Barefoot Gardener: The Beauty of Bananas

January 26, 2020, 7:30 AM HST (Updated January 26, 2020, 3:13 AM)
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Harvested bananas are usually hung upside-down to ripen. This rack of bananas at the author’s home is ready to eat or be frozen for future use. Photo: J.M. Buck

For cold weather snowbirds, bananas conjure images of a tropical paradise — feather-duster top coconut palms whispering their lilt to a white sand beach, riotous palettes of exotic flowers, piña coladas and sun-drenched golden skin. To dwellers of warmer climes, bananas are relatively commonplace. So common, in fact, that some of us get tired of eating them.

There are seemingly endless uses for the banana tree, which in actuality is an herb. The nutritious flesh of its fruit can be eaten raw when ripe, ground into masa while green, frozen, cooked, fried, mashed, barbecued, boiled and baked. The tree itself can be chopped up for excellent mulch, its flappy broad leaves dried and sliced into strips for thatch or walkway covering. The list goes on and on.

The banana is believed to be endemic to the Malaysian jungles of Southeast Asia, and cultivation has been documented since the beginning of recorded history. One of the earliest records dates back to 327 BC when Alexander the Great discovered bananas during his conquest of India. Bananas are mentioned in ancient Buddhist texts. Some horticulturists posit the supposition that the banana was the earth’s first fruit. Early settlers carried rootstock throughout the Middle East and Africa. The versatile plant became wildly popular in Portugal (pasteles, a popular dish made from green bananas, is very popular here in Hawai‘i) and from there was transported by Portuguese traders to the Canary Islands where they are still a principal crop. In 1516, Friar Tomas de Berlanga brought the first banana rootstocks to the Caribbean. The banana was introduced to the United States at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition.

Bananas are ridiculously easy to grow and are quite hardy except in very poor soils, high wind areas and high elevations. When selecting a planting site for bananas, be sure to take size into consideration — depending on the variety, they can reach anywhere from 4 to 25 feet in height. Bananas propagate from their roots, so it is important to allow ample room for spread at the base of the plant. One tip I learned the hard way: don’t plant them next to your house. Insects, especially ants, and rats love banana trees, and the dry leaves are extremely flammable.

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Bananas can be obtained from rootstock or by carefully slicing young suckers from the mother tree. They enjoy full sun, though they will grow in partial shade. Dig a hole twice the diameter of the rootstock or sucker base and at least 18 inches deep. Banana trees grow faster than rumors; one of my aunties swore that if you tossed an ‘ahi into the hole before planting, your bananas would go gangbusters. I have found this to be true of most fruit and vegetable plants — actually, any fish will do. This is optional, of course.

Put compost into the hole and backfill 1/3 of the way. Mix the soil and compost well. If you wish to use organic fertilizer, a balanced 6-6-6 is good. Be careful to use fertilizer sparingly and according to the application directions to avoid burning tender roots.

Place the tree into the hole with the roots about two inches below the surface. Mix compost into the remaining soil from the hole and continue backfilling around the tree. Tamp the soil lightly and water. To avoid the possibility of being blown over by sudden gusts of wind, anchor banana suckers in place with stakes and three wires (cover the wire that goes around the trunk with pieces of old hose to avoid the trunk getting gouged) until the tree “takes.” Depending on the variety, bananas will usually mature in 70 to 80 days.

Happy gardening!

J.M. Buck
J.M. Buck has been a Hawai‘i news writer and columnist since 2003. She has extensive writing experience and has served the media industry in a variety of capacities, including news editor, investigative reporter, online publisher, columnist, web content writer, graphic designer and photographer. She has lived in the Hawaiian Islands for most of her life and is a graduate of University of Hawai‘i.
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