Though most people are only familiar with the yellow bananas sold in grocery stores, there are actually hundreds of varieties. The majority of the edible banana species are in the Musa genus, including the common Cavendish or dwarf banana (Musa acuminata, USDA plant hardiness zones 10 to 11), plantains (Musa balbisiana, USDA plant hardiness zones 9 to 12) or hybrids of these. They are easier to grow than one might think, and understanding the plants' structure is the first step toward successful cultivation.
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Specialized Structure of Banana Plants
Most people tend to think that bananas grow on trees, but this is incorrect. In fact, they are classified as plants – gigantic herbs that grow from rhizomes (underground, horizontal stems). These form "trunks" that can soar up to 20 feet high. There are leaf sheaths on the trunks plus the top has about 10 to 20 more leaves, which can be 10 inches to 11.5 inches wide.
The banana fruits start out as yellow and purple flowers, which appear at the top of the trunks. These bend down and are grouped in clusters of about 10 to 20. A healthy banana plant can produce up to 50 to 150 fruits at a time, but it only produces one crop during its lifetime.
Banana growers then cut down the dead trunks, and new shoots arise from the rhizome about every six months. The roots of a banana tree can be as wide as 30 inches and up to 5 feet deep. On average, though, they grow to be around 18 inches or less.
Common Banana Species
Cavendish bananas are the most common species (it also contains subgroups), but there are many other edible varieties too. The Cavendish is known for its sweetness and has a green peel when unripe that turns yellow when it is ready to eat. The more brown the peel, the riper it will be. Red bananas (Musa acuminata 'Red Dacca,' USDA plant hardiness zones 7 to 10) have red peels and pink, creamy flesh. They are usually softer and sweeter than Cavendish.
The Blue Java (Musa acuminata × balbisiana 'Blue Java,' USDA plant hardiness zones 8 to 11) is a well-known banana hybrid, and its taste and texture are compared to ice cream. Their peels turn yellow and spotted as they ripen, but the fruit has a blue color that deepens with maturity. They are also called "ice cream bananas."
Also on the sweeter side, Lady Finger bananas (Musa acuminata 'Lady Finger,' USDA plant hardiness zones 8 to 11) is called the "sugar banana" because of its flavor. These are very popular in southeast Asia and make excellent banana fritters. They are also one of the smallest kinds of bananas you can find and measure just 3 inches or so.
Growing Banana Plants
Banana plants are native to humid, tropical regions and do best in temperatures ranging from 80 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Different varieties have their own requirements, and most prefer full sun but may scorch and burn when it gets too hot. They should be planted in well-draining, loamy soil with a pH of 5.5 to 6.5. Plant them in clumps, as their shallow roots benefit from the added support.
For the best fruit yields, protect the plants from wind and mix a good amount of compost into the soil. Smaller varieties can also be grown in pots. Keep the soil evenly moist with regular, deep watering, especially during hot weather. You can even water them up to three times daily with sprinklers. Fertilize your banana plants once a month with a complete fertilizer but do not let that touch the leafy trunk.