- Author: Michelle Davis
About 4 years ago my dad's banana “trees” in Modesto were outgrowing their space. He wanted to rebuild the redwood gate that the clump grew next to. The tree had been there when my parents bought the house decades ago. He whacked the trees back, cut them up, and dug down about 3 feet to cut out most of the clump and the roots. He did this major manual labor entirely himself and then rebuilt his gate. The intensive project took about 10 days. He totally filled his large green toter at least twice and, lastly, he tossed several corms on top. When I went to visit, I was honestly amazed at what he had accomplished. He offered me all the corms I wanted, but I only took one. It was hefty. I threw it in a plastic grocery bag and carted it back to Vacaville. It sat on my gardening workbench for months before I decided to put it in a large planter. I didn't expect it to grow. I certainly hadn't done a thing to enhance its chances. It has survived, and would probably do better if I gave it something other than water.
When I visited my parent's this week I noticed the banana clump was doing a good job of filling in space next to the gate again and now has a large purple inflorescence (flower). I asked if he had ever harvested any bananas from this tree, and he said that about once every 10 or 12 years, he'll get some fruit. 2020 is finally good for something!
Many Northern Californians are not aware that bananas can grow in California. For a reliable harvest, Southern California is the place to grow. The bananas I have seen in the grocery stores come from Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia (their actual origin). Since the 1970's Americans have been eating the 'Giant Cavendish' variety. A banana lover/expert may not care for its taste. Other varieties have greater flavor, but the Cavendish holds up well during export. Until recently it hadn't been plagued with a disease that now threatens to wipe out the cultivar.
The banana (Musa) is not a tree. It is a fast-growing herbaceous plant with a thick, but soft, pseudostem that is actually the unfurled leaves. It spreads underground by corms. Rich soil with a pH of 6, amended with compost and mulch, as well as a warm, humid coastal site free of leaf-tattering wind is the ideal set-up. Several sources suggest planting them near a south wall. (My dad's tree is against the south wall and protected from the wind.) Soil needs to have good drainage as plants can develop fusarium wilt. Still, they are tropical plants and need a fair amount of water during the hot months. It is recommended to check the soil, and if it is dry ½ inch down then water is needed. Frost does damage them, but they rebound in spring in our climate. In their native habitat, bananas will take 6-9 months to flower and then another 2-3 months to have ready-to-pick fruit.
Bananas can be grown in containers even indoors. Requirements include a deep, wide pot with well-draining soil, a wind-protected location that gets about 12 hours of sun a day, and fertilizer (some sources said 10-10-10 and others 20-20-20). One recommended liquid fertilizer as best especially a fish emulsion.
About 1000 cultivars exist in this plant family which also includes plantains. Every part of the banana fruit is considered edible. Green, unripe bananas, contain about 80% starch. With ripening, the starch converts to sugars and pectin. When the fruit is scheduled to be exported, it is picked unripe. To ripen it is exposed to ethylene gas to turn yellow (in the case of the 'Giant Cavendish'). Bananas come in not only a variety of flavors but a variety of colors: red, gray-blue, orange, purple, green, and of course, yellow.
I haven't seen one of the ripe bananas from my dad's 8-foot tree yet, so I don't know what type it is or even if I could identify it. My own tree is only 4 feet tall. Maybe if I give it some TLC, I'll be rewarded with a clump of bananas from my tree in my lifetime.