The banana is the largest herbaceous (non-woody) flowering plant. The Musa genus, part of the
Musaceae Banana) family, has about 70 species. Just two species, Musa acuminata, and its hybrids with Musa
balbisiana, provide nearly all the world's edible bananas. Bananas grown to be eaten raw, called dessert
bananas, are either Musa acuminata cultivars or hybrids.
Eighty percent of bananas grown in the world are cooking bananas, sometimes called plantains, and are
hybrids of M. acuminata and M. balbisiana. These have more starch, less of a banana taste and aroma, and
are grown to be cooked and eaten like potatoes. When harvested green for cooking, they are lower in sugar
than dessert bananas, but some cultivars can become very sweet if allowed to fully ripen.
Behind apples, citrus and grapes, bananas are the fourth largest fruit crop in the world. Because they
are produced year-round without a season, they are a significant food source world-wide during the
off-season for other foods.
Form: An herb composed of a fleshy underground rhizome with roots,
numerous shoots, and at least one shoot called a pseudostem forming a trunk of the fruiting, leafy,
part of the plant.
Lifespan: 15 years or more for the rhizome, 1-3 years for each
pseudostem, depending on cultivar.
Leaf retention: Evergreen in regions without freezes.
Growth rate: Rapid.
Mature Size: 6-25' high, often 12-16' high. In the desert, most bananas
are 4-5' shorter than those grown in the tropics because of lower rainfall and lower humidity.
Roots: A large rhizome, sometimes mistakenly called a corm, forms the
base of the plant. The rhizome produces roots growing from multiple nodes 12-18" deep and 10' horizontally.
It also produces many shoots that become pseudostems.
Stems: The pseudostem, which functions as the trunk of the banana plant,
is a cylinder of tightly bound leaf stalks (petioles) that arise directly from the underground rhizome.
A pseudostem may be composed of four to several dozen leaves depending on the cultivar and growing conditions.
In the second part of the pseudostem's life, the rhizome sends a flowering, true stem upward that
pushes its way through the center of the pseudostem. As it does so, it can weaken the pseudostem, causing it
to droop, especially as fruit on the true stem become larger. Dwarf cultivars are less affected by drooping.
When the main pseudostem of a banana plant dies after fruiting, the next oldest shoot grows to replace
it. With most banana cultivars, many pseudostems will grow at the same time and form a colony covering a
small area. Having a large colony produces better growing environment for the plant, however less energy
is available for fruiting. If fruit is the primary purpose, only one pseudostem should be allowed to grow.
Normal shoots have narrow leaves and are called blade shoots. These develop normal leaves when they reach
about 3' tall. Shoots with wide leaves, known as water shoots, produce weak plants and should be discarded.
Leaves: Smooth, waxy, dark green, sometimes variegated with red, white
or maroon splotches, up to 2' wide by 9' long. The midrib may be green or red. Often the front and back of
the leaf are different colors. New leaves may change color as they age. Leaves emerge tightly curled,
arranged in a spiral pattern around the top of the pseudostem. As the visible, above-ground pseudostem grows
higher, it unfurls about one leaf per week.
Flowers: The true stem in the center of the pseudostem produces
separate clusters of male and female flowers at its tip, with the male flower cluster at the end, and the
female flower clusters further back.
Bloom: For most banana species, the pseudostem must survive more than
one year in order to flower. For this reason, all edible banana plants, in freeze-prone regions, must have
their pseudostem protected during winter to produce flowers the following season. Bananas have no
flowering season and the time to flower varies by cultivar and growing conditions.
Self-fruitful: Most edible cultivars produce fruit without pollination.
Years before fruiting: Most pseudostems produce flowers and fruit
in their second year.
Fruit: Long, thin to thick skinned. The seeds are tiny and sterile in
edible bananas. The fruit develop in groups called "hands". Five to 20 hands form a bunch.
Months for fruit to ripen: Bananas must mature on the stem before
ripening. Plumping and rounding of the fruit indicates maturity at which point the fruit can be harvested.
A color change indicates ripening which can be done on or off the stem. For some cultivars, bananas that
ripen on the plant have a superior taste. Depending on the cultivar, maturity can take anywhere from 6 weeks
to 11 months. Immature fruit does not mature or ripen properly off the plant.
Storage after harvest: Place bananas in a fruit bowl to ripen at room
temperature. Place the bowl in the sun to ripen even faster. Never store bananas in the refrigerator; below
47°F the fruit will decay from the inside and turn black.
Edible Cultivars of Note
Bananas are best categorized by their genome. Musa acuminata varieties are genome AA, meaning they have
two chromosome sets of type A, one from each parent. Musa balbisiana varieties are genome BB. Hybrids will
have at least one chromosome set from both A and B. Some varieties are polyploidal, meaning they have
duplicate chromosome sets resulting in a genome with three or four sets. The cultivars below are identified
by their genome group in parenthesis.
= Easy to Grow in Desert Regions
with Strong Winds
'Blue Java' / 'Ice Cream' (ABB)
Grows 12-20' tall. USDA 9-10. This plant has silver-green leaves and is more wind-hardy
(a strong, wide root system) than most, but may need propping up when fruiting. 'Blue Java' blooms about
15 to 24 months after planting and can be harvested five months after that. The fruit hands should be
covered to protect them from the sun in high temperatures. The fruit are silvery-blue,
ripening to pale yellow, and excellent tasting, with a fragrant, sweet vanilla, ice cream flavor.
If it is not properly ripe, however, the bananas have a very tart taste.
Its drawbacks are that it takes a long time to mature and ripen and does not produce a large quantity of
fruit. The 'Dwarf Namwah' banana has a comparable taste and is more productive.
'Dwarf Namwah' / 'Pisang Awak'
Grows 6-11' tall. USDA 9b-11. Vigorous, drought resistant, wind resistant, and easy to grow. It has
a sweet flavor with vanilla notes similar to 'Ice Cream'. 'Dwarf Namwah' blooms 12-16 months after
planting and can be harvested 3-4 months later.
'Dwarf Orinoco' / 'Burro'
Grows 6-8' tall. USDA 8-10. A very hardy, easy to grow, shade tolerant plant. It has soft,
medium-sized fruit with a tough central core and orange flesh. It is usually harvested when green and
used as a cooking banana. It can be eaten raw when very ripe. When green, it is said to have lime and
apple notes in its flavor and when fully ripe has faint lemon undertones. 'Dwarf Orinoco' blooms 7-8
months after planting and can be harvested 3-4 months later.
is a cold-hardy version (USDA 7-10).
'Dwarf Cavendish' / 'Grande Naine' (AAA)
Grows 6-8' tall. USDA 9-11. This is the standard commercial banana found in supermarkets.
'Dwarf Gros Michel' (AAA)
Grows 5' tall in a large container. USDA 9-10. The original commercial banana, now an heirloom,
was discontinued because of tropical diseases now prevalent in its home territory. It has a better flavor
than the Cavendish banana.
'Dwarf Red' (AAA)
Grows 6-10' tall. USDA 10-11. The fruit turn "sunset" colors when ripening, from dark burgundy
to orange, yellow-green and muted colors in between, and have aromatic, peachy tasting, orange-colored
flesh. This is a strong, vigorous plant with red pseudostems; however, red bananas are less cold hardy
and take longer to mature and ripen. The skin will be almost black before the fruit are ripe.
'Dwarf Green' is a green foliage version.
'Dwarf Brazilian' (AB)
Grows 6-12' tall. USDA 8b-11. Hardy and easy to grow, it produces fruit that is 4-5” long, with a
very sweet, apple-like flavor. 'Dwarf Brazilian' blooms 18-24 months after planting.
Grows 6-8' tall. USDA 8b-11. This plant tolerates poor, dry soil, pH 6.1-7.8 (Slightly acidic to
slightly alkaline), and withstands neglect better than most varieties. It is very wind hardy, with
leaves up to 3' wide. The fruit are medium-sized, with a very sweet flavor. It can be harvested 7-10
months after blooming. This is the best plant for gardeners new to growing bananas. Its biggest
disadvantage is that it “chokes” more than most cultivars.
Grows 6-8' tall. USDA 9-11. A very disease resistant plant with high wind resistance. The time
from planting to harvest is 13-15 months. It reliably produces 55-80 pounds of fruit with a sweet,
tart, apple flavor.
Grows 10-12' tall. USDA 9b-11. A cultivar bred for home gardens to be tolerant of poor, dry soil
and wind, and very disease resistant. This is a green cooking banana that can also be eaten when very ripe.
The ripe flavor is mild and has been compared to a soft 'Ice Cream' banana. The time between flowering and
harvest is about 6 months.
The fruit ripen quickly after harvest, so should they be picked one hand at a time and the rest left
on the stem. Never harvest the entire stem at once. It will produce 30-150 pounds of bananas a year.
Wildlife: Attracts birds, bats, insects and lizards.
Toxic / Danger: No. Watery banana sap can stain clothes.
Origin: Southeastern Asia. Cultivated for at least 7000 years.
Musa acuminata 'Cavendish': Flowering stem with bananas, and
male flower cluster enclosed in bracts, at tip. Seen from below.
Cultivation and Uses
USDA hardiness zones: 7b-10 to 10-15 depending on cultivar.
These temperature limits apply to a well-mulched rhizome, not the pseudostems which are damaged or killed
below 33°F. Bananas stop growing below 53°F and over 100°F, and slow their growth over 80°F.
Chill hours: None.
Heat tolerant: No. Growth stops above 100°F.
Sun: Part shade, especially when temperatures are over 90°F.
Indoor plants, however, do not fruit when they receive insufficient sunlight.
Drought tolerant: No. Most cultivars need consistently moist soil,
especially in high temperatures, but a few, such as Rajapuri, may be able to survive on less water.
Water after becoming established: Use basin irrigation and deep water
daily during hot summer months (especially when temperatures are over 80°F). Basin irrigation results in
deeper roots that are protected from summer heat.
Do not allow the soil to become dry more than 1.5" below the surface. Banana plants need
abundant water in hot months.
In the winter, decrease watering substantially to keep the soil barely moist. Overwatering
in cold weather leads to root rot.
The most common causes of banana plant death are insufficient water in high temperatures and
overwatering in cold temperatures.
Soil: Medium to well draining, warm, moist, medium to high organic
content, pH 5.5-6.5 (acidic to slightly acidic). Use a mix of one-half well composted animal manure and
one-half native soil. Lava sand added to the mix may provide additional nutrients. Banana plants are salt
Fertilize: Bananas are heavy feeders with a strong need for potassium
and nitrogen. Fertilize monthly with well composted manure, but only during the warm growing season and do
not fertilize while the plant is fruiting. Overfertilizing can lead to problems with leaves not unfurling
Mulch: A thick layer of compost will reduce soil moisture loss and
protect from the extremes of heat and cold.
Planting: Plant in a wind-protected area that receives southern sun
and heavy afternoon shade. The root area should be in a sunny location.
If two or more banana plants are present, they should planted 10' apart to avoid root competition for
Plant well after the last frost date. Do not expose new plants to temperatures below 57°F which will
greatly slow their growth. Plant any time during the growing season up to 10 weeks prior to the average
first frost date.
Planting on top of a mound or in a raised garden bed provides better moisture control
and also helps flush salt out of the bed.
Care of Pseudostems: When the fall or winter season gets close to
freezing temperatures, pseudostems grown for fruit that have not yet flowered must be protected. If growing
in a large container, the plant can be moved indoors. Growing in the ground: (1) mulch the root area well
(2) cut off the pseudostem just below the leaves, (3) position a cage made of chicken wire about 2.5' in
diameter around the stem and fill it with straw or shredded leaves, (4) place a plastic pot filled with straw
on top of the stem, and (5) wrap the plant in cloth from top to bottom. Remove the protective insulation
in the spring, after the last freeze date, and after daytime temperatures stay above 50°F.
If a pseudostem is fruiting and the fruit have not matured before winter freezes are predicted, cut the
entire pseudostem off, take it inside, and place it in a bucket of water to finish maturing and ripening.
The root area of the outdoor plant can then be heavily mulched.
If a flowering pseudostem begins to droop, prop it at the top of the fruit to keep it from falling over.
Propping the middle of the pseudostem may cause the pseudostem to fold or break. If it has fallen,
leave it alone and the fruit will usually develop normally. Trying to right a fallen stem may injure it
more and harm fruit development.
“Choking” is a problem experienced by some cultivars. The flowers and fruit start growing in the
pseudostem before the true stem exits the top. Choking is thought to be caused by stress such as cold
weather, temperature fluctuation, or removing shoots close to flowering.
Prune: Cut away yellow and brown leaves as needed. Cut pseudostems
that have borne fruit, and have no green leaves, nearly to the ground. Cut winter-killed pseudostems nearly
to the ground.
If you remove the male flower cluster at the tip of the flowering stem, leave at least 12" of stem beyond
the nearest hand of fruit to avoid drying the fruit.
Propagation: Blade shoots; cutting the rhizome into sections, each of
which has roots and a tiny shoot; seed of ornamental cultivars. Tissue culture is also used because it avoids
the possibility of disease transmission.
Uses: Ornamental, edible fruit.
Dwarf banana cultivars need less water and are affected less by wind and drooping.
In a hot, dry climate, a dwarf cultivar would be the best choice.
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