I have just been given a banana plant, an offset from a parent plant which produced a cluster of bananas last summer in a small suburban conservatory. My plant, which is about 18 inches high, is Musa acuminata 'Dwarf Cavendish', a smaller relative of the banana grown commercially in the West Indies.
It is the most common variety for those who are hoping for edible fruit, although it is grown first and foremost for its leaves. They are huge, more than two feet long and a foot wide when the plant is established. Each leaf appears tightly rolled at the growing point, and then opens and flops outwards, so as the plant gets bigger it has a very jungly look. This is added to by the offsets which will appear around the main stem if the plant is happy. The leaves are very striking but not very tough - if brushed against they may tear or become damaged. They may also become scruffy if the plant suffers in any other way, either through cold or through inadequate watering. But with plenty of food and light, the leaves grow so fast and so big that they have a very dramatic effect in summer.
'Dwarf Cavendish' will need to be six or seven feet high before it will fruit. Bananas grow very quickly so I may get fruit this year, but next year is probably more realistic. It needs a minimum temperature of 10C (50F) in the winter to be happy, although it may survive a slightly colder snap. It will need much more heat, and some - but not full - sunshine in the summer if it is to fruit.
Richard Beatie, nursery manager of Scarlett's Quality Plants near Colchester, which specialises in conservatory plants, said bananas should be gown in a peat- or coir-based compost, as loam would be too heavy. He recommends very generous feeding to get the dramatic, large leaves. The plants should be potted up with a slow-release fertiliser, but then fed regularly with a weak low-nitrogen fertiliser. Another grower even suggested feeding every other day during the summer when the plant is growing fast.
Scarlett's new mail-order business, Conservatory PlantLine, offers Musa basjoo, also known as the Japanese banana, which is even hardier than 'Dwarf Cavendish'. In mild districts it will survive outside if wrapped during the coldest weather in sacking or some other protective material. But there seems to be a rather bigger question mark over M basjoo's ability to produce fruit.
Having acquired my banana plant I am wondering now about a tropical fruit salad. Grapes, of course, can be grown in this country. And so can oranges and tangerines. But if you want to eat them, take care to avoid the conservatory citrus called "calamondin". If I get any bananas I might make a West Indian hot fruit salad: bananas, white peaches, dark sticky Barbados sugar and rum put in a hot oven for 20 minutes to give a tropical flavour to fruit which will have seen only the northern sun.
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