Banana split decision

Lee’s banana plant in winter (photo by Lee Reich)

Yes, we have no bananas. We do have a banana tree.

Decades ago I was in a similar situation. How could I resist a catalogue ad for a dwarf banana tree – one that wouldn’t grow more than six to eight feet high, so could be accommodated within the confines of a standard room? I bought the small pup (which is what small, plantable offshoots from the mother tree are called) and planted it in a large pot.

The pup grew. And grew. And grew. The plant topped out at six to eight feet, but the developing leaves, rolled up and pointing skyward before unrolling and flopping down, reached a lot higher. Banana isn’t really a tree; it’s a giant herb whose “trunk” is, in fact, made up of concentric layers of rolled-up leaves that don’t flop down to a more horizontal position until they unroll.

“A mature tree only gets six to eight feet tall, but provides up to 90 bananas per year!” states a contemporary Web ad for Cavendish Dwarf Banana. As for the 90 bananas: Yes, I had no bananas. Bananas are tropical plants, thriving best in full sunlight with average annual temperatures around 80 degrees. A sunny room in winter is no home for a banana. The room was cool, not tropical and, though bright, its light paled against a sunny day in the tropics.

Besides delaying or voiding any possibility of fruiting, indoor conditions left my plant looking forlorn, even if it did perk up each summer outdoors. Upon my return from a winter trip to the tropics, where I had seen banana plants reveling in sun, heat and humidity, I took pity on my dwarf Cavendish and granted it eternal afterlife in my compost pile.

Last spring, my friend Sara (of last week’s grafted tomato fame) stopped by with a gift: a banana plant – evidently another Dwarf Cavendish Banana, judging from the decorative reddish splotches on the leaves. How could I refuse such a plant, recently removed from a greenhouse in all its lushness?

In the decades since my old banana’s passing, banana plants have become more popular as ornamentals. The plants grow rapidly, so a non-dwarf variety, once summer heat kicks in, will soar quickly to ten feet or more to create the focal point of a tropical oasis. You’d need a big pot to fuel such growth. Or you could plant Mekong Giant Banana (Musa itinerans var. xishuangbannaensis) or Golden Lotus Flower (Musella lasiocarpa), both closely related to the edible banana but – and here’s a big difference – very winter cold-hardy (for bananas). Either plant (available from and could remain outdoors, with mulch, through winters with temperatures well below zero degrees. The tops die back, but the roots survive to resprout each year. Who wants to see a tropical oasis in the snow anyhow?

Dwarf Cavendish is not a hardy banana and does not reach proportions to create anything more than a mini-oasis. Still, my new one is weathering winter well. My original plan was to bring the potted plant down to remain semi-comatose in the cold basement. But it started out in autumn near a sunny window in a cool room and never made it down the steps. It looks forlorn, but ready to perk up after conditions change – and small, because it’s cramped into an undersized pot. I haven’t watered it for months! I don’t want it to grow – yet.

Come spring, Dwarf Cavendish will get repotted, pups removed and potted, and given good growing conditions. One pup will get planted outdoors to get as big as it can before cold weather, then dug up and put in the basement. Even if “Yes, we have no bananas,” there will be leaves aplenty for cooking, wrapping, serving food and general tropical lushness.

Not that New York bananas are an impossibility without an old-fashioned, energy-guzzling hothouse. Given an early start in my barely heated greenhouse, a short-season banana might actually ripen its fruit this far north. A guy in Georgia has found that the variety Veinte Cohol ( will ripen its fruit in October if it’s two to three feet tall going into summer. My greenhouse is something like Georgia, without the drawl.

All this talk of bananas is admittedly odd, with morning temperatures here hovering below zero degrees. This winter has been interesting: seemingly cold, but only in comparison with the relatively warm winters of the past decade or so.

The low here, so far, has been minus-14 degrees. The effect is already evident on my bamboo, Phyllostachys aureosulcata, whose leaves, though still attached, are dry and muted green. They were supposed to remain alive, looking shiny and lush green, down to minus-20 degrees. But the cold came on quickly this season, before plants had a chance to acclimate, and there were extended periods of it. Rainfall, snowfall and humidity also have direct and indirect effects on how well plants face cold. For plants, “It’s not how cold it gets, it’s how it gets cold.”

The Hudson Valley Iris and Daylily Society welcomes master gardener and daylily expert Frank Almquist to lecture on the program “Flower,” which organizes/catalogues our plants and gardens. The meeting is free to the public at the Marlboro Free Library on Route 9W in Marlboro on Sunday, March 2 at 2 p.m., with refreshments at 1:30. Contact: Jim Rabinowitz at (845) 454-6415.

Any gardening questions? E-mail Lee at and he’ll try answering them directly or in his Almanac Weekly column. To read Lee’s previous “Gardener’s Notebook” columns, go to You can also visit Lee’s garden at and check out his instructional videos at For more on local homes and gardens, go to Ulster Publishing’s



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