With tropical origins across southern Asia and the southwest Pacific, banana plants are considered herbs, not trees, since they do not form cambium layers in their trunk-like stems. Edible bananas (Musa spp.) comprises hundreds if not thousands of different varieties, the result of centuries of genetic crosses to develop large fruits with varying flesh color, flavors and resilience to pests and diseases. Other bananas with similar foliage exist; they are regarded more as ornamental plants rather than edible fruit plants.
Japanese Fiber Banana
Native to the southernmost islands of Japan, the Ryukyu Islands, the Japanese fiber banana (Musa basjoo) is considered the most cold-hardy banana for garden use. Growing up to 15 feet tall and developing a cluster of stems and root rhizomes up to 12 feet wide, it survives in temperate regions if the roots are mulched in winter. Plants have survived and resprouted in spring after winter temperatures that dropped to as low as -10 to -20 degrees Fahrenheit. In areas where winters are frost-free, Japanese fiber banana produces flowers that yield tiny orange-yellow bananas that are about 2 inches long. They are filled with black seeds and the fruit flesh isn't particularly palatable.
Native to central and eastern Africa, the Abyssinian banana (Ensete ventricosum) can grow up to 20 feet tall and 15 feet wide. This relative of the edible banana bears a canopy of large leaves, each up to 20 feet in length, that mimic the look of a palm on a single, stout trunk. Abyssinian banana grows only in frost-free regions and will produce a flowering stalk that yields banana-like fruits that are dry and not tasty. Once the plant flowers, the stem dies but new pup plants sprout from the roots and stem base to replace it.
Golden Lotus Banana
Growing only 4 to 5 feet tall, the golden lotus banana (Musella lasiocarpa) produces a bright yellow bracted cluster on the top of stems to look like a yellow lotus blossom. Native to the tropical montane valleys in China, it will grow as a perennial and resprout each spring if winters are no colder than 10 to 15 degrees Fahrenheit. The clustering stems bear light blue-green leaves that look like elongated paddles. While the true, tubular flowers are white and are tucked among the yellow bracts, these flowers do yield small banana-like fruits that are only 1 to 2 inches. These fruits carry dark black seeds and a mealy flesh that tastes bitter and unpleasant. Numerous suckering shoots emanate from the roots and main stems of the golden lotus banana, making it look like a shrub or tall tufted perennial.