Not all bananas are created equal

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

First and foremost I am a bit at a loss for words why we as humans, well at least those of us who live in the United States of America call these gorgeous plants trees. If you take away only 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.

The big Florida YouTube stars practicing permaculture, homesteading and other gardening tidbits dubbed as experts, continue to lead you down the same rabbit hole and conundrum that we acknowledge as truth, that bananas are trees.

Bananas are also not palms, which until we installed some bananas for a lady and her rather larger than life boyfriend they continued to tell me that she wanted the biggest and best banana palm. He in his braggadocio ways confided in her ignorance and for the next 45 minutes we listened to these locals rant and rave about banana palms.

Ignorance is bliss and maybe I get a little bit worked up about this topic but how in the world are we to evolve and give thanks to these amazing plants if we can’t understand what exactly they are? At least we seem to have gotten it right with calling our favorite decorative holiday plants correctly: Christmas trees.

Bananas and plantains have multiple attributes that make their cultivation and edible enjoyment quite sought after and pleasurable. 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 love our sandy soils in Florida, although copious mulch, compost and organic material will work wonders.

Bananas love to be feed with free tree mulch, themselves (mulching the already fruited plant and dead leaves), pee and fish. What a great plant to grow for those kiddos and adults alike who love to whiz in the backyard! The bananas love the nitrogen and will give back. Fertilizing bananas organically and growing them without irrigation is an entirely stress-free endeavor contrary to what the government funded agriculture schools and commercial nurseries may tell you. We have been doing it for almost 4 years and still going strong.

Growing bananas is a simple and easy process if you have the right plant. Most 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 tend to grow slower, take longer to establish and the first rack of fruit is usually sub-par to their true potential. These plants can sometimes take 2-3 years to produce fruit. Tissue culture plants are great to get certain varieties, that is, if they are labeled correctly and a mutation has not occurred. We have purchased some tissue culture plants just to get a certain variety under the premise that it would eventually make pups that could easily be propagated.

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 and they may be further broken down into two distinctly different types. The first being, water or umbrella suckers and the second being sword suckers. Water suckers are much weaker than sword suckers, have larger leaves, grow slower and are more reliant on the mother plant for nutrients and photosynthesis. Water suckers are thinner in girth from the start and will take quite some time to make a rack of fruit. The rack is smaller and with less fruit than a sword sucker. They will however, over time grow sword suckers that can be removed from the mat and planted elsewhere. Sword suckers on the other hand grow extremely fast, have small curly bracts at first and usually do not produce their first leaves until 1 – 3 feet tall. They are very robust, strong and tend to have a much thicker girth. They grow almost always right next to the mother plant and are not reliant on the nutrients. They can photosynthesize really quick and will produce a large rack 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. In addition some of the tissue culture plants that we purchased tend to now produce more sword suckers than water suckers.

In hindsight when I started to collect banana varieties it would have been an advantage to find more local growers and purchase all sword suckers but it wasn’t the easiest to locate the more rare varieties, thus tissue culture and water suckers made their way into the collection at the beginning.

Fast forward almost 4 years later and wow is the only word that comes to mind. The plants are my favorite to grow and have been so for a couple of years. They are truly exceptional in so many ways from sharing with your neighbor to sharing with a friend who has never experienced them before. Speaking of sharing, my parents, Janie and Ev are truly amazing for allowing me to turn their HOA backyard into a fruiting food forest with 30 varieties of bananas. This is where the mother plants are that we divide pups of off to sell at our nursery. Their neighbors Greg and Michelle are just as special as they have allowed us to plant one large banana circle in their yard as well as some other one-off mats on their garden edge. The tradeoff is to share half the harvest! Bananas have allowed our relationship to grow and sacred food to be shared.

One banana variety in particular has truly affected me in a way that no other plant ever has. Not orchids, bromeliads, ferns or other dreamy epiphytes. The original three plants were given to me by Mary, one of the original Apollo Beach Garden Club members. She had told me about a banana that tasted like ‘ice cream’ and said she could give me some but I had to dig them up. This was in 2017 and the rave about the ‘ice cream’ or ‘Blue Java’ had just started to make its way more mainstream. Well after further research another southwest Florida banana grower told me she knew what it was.

The ‘Namwah’ or ‘Pisang Awak’ hails from Southeast Asia and is highly sought after for its many uses. Not only has this banana consumed my dreams but my stomach as well! 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 also produces exceedingly large racks of fruit when grown in optimal conditions.

Sadly the vast majority of the United States cannot grow this gem because Namwah is not a temperate plant but for those of us in zone 9 and south its quite easy. Namwah is one of the more cold hardy varieties and can fruit in both zone 9a and 9b without any problem and with a little bit of care can fruit in more marginal areas such as, zone 8a and 8b. Aside from being cold hardy it is also quite wind resistant. It’s more widely cultivated cousin ‘Dwarf Namwah’ seems to not be as wind resistant and in our trials seems to be great at falling over.

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. When eaten as a fresh desert banana they need to be a bit black and since the vast majority of United States Americans have been trained by marketing to buy with our eyes, they often miss out on these supposed overripe fruits.

Although the masses are missing out, many friends and clients of ours have been blessed with this beauty. All of which have come from our original three plants from Mary. We have probably given and sold over 250 and they continue to be our best seller. We have planted them as far north as southern Ocala and as far south as Homestead. They are growing and fruiting in Apollo Beach (5 locations), Brandon, West Palm, Plant City, Lakeland, Bradenton, Sarasota, Myakka, Venice, St. Pete, Tampa and many other cities amongst the state.

Lastly, I leave with the following statement and questions. The store bought banana is not the only variety. It actually is not that great at all. There are over 1,000 varieties and counting and we give importance to one? This just doesn’t make sense.

If you could grow your own bananas, why wouldn’t you?
If you could grow them in a greenhouse, why wouldn’t you?
If you want to support local agriculture, why don’t you?

If you are open, research and learn about the banana republic. It is alarming to say the least. If you saw the conditions in the banana republic, you would not ever eat another store bought banana, that is, if your empathetic and have an inkling of humanity, care for human and natural resources and mother nature.