (10ft/3m) in about 2 years. People still ask if I have 'that enormous plant' (which was clearly more memorable than any work I did). Some nurseries sell the seeds, although less so now than a few years ago. However, they may be purchased from the more specialist seed firms such as (in the UK anyway) Chiltern Seeds and Thompson & Morgan.

Soak the seeds for 24-48 hours in warm water, and then plant 2 or 3 to a pot one quarter of an inch (1cm) deep in moist compost. Place the pot in a polythene bag to retain the moisture and maintain a temperature of about 75F/22C (the top of the hot water tank in the airing cupboard is a good place if no propagator is available) . After 2 weeks check the pot every two days for signs of germination. Once a seed has germinated it grows very quickly. Remove carefully into another pot taking care not to damage the plant, and place on a sunny window ledge (NB. regular checking of the pot is vital as the new shoots grow quickly) The plants require moist compost, warmth, light and room for the roots to grow. Under these conditions they will grow very quickly. Pot on regularly, particularly in the early months, to give the roots room to grow (they will readily try to break out from the bottom of the pot) . Ensure the compost does not become dry, particularly in warm weather. Like palms, the plants grow by producing new leaves from the centre. Old or damaged leaves may be cut oft to form the 'trunk'.

Indoors, they grow best in a sunny position, but can become large in 12-18 months. Feed during the growing period and reduce watering in winter as with other house plants. Outdoors the plants will survive when there is no risk of frost. A sunny spot sheltered from the wind is best (the leaves can easily be wind damaged). During the summer they can produce a new leaf each week, and the warmer the weather the larger the leaves. Feed regularly in the late spring and summer.

Spring time is a good time of the year to plant the seeds. A plant grown from seed one spring may be placed outside from May to October and then brought inside as an indoor plant for the winter. Placed outside during the next summer it may easily grow to 6'/180cm. The following winter is a problem unless there is space in the house or a conservatory is available. However, the plant will survive low temperatures and could be placed in a cool greenhouse or protected in some way from frost and snow. Old and wind damaged leaves will become untidy in the autumn and can be cut off.

Given that the plants are easy and cheap to grow, if there is nowhere to overwinter them they can be allowed to die off. Growing new plants each spring will give a continuous supply. In the garden in summer (either in pots or the ground) they make unusual specimens with leaves up to 3' long and 12 inches across produced in warm weather. They often have a dark maroon ribbing along the middle. They sit well with cannas (which have similar leaves) and with other 'exotics' such as palms and cordylines. They also look good with summer bedding plants. None of the plants I have grown has flowered or produced side shoots.

In some places it may be possible to keep them outside during the winter. Plants which have hardened off outside seem to survive temperatures down to 39F (+4C) quite readily, although a hard frost will quickly kill them off. I have never managed to keep them through the whole winter, however in mild winters, plants have survived until January in sheltered parts of the garden. As I write this article in December we have already had some sharp frosts, but the plants have stayed alive, in a somewhat tatty condition, in a protected corner by the house. I have also grown some Musa velutina which make attractive pot plants in the summer, but which seem less hardy than M. ensete and need to be brought inside in cold weather. However, the plants do readily produce side shoots which may be potted up.


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