Angus White's funny and perceptive look at Musa
basjoo. Reprinted from the October 1991 issue of Chamaerops, and
definitely time for a re-run.
by Angus White, Architectural Plants, Sussex, UK
Chamaerops No.38, Spring Edition 2000
Musa basjoo, the famous Hardy Japanese Banana.
A preposterous idea growing bananas outside in Britain?
Bananas grow in the tropics - were 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 cant be true, they cant
be bananas, not BANANAS. Its probably just some ghastly misunderstanding.
Bananas grow in Colombia, 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 theres nothing left, just bare earth,
and its so cold that if you were on a skiing holiday youd
probably decide to stay indoors and play racing demon,
and yes it was all a ghastly misunderstanding, and theyll
never come back because theyre totally dead, and youve
been telling everyone that you can grow them outside and now youre
really going to have egg on your face arent 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 theyre not hardy everywhere - you dont happen
to live well west of Penzance do you? Theyre quite good in
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!! Theyre back! Outrageous! Theyve
done it again! I still cant 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). Its 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 its not a
tree, but a giant herb. It was first introduced into this country
by Charles Maries in 1881.
Weve 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,
theyre 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 (ie. frost pockets in Sussex). The
resourceful exoticist will find a way; theres 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, weve 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 its
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 doesnt 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 theyre
rarely a pretty sight - behind something low and evergreen. A position
so that youll only see those wonderful big leaves sticking
up from behind something when theyre worth looking at - and
not when theyre not.
Next thing is to make sure theyre going to grow
at the fastest rate possible - the faster they grow, the bigger
and better theyll 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 fuss-pots. The wind is the most important;
they really look a terrible mess when ripped to pieces.
The first encounter with a plant you didnt 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, theres a clump of them growing up behind the glass houses.
He didnt sound too interested in them, and I thought Id
mis-heard him. You mean growing IN the glasshouses?
I said. No, I hadnt mis-heard, there they were, a great mass
of broken leaves, in a windy, southfacing narrow border by a glass
house miles from anywhere, where no-one ever went. Been there for
years, he said. Ten miles from Guildford. A great clump of bananas.
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-propogation. Bananas for the people.
Other places where 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. Ive only mentioned
the ones Ive seen. On trips to northern Italy, Ive 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
thats 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 its 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 theyre only
worth growing if theyre 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 its worth observing
some of the suggestions made earlier for successful Musa basjoo
17-09-21 - 07:06GMT
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