By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist
The banana shrub is a tropical to subtropical elegant tree to bush. The scientific designation is Michelia figo, and the plant is hardy in the warmer USDA plant hardiness zones 7 to 10. Michelia banana shrubs are more properly trees that can grow 6 to 15 feet (2 to 4.5 m.) in height. If you are a warm region gardener, you should explore how to grow banana shrubs and experience the sweet fragrant flowers with a scent reminiscent of our favorite yellow fruits.
Michelia banana shrubs are members of the Magnolia family, which is evident in the shape and form of their large blooms. The tree has glossy evergreen leaves and an attractive, rounded habit. The 3-inch (7.5 cm.) long leaves are slightly fuzzy, and buds and new leaves are covered in rusty toned fuzz. But these aren’t its most spectacular attributes. Wait until late spring when the one inch (2.5 cm.) cup-shaped cream rose or maroon colored flowers appear. Their scent is much like that of a ripe sweet banana.
Choose a sunny location when planting a banana shrub, with well draining soil and adequate organic matter. Acidic soils create the best medium for planting a banana shrub.
Sadly this plant is not at all hardy and will not survive in temperate or cooler zones. It has great drought tolerance but is not suitable for desert scenarios either. The tree is excellent used as a screen or planted near the home so you can enjoy the fragrance.
Propagation is through stem cuttings using a rooting hormone. The flowers do turn into small hard fruits with multiple tiny seeds but the seeds are generally not viable.
Michelia banana shrubs are low maintenance trees with no root invasiveness. Once established they are remarkably resistant to most pest and disease problems. Scale insects, however, are of particular concern and can cause severe defoliation but are easily managed with organic horticultural oil.
Some root rot conditions may arise where the soil is too rich and moist. Young plants should be trained to one leader for the best overall effect on mature specimens. New banana shrub care should start with effective pruning of extra stems and suckers at the base of the plant. Choose the strongest, straightest trunk to provide a stable and attractive base for the plant.
The tree responds well to annual pruning. Pruning banana shrubs should be done when the plant is most dormant in winter or spring before new growth emerges. Always use sharp, clean cutting implements to prevent transferring diseases from plant to plant.
Cut just after a bud node and remove any branch back to the branch collar where it sprung from the parent wood. Remove any dead or broken plant material and continue training young plants. Use a stake and tree sling when trees are forming to help support the young growth. Remove these items when the plant is established and strong.
Michelia banana shrubs tend to grow straighter in one central leader in lower light situations but in full sun they require more pruning maintenance. You can even keep the trees trimmed in a low habit so you can grow them in a container.
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Place banana plants in full sun. To ensure adequate temperatures for optimal growth, you can plant bananas near a building or paved driveway or walk, which hold the sun's warmth. Bananas grow best in rich, well-draining soil with a pH between 5.5 and 6.5. Add a hefty layer of mulch on top of the soil to help retain moisture. Inadequate water can lead to slow growth and small fruit. The banana's large leaves require a large amount of water to remain healthy. Look for low-volume sprinklers that spray water at a low trajectory angle of 9 to 14 degrees. Give banana plants a deep, slow watering every two to three days when the weather is warm and more frequently, if needed, during droughts. Make sure the soil drains well and does not have standing water.
Q: Growing up in Moss Point, Mississippi, I remember a shrub in my cousin’s yard they called a “fresketti”, but I’m not sure of the correct spelling.
It had small yellow blossoms the color of a ripe banana and the fragrance sort of reminds you of a banana. I would love to have one for my yard here.
Are you familiar with such a plant?
A: I think you are remembering the sweet scent of a banana shrub, Michelia figo. It has yellowish blossoms and its fragrance is redolent of banana.
My friend Felder Rushing, gardening raconteur and author of “Passalong Plants”, says its original name was
Magnolia fuscata and that’s where your “fresketti” comes from. In his opinion, banana shrub should grow wherever figs thrive.
Garden designer Ryan Gainey has a large banana shrub in his Decatur garden but most gardeners will tell you that Atlanta is a bit too far north to commonly find banana shrubs in nurseries or in home landscapes. From Macon southward, banana shrub is more common.
The corm is the base or underground stem of the plant. It contains the root system as well as the place where the plant stores food and nutrients.
Before planting rinse the corm in lukewarm water. This removes any hidden pests as well as any potentially damaging fungal or bacterial growth.
Dig a hole in the soil twice as large as the corm. Gently loosen the roots, this helps the corm to establish itself more easily.
If you are planting in a pot, start the corm off in a pot that is 6 to 8 inches in size. Make sure there are lots of drainage holes in the bottom. You can also place a layer of gravel on the bottom of the pot to further improve drainage.
Fill the pot with well draining soil such as a cactus soil mix or a palm tree soil mix. You can also create your own soil mix by combining well draining fresh potting soil with vermiculite, perlite and peat. This combination creates a light, rich soil.
Make a hole in the center of the pot and position the corm. Centering the corm allows the roots plenty of space to evenly form and establish themselves.
Position the corm so that the top 20% of the corm sits above the soil level. Backfill the hole, being careful not to overly compact the soil and water well, After saturating the soil you can cover the area around the plant with a layer of organic mulch. This helps the soil to retain moisture. Just make sure that the mulch isn’t touching the corm.
For the next few weeks try to keep the soil moist but not overly wet. Within a few weeks suckers or shoots should emerge from the corm. As soon as these emerge you can cover the exposed top section of corm with fresh potting soil or compost.
If you are planting more than one banana tree outside, space them out in double rows 6 to 9 ft apart. Rows should be spread around 15 ft apart.
If you are growing in containers, you will occasionally need to repot the plant. Growth slowing or ceasing is a sign the plant needs to be repotted.
Every time you repot increase the size of the pot by 4 to 6 inches, this gives the roots space to grow into. Repotting helps to keep container plants healthy and prolongs their lifespan.
Before repotting remove any suckers that have emerged before repotting. These suckers can be planted on in smaller pots where they can grow into new plants. You can also remove suckers from plants growing in the ground.
Your chosen suckers should be 2 inches in diameter and about 12 inches tall before you remove them. The larger the sucker, the more likely it is to survive. The best suckers are those with narrow leaves, known as sword suckers. Wide leafed water suckers are more likely to fail because they often depend on the mother plant for survival.
To remove the suckers cut them away with a sharp, sterile knife. A whetstone is a great investment if you want to keep your garden tools as sharp as possible.
After making the cut, dig down beneath the severed sucker or pup. Dig as deeply as possible to lift as much of the plant and root system as possible. Be careful when separating the roots, suckers with damaged roots are likely to fail. Each pup should be a decent size and have at least some healthy roots attached. Plant the healthy pups on in a clean pot filled with light, potting mix as described above,
Whether you are repotting an established plant or potting freshly harvested suckers, plant as described above.
You can also lift the plant and divide the rhizome into even sections. Each section should have at least one eye or growing tip. After dividing the rhizome replant each section as described above. Growing from rhizomes is easy but takes longer than growing from suckers.
Banana shrub thrives in full sun or part shade. Plants grown in the sun will mature to a smaller size and have a more compact habit and their leaves will take on a yellow hue. Plants grown in light shade have medium green foliage and a slightly open, spreading habit.
Banana shrub can be hard to find in the landscape nursery. It might be necessary to visit or call several nurseries to find a plant, but this easy-to-grow shrub is worth the extra effort. Nursery specimens often have open and sparse branching and limited foliage. Plants will quickly fill out once they are planted in the landscape.
Usually a decorative or ornamental plant, if you are lucky spikes or inflorescence can emerge from the heart at the tip of the stem. This opens to reveal clusters of usually white flowers. The lower flowers are female and the top ones male.
After pollination fruit emerges from the flowers. The size of the fruit varies depending on the cultivar that you are growing. As the slender green fingers develop into a hand of bananas they turn and start to droop down towards the ground.
As the fruit ripens it plumps up and turns to a yellow shade from dark green. It can take up to 80 days from flowering, depending on the variety, for fruit to mature. Green fruit can be harvested and cooked like plantain.
When ripe harvest by cutting the hand away with a sharp knife. Store the harvested fruit in a cool spot away from direct sunlight.
Following pollination, fruit forms on the plant. Initially upright, as the fruit develops the hand bends down towards the ground.
Easy to grow, the banana tree is a fascinating and potentially fruitful addition to the home. Like other fruit trees they provide a great way to introduce privacy or create a natural windbreak.
Hardy specimens may not bear fruit but they will still add ornamental tropical interest to your garden. Smaller cultivars are just as attractive and can also be grown as houseplants or in greenhouses. This versatility means that almost anybody can enjoy the tropical elegance of a banana tree. Why not add one to your garden today?