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More on Musa

David Matzdorf, London, UK
Chamaerops No.48 - published online 24-05-2004

I promised to send progress reports on growing this plant and I have not strictly kept my word. My Musa sikkimensis was planted out in September 2000 as a very small second-year plant, 0.7 m tall. Summer 2002 was a great success, with lush, shiny growth up to 3.6 m. That Summer was unusually calm and there was good balance of sun and rain.

Then in August 2002, something striking happened. There was an un-seasonal gale. I have read on more than one occasion that M. sikkimensis is supposed to be more wind-resistant than M. basjoo. This is true, insofar as the leaves have a thicker, waxier texture and are less prone to become shredded as soon as there is more than a mild breeze.

However, I have discovered that there is a downside to this characteristic. On two occasions, first in August 2002 and then again in June 2003, a sharp gust of wind has completely snapped off an entire pseudo-stem. I have never know this to happen to M. basjoo and I can only theorise that this is precisely because the tendency for M. basjoo's leaves to become shredded reduces the overall resistance of the plant. M. sikkimensis does not do this and the result was major damage and a setback to the entire plant. In August 2002 a side pseudo-stem snapped off at 0.6 m height in a major gale and then, in June 2003, the original main pseudo-stem was reduced from 2.4 m to about 1.0 m in a local, rather freakish, sharp afternoon squall. Last Autumn, in preparation for the possibility of further gales, I have removed approximately half of the leaves before the cold required me to do so.

In Winter 2002/03, I did the usual thing and wrapped the pseudo-stems in 2 - 3 layers of horticultural fleece. As usual, there was no frost damage at all, despite two weeklong freezes and the lowest temperatures (-5°C) since I moved here in June 2000. However, when Spring arrived, one of the five pseudo-stems failed to make growth and proved to have a localised rot at the base. I removed it and watered the plant with Murphy's Traditional Copper Fungicide, which seems to have dealt with the problem.

The main problem for both of my large Bananas this year has been protracted drought. Unlike M. basjoo and M. sikkimensis, my young plant of Musella lasiocarpa (planted out in June 2003) seems to have been relatively unaffected, although it completely stopped growing for about 3 weeks in response to the record-breaking heat wave in August. Despite applying 10 litres of water (with a balanced soluble fertiliser) to each plant once or twice a week, I simply couldn't keep up with the fact that the soil had become desiccated to a very substantial depth. I don't water with a hose for water-conservation reasons. So last year, watering became an exercise in keeping the Bananas alive.

The M. basjoo is in a shadier, more sheltered spot with less competition and fared better, although it made conspicuously less growth than in 2002. The growth of M. sikkimensis was dramatically reduced and most of the leaves emerged with large brown patches as they unfurled. My M. sikkimensis generally has purple new growth, especially in warm conditions, although the new leaves become green after they open. Interestingly, this year, the plant showed no sign of purple throughout the long dry period, which, in London, lasted from mid-February until late October. I have to conclude that this was a response to lack of moisture, though why this should be so I have no idea.

In its first year (2001), the M. sikkimensis threw up four side-shoots. Since then, it has produced one or two more that have died off at less than 80 mm in height. As it lost one to rot last Spring, it now has four pseudo-stems. It appears to me that it will not produce any more until the original shoot flowers. Last Winter, I have wrapped all three Bananas again, after mulching the bases.

The only other plants I protected with horticultural fleece were two Brugmansias (B. suaveolens and B. 'Charles Grimaldi') that I am experimenting with by planting in the ground (I keep small rooted plants indoors as 'cover'). In, 2000/01, I wrapped my Phoenix canariensis and Yucca elephantipes, but they seemed to cope easily, unprotected, with -4°C in 2001/02 and with -5°C. last Winter, so I shan't bother unless we have a truly lethal Winter. The Phoenix is about 10 years old, but has been in the ground for only 3 years and is about 1.5 m tall. The Yucca is a substantial plant, also about 10 years old, with 6 or 7 stems and is about 2.4 m tall. All of my other Palms (except the inevitable Trachycarpus fortunei, which is making slow progress in a shady spot) are far too small to plant out.


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