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Growing Bananas: Musa

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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, 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 the 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 purple/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. 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.
'Blue Java': Ice Cream Banana (ABB)
Grows 12-20' tall depending on environment. USDA 9-10. It 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. Fruit hands should be covered to protect them from the sun in high temperatures. The banana fruit is silvery-blue, ripening to pale yellow. Some believe this is the best tasting, cold-hardy banana, with a fragrant, sweet vanilla, ice cream flavor. Its drawbacks are that it takes a long time to mature and ripen and does not produce a large quantity of fruit.
'Dwarf Orinoco' / 'Burro' (ABB)
Grows 6-8' tall. USDA 8-10. Very hardy, easy to grow, shade tolerant. 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. 'California Gold' is a cold-hardy version (USDA 7-10).
'Dwarf Cavendish' / 'Grande Naine' (AAA)
Grows 6-8' tall. USDA 9-11. The standard commercial bananas for supermarkets.
'Dwarf Gros Michel' (AAA)
The original commercial banana, now an heirloom, discontinued because of tropical diseases. Grows 5' tall in a large container. USDA 9-10. Short, wide green leaves. A better flavor than the Cavendish banana. A new Japanese version, named 'Mongee', is cold-hardy and has an edible (but not all that tasty) peel.
'Dwarf Red' (AAA)
Grows 6-8' tall. USDA 10-11. The fruit turns "sunset" colors when ripening from dark burgundy to orange, yellow-green and muted colors in between. It has aromatic, peachy tasting, orange-colored flesh. A strong, vigorous plant with red pseudostems. Red bananas are less cold hardy and take longer to mature and ripen. Can take 18-28 months to produce fruit. The skin will be almost black before it is ripe. 'Dwarf Green' is a green foliage version.
'Dwarf Giant Banana (Enano Gigante)' (AAAA)
Grows 6-10' tall. USDA 10-11. Bananas are 4-5” long with excellent sweet taste. A variation of 'Golden Beauty'. The rhizome is hardy to 30°F. This plant has a strong need for consistent watering.
'Dwarf Brazilian' (Dwarf Hawaiian Apple) (AB)
Grows 6-12' tall. USDA 8b-11. Hardy and easy to grow. Fruit is 4-5” long, very sweet, apple-like flavor.
'Rajapuri' (AAB)
Grows 6-8' tall. USDA 8b-11. Tolerates poor, dry soil [pH 6.1-7.8 (Slightly acidic to slightly alkaline)] and withstands neglect better than most varieties. Very wind hardy. Has leaves up to 3' wide. Produces medium-sized fruit with very sweet flavor. Its biggest disadvantage is that it “chokes” more than most varieties: the flowers and fruit will 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.
'Goldfinger' (AAAB)
Grows 6-8' tall. USDA 9-11. A very disease resistant plant with high wind resistance. Time from planting to harvest is 13-15 months. Reliably produces 55-80 pounds of fruit with a sweet, tart, apple flavor.
'Sweetheart' (AABB)
Grows 10-12' tall. USDA 9b-11. A cultivar bred for home gardens to be tolerant of poor, dry soil and wind. Very disease resistant. This is a green cooking banana that can also be eaten when very ripe. 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. Produces 30-150 pounds of bananas yearly.
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.

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: Full sun. Some cultivars need part afternoon shade where temperatures are over 90°F. Indoor plants 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 and Sweetheart) 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 intolerant.
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 properly.
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 nutrients.
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.
Prune: Cut away yellow and brown leaves as needed. Cut pseudostems that have bourn 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.
Litter: Moderate.
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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Cavendish Banana: Musa acuminata - flowering stem
Musa acuminata 'Cavendish': Flowering stem with bananas, and
male flower cluster enclosed in bracts, at tip. Seen from below.

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