Not all bananas are created equal

Not all bananas are created equal. As a matter of a fact we cannot express just how fortunate we are to live in a place and time where growing many varieties of bananas is quite accessible. Bananas can be fairly easy to grow and they tend to give and when we say give, we mean they really give wholeheartedly. We will talk more about that later but for now let us dive into what makes growing bananas special and explain just what bananas are.

If you take away one thing from this article may it be the following: Bananas are not trees! They are herbaceous plants closely related to gingers in the order Zingiberales and the plant family, Musaceae. Bananas are also not palms, which we have learned some people may confuse them with.

Below you will find a diagram describing the morphology of a banana plant. Important terms to understand are pseudostem, mother plant, mat (mother plant+pups) and sucker.

Source: User Gabe15.

Bananas and plantains have multiple attributes that make their cultivation and edible enjoyment quite sought after. They are amongst some of the easier and faster fruiting plants to grow in Central and South Florida. Once established they will give year after year and many cultivated varieties seem to perform well in the sandy soils of Florida; although, copious amounts of mulch, compost and organic material will work wonders.

Bananas can be fertilized with hardwood or leaf mulch, with themselves (mulching the already fruited pseudostem and its leaves), and with diluted urine, gray water and fish carcasses, for example. Fertilizing bananas organically and growing them without irrigation is an entirely stress-free endeavor contrary to what you may believe.

Often bananas bought from the big box stores come from a few places within the State, where they are mass produced and grown from tissue cultures. Tissue culture plants can grow slower, take longer to establish and the first bunch of fruit they produce is usually sub-par to their true potential. These plants can sometimes take 2-3 years to produce fruit. The reason tissue culture bananas work well for the nursery industry is that clean clones of a specific variety can be mass produced without much labor or effort.

If your are collecting bananas, tissue culture plants are a great way to add certain varieties to your collection you just have to be aware it will take a little longer for them to develop and fruit. Personally, we have purchased some tissue culture bananas under the premise that they would eventually make pups that could easily be propagated regardless of the capability this particular pseudostem had to produce fruit.

What is a pup you might ask? Pups or suckers are identical clones to the mother plant that emerge from and right next to it. Suckers may be further broken down into two distinct types. The first being water or umbrella suckers and the second sword suckers.

Water suckers are much weaker than sword suckers, they grow further away from the mother plant, have larger leaves, grow slower and are more reliant on the mother pseudostem for nutrients and photosynthesis. Water suckers have a thinner girth from the start of their development and as they grow will take quite some time to make a bunch of fruit, if they do at all. Water suckers can be suitable for multiplication/propagation as they will over time grow sword suckers that are more suitable for fruit production. Water suckers can be divided from the mat and planted elsewhere or if not used for this purposes chopped and mulched around the mother plant.

Sword suckers on the other hand grow fast, have small curly bracts (small leaves) at first and usually do not produce their first actual leaves until 1 – 3 feet tall. They are very robust, strong and tend to have a much thicker girth, especially at the base since the beginning of their development. They grow in very close proximity to the mother plant, most of the time touching it. They can photosynthesize quickly and will produce a large and well shaped bunch of fruit in substantially less time than water suckers.

In our garden space we are growing 30 varieties and we have noticed that some varieties seem to strictly grow sword suckers, whereas others grow both types of pups. Some tend to not produce pups until the mother plant is getting ready to fruit. Others seem to make so many pups that it is almost a weekly chore to divide the mat.

One advantage of tissue culture pups that we have expanded on is that they allow disease free banana propagation. Bananas are prone to contracting viruses and are prone to fungal infections, too. These diseases are transferred from the mother plant to its pups because they belong to a mat and are connected. When digging up pups from mats it is important to inspect the plant for signs of infection. In Central Florida we have not sen many infected bananas but in South Florida it is very common. The good news is that many infected bananas can survive and fruit as they have developed resistance to the disease. Some of the common diseases of bananas are: black and yellow sigatoka, fusarium and banana corm weevils.

In hindsight when we started to collect banana varieties it would have been an advantage to find local growers and source sword suckers only for our initial plantings but it wasn’t the easiest task to locate the more rare varieties that were not tissue culture plants. For this reason we decided to experiment with some tissue culture and water suckers initially until we established mats of the desired varieties.

Fast forward almost 4 years later and wow is the only word that comes to mind. These plants are a delight to grow. They are truly exceptional in so many ways from sharing with your neighbor, to sharing with a friend who has never experienced a homegarden banana, to “watering” plants effortlessly, casting shade and producing biomass oh and we forgot to mentioned banana mash our favorite side!

One banana variety in particular has truly been a giver. The mother plants were given to us by one of the original Apollo Beach Garden Club members, her name is Mary. She had told us about a banana that tasted deliciously sweet growing in her backyard and urged us to come over and dig some up from her mat. We got three precious sword suckers. At the time we had not identified which cultivar this was.

The ‘Kluai Nam Wa’ or ‘Pisang Awak’ hails from Southeast Asia and is highly sought after for its many uses. It is a really sweet and chewy banana when fresh, dehydrates into little slices of paradise and is the best to make smoothies or our secret ‘baçai bowl.’ We have had many friends eat this banana and they too really enjoy it. It produces exceedingly large bunches of fruit when grown in optimal conditions, 90%+ of its pups are sword suckers and it is disease and wind resistant.

For those of us in subtropical areas Nam Wa is one of the best options to grow. It is more cold hardy than other varieties and can fruit with a little bit of care in more marginal areas. This banana does not make its way to the masses in the States because it does not ship well as the peel is paper thin. Another reason why this banana might find rejection amongst people is that when eaten fresh as a dessert banana the peel needs to be a bit black. Since the vast majority of United States Americans have been trained by marketing to eat with their eyes, it could be hard to market and not good for business. BUT, if feeding yourself and your community is more important than a tone of yellow you have found your answer: Kluai Nam Wa.

Although the masses are missing out, many friends and clients of ours have been blessed with this beauty. All these plants that we have been able to spread around are pups which have come from our original three plants from Mary. We have planted them as far north as southern Ocala and as far south as Homestead. They are growing and fruiting in Apollo Beach, Ruskin, Brandon, West Palm, Plant City, Lakeland, Bradenton, Sarasota, Myakka, Venice, St. Pete, Tampa amongst other places.

If you could supply your own demand of bananas, why wouldn’t you?
If you are out of the prime growing zone but could grow them in a greenhouse, why wouldn’t you?
If you want to support local agriculture, why don’t you?

Grow bananas.

If you feel inclined to learn more about this topic we recommend researching the banana republic. You just may never eat another store bought banana and start growing your own.