Meandering through a friend's backyard recently, I was stopped in my tracks by a veritable grove of tropical plants I just couldn't place. Bordering the patio, and adjacent to a lovely, but altogether ordinary in these parts, clump of hydrangeas, was a lush stand of trees, their large, deep green leaves swaying in the breeze.
The plant identification center of my brain whirred to life and flashed quickly on Caribbean islands, the south Pacific and pina coladas. “Are those – some type of canna?” I asked, innocently. “A houseplant, perhaps, relocated outdoors for the summer?” “Bananas!” my host enthusiastically replied. I had more questions.
For starters, I learned that these 5-foot-tall “trees” – they are still growing – are actually herbaceous perennial plants, with trunk-like pseudostems filled with water. (Similar to a cactus – though unlike a cactus – bananas should be watered every day.) The plants can ultimately reach 12 to 18 feet in height and have leaves that will grow several feet or more in length, so they need plenty of space in the garden.
It should come as no surprise that bananas like full sun. They prefer sandy soil, so heavy clay soils must be amended before planting.
But are they cold hardy? It turns out that some varieties of bananas, like the Japanese Musa basjoo, pictured, can withstand below-zero temperatures, with proper mulching to insulate the roots and crown. After the first hard frost in our area, plants should be cut back to around a foot high, and heavily mulched to overwinter.
One strategy that has been used with success is to surround the plant with a 3-foot-high ring of chicken wire or other type of netting, then fill with straw, hay or leaves. Once nighttime temps warm up to around 40 degrees in spring, plants can be uncovered. With adequate prep, and a little luck, new shoots should sprout.
Now, before visions of banana breads dance in your head, it should be mentioned that the cold hardy trees like Musa basjoo rarely flower or fruit in our climate, and if they do, the fruit is inedible. (The giant leaves, however, can be used for steaming fish or veggies.) The primary function of a banana plant in the Midwest is as an ornamental, and at a time when a trip to the backyard is the only one many of us will be taking, a touch of the tropics couldn't be more welcome. Frozen drinks optional. (But recommended.)
• Sarah Marcheschi is a University of Illinois Extension Kane County master gardener. Email the extension office at email@example.com for more information.