By Teresa Watkins (twatkins(at)mail.ifas.ufl.edu)
Copyright August, 2006 by Teresa Watkins. All Rights Reserved.
Lying on my hammock with a frosty banana daiquiri in one hand and the little creased umbrella twirling in the other, I dream of faraway exotic places and how I would get there. My idylls of a perfect schooner to take me to a tropical paradise would begin with a banana boat, and a fresh banana plucked from a bunch taken off my lanai and sliced in half. I would then fill the opened elongated fruit with three scoops of vanilla ice cream, each one covered by a dollop of a hot chocolate fudge, fresh sliced strawberries, and tangy pineapple bits, all from my gardening ventures. The piece de resistánce would be layers of whipped cream, inspired by the view of the billowy clouds I would watch sail by. Last, but not least, the banana boat mast would be flagged with a Barbados cherry, not just any canned cherry, after all - this is Florida.
Thus inspired, the second article in my series on tropical fruits is about bananas, which will increase your knowledge and encourage you to grow them in your backyard. Bananas are one of the most recognizable fruits in the world, and was one of the earliest fruits to be harvested by man. Tradition has it that they became distributed to the 'known world', when Alexander the Great discovered bananas growing in India and brought them back from his conquests around 327 B.C. During the 1500's, bananas were exported by Middle Eastern traders to Africa. In their travels, the Portuguese introduced the exotic fruit to the Canary Islands in time to be carried to the New World by the missionary, Friar Tomas de Berlanga. We know this because of traditional folklore handed down when he was later made the Bishop of Panama. Hmmmm... well, I guess they had to thank him some way. That could be where we got the phrase 'top banana'? No? Oh well... I must be slipping, back to my bananas.
Bananas are typically thought of as a dessert course while the starchy plantains are cooked before eating and are considered a major staple of the tropic countries. In the States, next to apples, bananas are one of the first foods introduced to babies' diets.We have developed a fondness for bananas so much that we have seen our culture turn the yellow crescent-shaped fruits into vaudeville banana routines, fodder for comedic banana pratfalls, weird banana movie themes, musical band names (Bananarama?), banana songs, banana shaped candy, banana bucket bicycle seats, and silly phrases like "I'm going bananas".
Maybe this is because bananas (Musa spp.) (Family: Musaceae) are the easiest tropical fruits to grow. They are considered a low maintenance herbaceous plant, not a tree, that thrives in subtropical and humid tropical climates. Here in the States, those zones would be 9-11. They are rhizome-like in stalk appearance but actually develop from an underground corm, taking 10 to 15 months before flowering. The banana species are divided into two groups, hybrids and plantains. The wild banana is full of seeds from which hundreds of different species are derived. More clones are being developed every year by plantation growers.
The most common and best Florida cultivars to grow are the 'Cavendish', the 'Lady Finger', and the 'Apple' bananas. There are several clones of 'Cavendish' bananas. The largest clone is 'Lacatan' decreasing in size to 'Robusta', and the 'Giant Cavendish' . The most popular of these clones, is the 'Dwarf Cavendish', which is the hardiest of any other commercial brand. It is the banana variety most widely recommended by the University of Florida to the homeowner for its bountiful bunches of excellent tasting fruit. Both the Ladyfinger, a taller variety with smaller banana fingers, and the Apple banana are more cold tolerant here in our zones with a very sweet flavor when ripe. These are the banana trees most often seen throughout the Caribbean. Other varieties grown here in Central Florida are the Jamaican Red, the 1,000 Finger, and the Golden Pillow, and the Honey banana. The plantain species that does best in South Florida is the Horse plantain. It is the favorite for being more drought tolerant and needing the least maintenance of all the plantains.
A banana is like a bromeliad (pineapple family) in that it sometimes takes two frost-free seasons to develop fruit. They need the ethylene gases to help stimulate the plant to fruit, and only bear fruit once then die to the ground. The best time to plant bananas is in April and May. You must be sure to have either irrigation or the guarantee of lots of rain when you plant, as the bananas will need consistent watering. There are two ways to get a banana tree. You can purchase one from a nursery or garden center, or divide an already existing banana tree through its suckers or pieces of the rhizomes. A good size sucker is the ideal propagation method. You should make sure it has a good root system.
To transplant larger suckers, cut off all but six of the large green leaves and plant in a large hole using good organic compost or a sand-peat mixture. If you cut off more, you risk the plant not being able to absorb enough moisture, oxygen and nutrients to produce food properly.
Mulching is critical to bananas, too. It helps it retain moisture, cuts down on weed growth, and helps the plant absorb the fertilizer better.The best mulch to use around bananas are the older banana leaves and dying banana stalks that have either frozen out or a plant has borne fruit and needs to be cut down for new growth to form. By chopping up and adding the decaying nutritious material to the soil, the potassium rich banana foliage will compost and increase the organic amendments. A cup of 6-2-12, potassium nitrate fertilizer should be fed to the bananas each week. The University of Florida recommends bimonthly applications of 2%-3% magnesium, a necessary element of fertilizer for bananas. Routinely increase dosage to 5lbs to 6lbs during the flowering and fruiting season, which should begin within a year and a half.
8) You should plant at least 8 feet between your bananas, giving their roots plenty of room to grow. Banana growers also suggest that in their first three to four months, bananas will need lots of soil moisture and plenty of fertilizer for the best growth and fruit production. This will determine how much the first bunch will weigh and how many 'hands' the banana will have. Webster's Dictionary describes a 'hand' as a cluster of bananas that grow from a single flower group.
Coincidentally as I was writing this column, I was e-mailed at 12:30 at night by 'Ashli', who was right in the middle of a crucial family debate. She was asking one of those questions that wonderfully normal families always get in arguments about, whether bananas grow up or down. It was a heart-warming question to hear, considering what I remember my family arguing about growing up. I was pleased I had bananas in my backyard. I could tell her that they actually form from the flowers which grow from a stem called an inflorescence. These flowers are covered by purple bracts that shed as the flower grows. Individual flowers appear and develop from a bisexual state to a unisexual form by getting rid of their male or female organs. These forms, without need of pollination, develop into the clusters of fruit, or hands, which in most varieties of commercial bananas are seedless. So to Ashli and her family, it would appear that they do hang straight up, but actually the fruits just swell and develop that way. They definitely do not hang down.
Bananas are ready for harvesting when the fingers are plump, green and almost ready to turn yellow. Lou Arbolida (ARBSFRUIT(at)aol.com), aka "Nanaman", who is the president of the Tropical Fruit Club of Central Florida says a good rule of measurement is to notice when the first petal opens, mark the date on the fruit with a pencil. From that date to twelve weeks later, the fruit should be ready to be cut down. They ripen best at 60 degrees in a dark, cool location.
The problems with bananas are few to the homeowner, but can be quite disastrous to the commercial industry. Bananas are naturally contained to the more torrid climates because of their susceptibility to frost. Careful protection from freezing temperatures (below 28 degrees) and foliar damage from wind exposure should be the main concern of home gardeners. If they do freeze, just cut the plants at ground level and suckers should appear in the spring.
In all my experiences growing bananas, I have yet to see disease affect any of my banana plants. The two most dangerous diseases are Panama disease and Sigatoka. Panama disease is a wilt disease spread by the soil borne fungus Fusarium oxysporum f. cubense. It wrecks havoc on the commercial industry. There is no sanitary control or chemical control available, but the 'Cavendish' clones are highly resistant to this wilt.
Sigatoka is caused by Mycosphaerella musicola. It causes the bananas to produce less fruit by destroying the leaves and reducing their photosynthetic area. Nearly all of the edible bananas are susceptible. Timely fungicide spraying and use of fogging with mineral oils will help to prevent this disease.
Insect problems can occur but as a rule are not bothersome to the bananas. Nematodes are not considered a problem with bananas because of all the organic soil around them.The Banana weevil (Cosmopolites sordidus) which is a boring (and I don't mean dull) insect that tunnels little holes through the stalks creating a weak plant structure. Contact your local county extension service for current control recommendations. The only other insect I have had a problem with my bananas was the 'banana spider'. They only live in the banana leaves and don't affect the banana at all. They love the warm areas and find major food sources in the undergrowth of the leaves. Just don't stick your hand in an area that you can't see. I have only come across two or three, but I wanted to warn you. They sting!
Now, the sweetest thing about bananas is all the recipes there are to use them in. You can make everything from breakfast to dinner. You can prepare a full course meal from cocktails, appetizers, soup, salad, dinner, to dessert using bananas. Ever heard of cream of banana soup? You can make it! This delicious fruit has 370 mg. of potassium in each banana and it is 75% water. It has only 99 calories, and more protein, calcium, carbohydrates, phosphorus, iron, Vitamin A, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and ascorbic acid than an apple.
No need to hover or worry over this luscious green foliage, and nutritious beauty that lends itself to transforming any backyard into an instant jungle landscape. All you need is a hammock, a banana boat sundae, a daiquiri glass and one of those cute little umbrellas. Then you are on your way to your tropical paradise. That's what 'ap-peels' to my Soul.
A special thanks to Ms. Beth Murphy of wholesale Chestnut Hill Nursery, Inc., Gainesville for source information and to Lou Arbilida for pictures.
Sources for bananas in Central Florida region:
Lukas Nursery & Garden Shop, Inc.
Corner of Aloma (426) & Slavia Rd
Oviedo, FL 32765
Contact: Phil Lukas
The Yard Stop
4200 S Highway 19A
Mount Dora, FL 32757
Contact: Aaron Caverly
230 S. Parsons Avenue
Seffner, FL 33584
3825 Edgewater Drive
Orlando, FL 32804
3443 Edgewater Drive
Orlando, FL 32804