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Growing Bananas in the UK

Growing Bananas in the UK

is it just a pipe dream?

Or is it reality?

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Musa Sikkimensis in their Second Year from Seed

How many of us have dreamed to grow a banana plant at home after visiting an exotic location on holiday? With their giant tropical leaves and superb architectural structure they perfectly represent our vision of a tropical paradise. The good news is that you can grow them at home, either outside as hardy perennials, as summer bedding raised from seed or suckers, as indoor house plants or as superb ornamental conservatory plants. You can now even grow your own edible fruit with the right dwarf variety!

I have been growing them for many years, predominantly with great success. However in my early days it represented much more of a challenge when many of today's choice of variety were unavailable. The key to success is to clearly define what you want out of your plant and where it will be grown. They grow fast with heights of 6ft in their first season easily achievable, so the front room window sill may not be a good permanent choice!

Outdoor Root Hardy Banana - Musa Basjoo

The ultimate challenge is of course to grow them permanently outside in the UK as root hardy banana plants for tropical bedding. For many years now garden magazines and gardening programmes have expounded on the merits of Musa Basjoo, a root hardy Banana from Japan with plain green leaves. Until recently this was the only species available for this purpose as the root stock is capable of withstanding about -5C to -8C without any protection. However given some protection with 6" or more of a good mulch and the original root crown planted some 3" to 4" below soil level, the roots can survive up to about -20C.

 Musa Basjoo

For the entrepreneurial enthusiast, more extreme protection methods using straw bale structures or chimney liner concrete tubes filled with straw is worth a try. These structures are placed around the main stem up to about 6' protecting it from frost during winter. The subsequent re-growth out of the top of the trunk next spring can then reach maturity after two to three years, flowering when 8' to 10' high. The fruit is unlikely to ripen though and even if it does, it is not edible and full of seeds. Basjoo is only available in plant form from nurseries or by mail-order and I have never seen viable seed offered for sale.

In late spring new shoots emerge from the ground and will grow on to make a clump of plants attaining about 5' by the end of the summer. Be aware though that treated this way it will not flower or fruit in the UK.

Outdoor Root Hardy Bananas - Alternatives

A more attractive option has been the arrival of two other (maybe three) root hardy alternatives over the last few years. The first, from the foot hills of the Sikkim region of the Himalayas, is Musa Sikkimensis, presumably found by Hooker during his Sikkim explorations after who it is sometimes named. It is readily grown from seed unlike Basjoo, and is a more robust larger plant capable of reaching 10ft in its second year if over wintered in a frost free greenhouse or conservatory.

Once planted it should be treated in the same way as Basjoo. I have seen reports from the US claiming that it is hardier than Basjoo but the jury is still out on that one. On the real plus side the leaves can be quite ornamental with a strong purple bloom to the underside of new leaves and about 50% of seedlings exhibit variable maroon mottling on the leaves. I am sure that more colourful selected forms of Sikkimensis will become available over the next few years from micro propagation. In general the leaves are larger, stronger and wider than Basjoo with improved resistance from damage by high winds. This is a must for any Musa enthusiast ideal for tropical bedding. Available as plants by mail order or from seed.

Over the last few years other reportedly hardy Bananas have arrived on our shores but none have proved as hardy as Basjoo or Sikkimensis.

We have had some success with Musa itinerans Yunnan, Sikkimensis Daj Giant, Helens Hybrid, and Musa thomsonii but these have only come through with mild winters.

 

Musa Yunnan

In my own trials Musa Yunnan grows well in our cool summer climate but winter hardiness has still to be proved. I have not seen many plants for sale but seed is available from a couple of sources. The last purportedly root hardy banana is not strictly a banana at all but a closely related species called Musella Lasiocarpa. You can see from the picture that it carries a large yellow flower head on top of 3ft stems in its second to third year from seed or micro propagation. A very ornamental plant with Banana like leaves but prone to red spider infection if kept indoors in a dry atmosphere.

Musella Lassiocarpa

What about Banana's just raised for Summer Bedding?

This might seem a daunting prospect but it is in fact very easy, given a warm propagator for seed sowing and a heated greenhouse to bring them on in early spring. Easy from seed Musa Sikkimensis is the best choice for the classic banana structure of leaves on a tall trunk. But for wider leaves any of the Ensete family will grow quickly from seed.

Ensete maurelii

My favourite Banana though for shear visual impact is Musa Ensete Maurelii, this grows just like the ordinary Ensete but with amazing huge blood flushed leaves and trunk. I was amazed seeing these plants in Florida though where they hardly show any colouring with predominantly green leaves. In the UK when planted outside, the combination of high summer light levels and our cool conditions maximises the red hues. The one in the picture taken last year was two years old reaching 8ft in this it's second year! During a summer heat wave (I think we had one last year?) I noticed that the colour faded slightly as the green took over but the red quickly came back again as the summer temperature returned to normal.

2 Year old Musa Ensette Ventricosum from seed shown opposite

2 year old Ensette Maurelii from one of our sale plants shown below

The Ornamental Ensete Species

Another excellent alternative is to consider the Musa Ensete species sometimes listed as just Ensete within the Musacea family and not as a true Musa. These are plants widely grown in Africa as an important food crop (in particular Abyssinia from where it gets its name as the Abyssinian Banana). However it is not grown for the fruit as you might expect, but for the starchy pseudo stem and corm like root. They take about 5 to 7 years to reach maturity in their native habitat, reaching giant proportions 30ft tall with trunks up to 2ft across and massive 15ft leaves up to 3ft wide.

For the UK garden it is easily raised from the large marble sized seeds making attractive bedding plants with their large green leaves and red tinged midrib. It does not produce much of a trunk in height even if kept for about three years over wintered in a greenhouse. The one in the picture was three years old about 12ft tall and too large to bring in under cover for a fourth season. A stunning plant if grown well but very easy to raise, tough, forgiving and responding admirably to a rich compost and buckets of water.

The best one to chose is Ensete Ventricosum but you can also grow Ensete Glaucum (the snow banana) or Ensete superbum these are not so hardy but have an attractive white bloom to the stem and underside of leaves. From my own experience these are not so tolerant of our cool summers, unlike Ventricosum which will keep growing right into the early light frosts of autumn. Plants can be then thrown away or if not too large kept in a frost free greenhouse for larger plants the following year. I always keep both one and two year old plants for summer bedding purposes.

Rajapuri Chimera

Variegated Banana Plants

I ought to mention one other ornamental Banana, really sort after but nigh on impossible to obtain, which is the Hawaiian Ae-Ae a green and white variegated leaf form that has eluded micro propagation specialist to mass produce for at least 10 years. I am told that this Banana is also susceptible to reverting back to all green or pure white as the soil ph varies but we have never seen that happen. We do have small quantities available grown on from suckers but these can be expensive. This fabulous banana is picky about the right conditions but not as difficult as Google searches suggest. The compost needs to have 30% vermiculite mixed in and we add long term fertiliser as well as trace elements to the mix. Heat is the problem and if you do not have 15C to 18C as a minimum winter night time temperature it will easily rot at the roots especially with too much water. Alternatively smaller plants can be kept in slightly cooler temperatures placed on a heat mat set to 28C to 30C. You could also try a short heating cable wrapped around the pot but air temperatures should not drop below 10c to 12c on the coldest nights.

Musa AeAe

We also have a really attractive chimera of Musa Rajapuri with variegated leaves that has an exciting potentia but the plant is only availability through suckers which is very limited like Musa Ae-Ae and it will not come true from micropropagation. We very rarely have any plants of these for sale unfortunately.

Fruiting Banana plants

What about growing bananas for fruit? If you had asked me this question last year I would have said forget it! Apart from Musa Dwarf Cavendishi most edible fruiting bananas top 15ft to 25ft and need high temperatures which is just not practical in the UK unless you own a mini Eden Project greenhouse! Many fruiting varieties with yellow, red or even blue fruit are available from some specialist but what is the point? I visited a Banana specialist in America a few years ago who showed me around 80 varieties of Banana with many flavours of fruit on offer but none of them were practical for the British Isles.

If you insist on trying a fruiting banana, then Dwarf Orinoco or Rajapuri are the hardiest fruiting bananas that also make a attractive summer bedding alternative. The plants thrive in our cool summers and is easy to over winter in a cool greenhouse. Rajapuri is heavier leaved and more like Cavendishi in habit with a white bloom on the trunk and underneath the leaves. This has been used by Parks Departments as bedding for a number of years. Dwarf Orinoco is a bit more slender and both will fruit with the tops of the pseudostem reaching 6ft to 8ft, although it may take quite a few years to achieve the fruiting stage depending on the conditions.

Rajapuri In Flower

Cavendishi Types

We have three alternative verities of the less hardy Cavendishii types all which make excellent house plants with true fruiting potential if you have the space. Anyone visiting Cyprus will have seen the fields of banana plants and these are all Dwarf Cavensdishi that bears a smaller sweet fruit on plants attaining 8ft. Should you have a high ceiling conservatory or similar suitable heated environment it is worth a try. Most small banana plants offered for sale in garden centres are forms of the Cavendishi showing the typical maroon blotch on young leaves. To fruit it needs a large muck bucket sized pot with lots of manure and water and about a three to four years wait depending on the growing temperature. It can be done, I did it years ago but mine was by then crushed against our conservatory roof! The problem with these is that you really need a minimum of 18C night and day during the winter to be successful.

The best news is that new dwarf cultivars are arriving, for those of us with limited heated space. We have two types both are  super dwarf forms derived from a Cavendishi parent and of similar habit. They make excellent house plants rarely exceeding 4 ft and fruiting at that size with medium to large edible bananas on small hands. The Super Dwarf looks just like a stunted Cavendishi with broad leaves exhibiting some maroon blotching on new leaves with a stout stem. The Hi Colour Mini we also supply is a variety bred for improved maroon colouring on the leaves making it an attractive foliage plant coupled with a dwarf fruiting habit.

Cavendishi Super Dwarf

Ornamental Bananas

Once you have become addicted to growing these superb plants the options in the UK for ornamental use are also becoming really exciting.

Musa Velutina easily raised from seed bears flowers and "pink" bananas on two year old 4ft plants. The species have slender green leaves and are hardier than most people think with over wintering in a slightly heated greenhouse an easy option. It quickly produces a nice clump forming habit but is best used as a pot plant placed on a sunny patio in summer

Musa Velutina

Other ornamental types to try, if you have enough heat, all with attractive flowers on dwarf plants are the Musa ornata hybrids and easily raised from seed. We sell both purple and gold forms that you can try. They need cavendishii type warm conditions and develop into slender plants with a grey/white bloom to the reverse of the leaves and stems.

Opposite - Musa ornata hybrids

Ornamental Bananas

Another stunning patio banana not so easily over wintered is Musa Zebrina. Again easily grown from seed but this plant has beautiful maroon mottled leaves and is used extensively as a pool side plant in warmer climates. A lovely conservatory plant as well but in my experience best grown afresh from seed each year when from a January sowing it will reach 4ft by the end of the season. It can also be used for tropical bedding planted out in a warm sheltered garden

Musa Zebrina