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'Musa velutina'
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'Musa mannii'
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'Musa coccinea'
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'Musa bordelon'
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'Musa zebrina'
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Superdwarf ban
Super Dwarf Cavendish mature size
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Ornamental Bananas - Scene Magazine April 2005

Autumn is a lovely time in a subtropical garden because the foliage is at its most lush after months of warmth.

The fastest large-foliaged plants are undoubtedly the bananas (Musa), and in good soil some types can grow several metres in a single summer. The lime-green autumn light shining through young banana leaves can make an enchanting back-drop to a sheltered courtyard. Not all bananas are huge space-engulfing monsters like the Abyssinian bananam Musa ensete and its somewhat smaller sterile hybrid form Mus ensete maurelii with its purple-red leaves.

There are, in fact, bananas for every occasion.

Take the elegant Musa velutina. Grown for its brilliant pink flowers and velvety pink ornamental fruit through Summer and Autumn, it is no bigger than a large Canna. It usually grows about 2m tall in full sun, though it thrives in shade too, where it tends to be taller. The ripe fruit split open like fleshy pink flowers to expose the black seeds. But they taste vile, like an unripe persimmon. You only try them once.

The slender stems are between 10cm and 12cm thick and the clump can be maintained easily within one square metre of garden space.

Musa mannii, the Indian Dwarf banana, is another shorty and is grown for its big heads of multicoloured flowers, in shades of pink, orange and green. While generally about 1.5m to 1.8m tall, its stems can be up to 15cm through. The small, seedy fruit is also inedible.

From Thailand and Burma comes Musa coccinea. This one has very bright scarlet flowers which last several months and are highly prized by florists. Slender and more delicate in the cold, this one grows to about 2m with stems about 10cm to 12cm.

For sheer extravagance of foliage, nothing can match Musa zebrina, the Blood Banana. The green leaves are splashed with jagged patches of rich mahogany red on top while the undersides are purple-red. A slender and delicate 2m plant, this one needs perfect shelter and dappled light to look its best, but is ideal for a small warm courtyard.

The relatively hardy Musa 'Bordelon' (easily confused with Musa ornata) is yet another smallish, highly ornamental variety with red-splashed leaves whose undersides are dark red, while the flower is an unusual lavender pink and lasts for many months.

A recent introduction that trumps them all is the Cavendish "Super Dwarf" banana. It reaches 1m high at maturity. It will actually fruit sometimes but not reliably. It has very broad, short leaves providing a dramatic accent in a very small space.

All these beauties are available now in NZ and are especially suited to the milder parts of Northland.

The secret to keeping bananas (as well as Cannas, gingers and Heliconias) looking good is to remove the old stems as soon as the flower or fruit finishes and remove some of the young suckers as soon as they appear, to maintain the clump at the size you want.

Feed regularly with sheep or chicken manure and keep the soil always moist by mulching deeply. Transplant them only in the Spring or early Summer, while the soil is warm.

Bananas can easily look unkempt, so make sure you show them who's boss.

Growing these small, ornamental types of banana, it becomes obvious that the Cannas, gingers, Heliconias and Bird of Paradise families are all whanau and require the same sort of care.

Its hard to imagine a faster way to create an established-looking garden than to use bananas while the other long-term stuff is growing at a more sedate pace.

And rest assured, there is bound to be a banana that suits even the smallest garden.


(Text and photography copyright Russell Fransham 2005)