Although Florida commercial growers don't produce bananas on a large scale because our climate isn't perfect for the crop, there's no reason you can't enjoy bananas year-round in your yard. Banana plants are vigorous growers and are relatively hardy in our region, although frost and freezing temperatures can kill this herbaceous plant to the ground. (But not all is lost - new growth comes when the weather warms.) Provide protection on those occasional cold nights, and you'll be rewarded with pounds of bananas during warmer months.
Overseas farmers grow 80-million metric tons of bananas each year, making this wonder fruit the world's fourth most valuable food crop. Only rice, wheat and potatoes are more popular. The big yellow Cavendish bananas most often sold in U.S. grocery stores under brand names such as Chiquita and Dole are imported from tropical regions.
The large Cavendish is generally too cold-sensitive for our area, but there are other varieties recommended by experts that will do just fine. Plant four of them about three months apart, or propagate shoots from a mother plant, and you can harvest bananas all year, banana grower Don Chafin says. That's because when bananas bear fruit is based on the plant's age, not the time of year. A banana plant produces fruit about 15 months after planting.
Banana (Musa acuminate and M. balbisiana) is a member of the Musaceae family, along with ginger, heliconia, bird-of-paradise and traveler's palm. But unlike these ornamentals, banana plants are usually grown for their fruit production, not beauty, although there are ornamental varieties of banana (Musa ornata) that don't produce edible fruit.
"They're fun, they're fast, they're healthy, they're nutritious, they're easy to grow," says Chafin, who with his wife, Katie, grows 5 acres of bananas at their aptly named Going Bananas nursery in Homestead, www.going-bananas.com or (305) 247-0397. He recommends several cold-hardy, disease-resistant varieties for the Tampa Bay area, including Goldfinger, FHIA 18 and Pisang Raja. The University of Florida considers these varieties among the most cold-hardy: Dwarf Cavendish, Lady's Finger, Mona Lisa, FHIA-3, 17 and 21.
Bananas like a sunny area, moist but not wet soil, and monthly applications of a potassium-rich fertilizer, such as 6-2-12, Chafin says. He suggests using a 2-pound coffee can for measuring granular fertilizer. The first month, sprinkle just a handful of fertilizer around the plant (but not next to its trunk). The second month, apply one-half can full. Use the full can every month thereafter, he says.
Bananas do best in warm to hot temperatures, ideally between 78 and 86 degrees, according to the University of Florida. Their growth slows when the thermometer drops below 60, and they become stagnant below 50. But the time to worry is during a cold spell of 32 degrees or below. Bring out the blankets and other means of protection to prevent freeze damage.
Throughout the year, banana plants are at various stages of fruit development, determined by when they were planted. A purplish flowering stalk (called an inflorescence) at the center of the stem is the first sign of flowering. "It's like a flag saying the beginning of the show is here," Chafin says.
Inside the protective bracts of the inflorescence are many groups of 10 to 20 small flowers, which develop into fruits. It takes from 80 to 180 days for the fruit to mature, depending primarily on temperature and soil moisture. Cut the bunches when fruits are plump, with smooth edges but not yet yellow. Hang the bunch in a cool, shady spot for a week or more and pick individual fruits as they ripen. Never refrigerate bananas before they're ripe.
Banana plants can produce bunches of up to 300 individual fruits and weigh as much as 25 to 100 pounds, depending on growing conditions. Unless you're feeding a large family, there should be plenty to share with friends and neighbors. Or peel them and freeze the fruits for later use in cooking or to make smoothies or milk shakes. And don't waste those peels. Add them to your compost pile for a super dose of potassium.
Yvonne Swanson is a freelance writer in St. Petersburg and a master gardener for Pinellas County.
Bananas, beware these pests
Although bananas are hardy growers, they are susceptible to several pests and diseases. Buy only plants with healthy green leaves and white roots. Here's a quick guide for diagnosing and treating problems:
- The plant falls over easily or collapses. Its roots may be damaged by nematodes, which are microscopic, wormlike creatures. You can prevent nematodes by frequently applying compost, manure and organic matter to the soil; that creates good fungi, which feast on nematodes. Weevils and borers also cause plants to topple, but their damage is primarily seen in the trunk. Keeping your plant tidy by removing old stems will help.
- Leaves develop pale green spots with brown and yellow haloes. Or spots are reddish-brown. Those are symptoms of sigatoka fungus, which thrives in warm, humid and rainy conditions. Remove and dispose of infected leaves to prevent spread.
- Yellowing leaves eventually die; trunk turns brown or black. These are the symptoms of Panama disease or fusarium wilt, a soil-borne fungus that is always lethal. There is no known treatment.
Experts recommend regularly pruning your banana plant so that it has just three major stalks or stems: the large one that's flowering and fruiting, one that's half grown, and one small sucker or shoot. Your plant will be more resistant to disease, grow faster and produce more abundant fruit.
After harvest, the fruiting stalk will die, so prune it at the base. The other two stalks are next in line to fruit, followed by future suckers that will keep the clump alive and producing.
Sources: University of Florida, Going Bananas, Leu Gardens