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African Red, Macro bananas put on show
By Norman Winter
Central Mississippi Research & Extension Center
It seems Mississippi gardeners have gone nuts over bananas, and I can see why. I recently visited a turn-of-the-century home in downtown Jackson. Entering the backyard, I felt like I was in a tropical paradise with elephants ears, ferns, water features and tall bananas.
One garden center this year stocked bananas by the truckload and had more varieties than I have ever seen for sale in Mississippi. It is exciting to see bananas sold by variety or species.
Thanks to the Japanese fiber banana Musa basjoo, we can grow bananas and have gardens that look like the Caribbean no matter where we live. This is the most-cold hardy banana variety we know of now, and it returns from temperatures of 20 degrees below zero.
The flowering banana Musa ornata is also cold hardy, returning in the Tupelo and Oxford area with little problem. Most I see are pink selections, which I find picturesque in the garden.
There are other named varieties of the Musa ornata that definitely need to hit the market widely. We have been evaluating banana varieties at the Truck Crops Experiment Station in Crystal Springs for the past three growing seasons. With many perennials such as roses, the third year is magical, and the plant really comes on in the landscape that year.
This is the case with bananas. One variety we are testing is called Macro, but that name does not do the plant justice. The blossom is red and big, and will stop you in your tracks. Plant it in your tropical-style garden to make it look even more exotic. This is a Musa ornata variety which reaches 7 to 10 feet tall and is cold hardy through zone 7.
The other variety is African Red. This is a name I can live with. It forms a big clump, and all the shoots seem to bloom in unison, making it an incredible sight. The African Red's petioles, or leaf stems, have a reddish tinge to them, and it may be the prettiest blooming banana for the entire state. Like Macro, it reaches about 7 to 10 feet tall.
The banana plant does so much for landscapes by adding coarse texture. The big, bold leaf structure makes you think of far off, exotic locales even though it may be growing in Brandon, Jackson or Sumner.
No matter which banana you try, good winter drainage and a substantial layer of pine straw will help it return in the spring. I think most of us aren't feeding the bananas enough.
I saw the banana trial at Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Although our varieties were similar, their sizes were much larger. Some of this might be attributed to their soil, but I found they were pushing theirs a lot with fertilizer.
As you travel this summer, look for bananas being sold by variety. If one day you find African Red or Macro, know you are getting a plant that is extra special. You can see these and other bananas at MSU's Fall Flower and Garden Fest in Crystal Springs on Oct. 20-21.