CHRISTIANSTED — Banana trees are a common feature of the U.S. Virgin Islands residential area landscape.
They are primarily grown for the tropical look they bring with their green, elephant-ear-like leaves waving in our eternal summer Trade Winds breezes.
In addition to their large, decorative foliage, most of the large-growing banana trees here also produce edible fruit. The size, shape and quality of the fruit, however, may vary greatly from tree to tree. If the bananas your tree produces are not sweet enough for fresh eating, try using them in a recipe and adding just a pinch of extra sugar.
We also grow several types of ornamental bananas that do not produce edible fruit. The dwarf banana (Musa ornata) produces upright spikes of small flowers with attractive pinkish purple bracts. The red banana (Musa coccinia) produces very attractive spikes of fiery red. And, the pink velvet banana (Musa velutina) produces clusters of small, pink fruit with a velvety skin. All of these ornamental bananas are smaller growing than typical bananas. Do not eat these!
The flowers of bananas usually begin to appear in April, May or June and are produced on a long, pendulous stalk with dusky purple bracts. The first clusters of flowers are female and they develop into the fruit. This occurs without pollination and the fruit are seedless. The clusters of fruit are called hands. A number of hands form on each stalk, and all together they are called a bunch.
Once the bunch is set, the flowering stalk will continue to bloom and lengthen, but only male flowers are produced and no more bananas will form. You may allow the flower stalk to grow or cut it off just below the bunch of developing bananas.
Bananas will generally take four to six months for fruit to reach full size after flowering, depending on temperature, variety, moisture and culture practices. There is normally a slight yellow tint to the fruit as it reaches maturity. The color change may be so slight that it is hard to see. The fruit will generally look smoother or plump as it ripens, changing from square or sharp angular shape in cross section to a more rounded shape.
Fruit should be harvested when full-sized but green, because the fruit will often split if left on the plant until fully ripe. The fruit stalk should be cut and hung in a shady place to complete ripening. Green bananas will ripen very reliably after they are picked. Even very young green fruit will ripen, although there may not be much edible material in small fruit.
Banana tree care
Bananas are very easy to grow in any soil, do not generally require fertilizer and are not affected by any major insect or disease problems. Bananas do need to be planted in a spot that receives direct sun for at least half a day or more.
These are large plants that require plenty of room to spread. Take that into consideration before you include them in your landscape. Locate banana plantings well away from property lines (6 to 10 feet), as their ability to spread may cause problems to neighbors who do not want them in their yard. Promptly remove any banana shoots that show up where they are not wanted to keep the clump under control.
Controlling bananas is a big issue. I have talked to many gardeners who are more interested in getting rid of an overgrown planting than enjoying the fruit. It’s not hard to keep bananas under control, but it does require regular attention.
You may need to irrigate during periods of prolonged drought, but bananas tend to be resilient. The growth rate is generally plenty fast without fertilizing (particularly in the fertile soils of the south shore), but you may fertilize banana trees with a general purpose fertilizer during summer following label directions.
Pruning affects fruiting
Cutting banana trees back in winter has a profound effect on fruit production. A look at the growth habit of banana trees will show why. The banana is not a true tree — it is a giant herbaceous plant. Botanically, this means that none of its parts ever become woody like true trees.
The stem of the banana plant is a large rhizome that grows horizontally underground, and the shoots that we think of as “trees” grow up from this underground stem. What we call the “trunk” is actually the bases of the leaves tightly wrapped together, and is properly called the pseudostem (false stem).
The flower stalk of the banana starts growing inside the pseudostem at ground level and must grow up through the pseudostem to emerge from the top among the leaves. In our area, a banana tree must survive at least one season before the flower stalk will emerge and bloom.
If you are interested in fruit production from your banana trees, you must keep this in mind. Do not arbitrarily cut down your trees if the foliage turns brown. Generally, it takes temperatures that don’t occur in the tropics to kill the trunks. If they survive a browning, it is the large trees that will produce fruit for you the next season. You may trim off the dead foliage, but do not cut down living pseudostems.
Once a banana tree flowers and its fruit has been harvested, you may cut it down to the ground to make room for new, productive trees to grow up from the creeping underground stem. Each individual tree will only flower and bear fruit once.
Banana trees are as much a part of the tropical look of St. Croix, St. Thomas, St. John and Water Island as palm trees are.
We are really fortunate to live in one of the few places in the United States where, with proper care and a minimum amount of maintenance, these beautiful plants also will produce delicious fruit for us to eat.
And when you are going bananas about the banana trees in the territory, by all means keep one thing first and foremost in your mind — the banana is not a true tree; it is a giant herbaceous plant.
Botanically, this means that none of its parts ever become woody like true trees. The main stem of the banana plant is a large rhizome that grows horizontally underground. … It’s properly called a pseudostem (false stem).