CLAY COUNTY – Fall may seem like an odd time to be talking about banana plants but this year has brought out interest in this tropical fruit. A mild winter and good growing conditions have these plants that are normally stunted to be actively blooming and fruiting but what can you actually expect year to year with these plants?
Biology of bananas
Bananas are a tropical plant native to southeast Asia that have been spread throughout the warmer climates of the world by humans. There are only two species of this plant, Musa acuminate and Musa balbisiana, but many cultivars that have been bred for features such as fruit size, quality, or resistance to insect and disease exist. Their intolerance to cold, with some damage occurring at temperatures below 60 degrees Fahrenheit limits their range. Plants form what is known as a mat, where suckers grow into functional trunks and leaves.
Use of bananas
While many cultures, and parts of South Florida, can usually enjoy fresh bananas from their garden we are usually not lucky this far north. Due to the abundance of low fertility, sandy soil and low temperatures in winter, having a plant actually produce edible fruit is rare.
For our purposes, consider Bananas as a mostly ornamental plant, providing an awesome tropical look in the landscape. Their large leaves and fast growth can make a nice screen and there are even really nice varieties that feature variegated or purple to red foliage. Some even produce small, pink bananas when conditions are right. When frost eventually takes it toll on these plants you can cut back the larger stalks but the lower dead areas can help protect the plant through the colder times of winter.
Banana plants require full sun for best growth and you should target the warmest site of the landscape that does not flood. Try to keep them away from trees, buildings, and utilities as they can be toppling hazards in windstorms. Leave enough space for mature size, which depends on the variety. Do not plant bananas now, wait until the spring to start any new stands.
Bananas are not drought-tolerant, needing around 1 to 1.5 inches of water a week for optimal growth. In dry times make up for this deficit through irrigation or hand-watering. However, overwatering can be highly damaging to the plant. Mulch can be helpful in retaining soil moisture as well as keeping competing weeds to a minimum.
Plants also need fertile soil, which may be rare in our area, so fertilization is recommended. Fertilize them 4 to 6 times during the growing season with a 3-1-6 fertilizer. The amount you use depends on the individual plant and for recommendations see our Banana fact sheet online at https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/mg040. However, these recommendations are mainly for full production and this level of management may not be necessary if you are using bananas for ornamental purposes.
In the landscape, banana plants can have a variety of issues arise. Many of these are environmental as plants are easily injured by wind, cold temperatures, drought, or flooding. Also, if you are near the coast, they are not salt-tolerant. There are also a few diseases and insects that can become a problem including fusarium wilt, sigatoka, burrowing nematodes, banana borer, and sugar cane weevils. If you are having issues with your plants and need a diagnosis or recommendations, contact your local UF/IFAS Extension Office.
This year’s harvest
While harvests may be rare in our area, this year may be exception for some lucky gardeners. As the bunch begins to fill, watch the bananas to see when they begin to plump, but before they turn yellow, for the proper picking time. This is usually 7-14 days before they would ripen on the plant and then you can allow them to fully ripen in a shady, cool place for best flavor.
One key item to note is that if you are not seeing fruit or they are not plumping at this point, they may not continue to develop. When temperatures drop below 60 degrees development slows but temperatures under 50 usually stop production completely. If you have experienced these cooler temperatures monitor production but unfortunately you may not get to enjoy the fruit.
Have any horticultural questions? Contact the University of Florida/IFAS Extension Office in Clay County. We are online at http://clay.ifas.ufl.edu and can be reached by phone at (904) 284-6355.