By: Elisabeth Ginsburg
Banana plants (Musa spp.) are tropical, tree-like perennials that produce some of the world’s best-loved fruits. In their native regions, they often soar high into the sky, crowned by giant paddle-shaped leaves, which can be 6- to 10-feet long, and pendulous bunches of fruit. A mature plant bearing a bumper banana crop is an inspiring sight.
But, bananas don’t have to reach the stratosphere or live in the tropics. Dwarf and compact favorites can also do star turns as dramatic house plants, even in limited indoor spaces. All you need to do is choose the right banana, the right spot, and provide a modest amount of care and feeding. You may or may not harvest fruit, but you will have a fast-growing specimen that will bring a touch of the exotic to your indoor environment.
Choose Your Indoor Banana
Some of the best bananas for indoor culture are varieties or hybrids of the Cavendish banana (Musa acuminata). These are also the most likely to produce edible fruit if provided with optimal growing conditions. In the wild, the species can reach 20 feet tall, but popular varieties like ‘Super Dwarf Cavendish’ and ‘Dwarf Lady Finger’ top out at 3 to 6 feet, respectively.
If you are buying your banana for beautiful foliage, the range of choices is larger. Japanese fiber banana (Musa basjoo), can survive outside in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 5 to 10, but it is also happy grown as an indoor plant. The large green leaves have the characteristic elongated profile, sprouting from thick stalks that can grow up to 8 feet tall indoors. If your indoor space has high ceilings, Musa basjoo might be just right.
The hybrid banana known as Musa ‘Dwarf Red’, ‘Dwarf Jamaican’ or ‘Macaboo’ bears green leaves with pink to red midribs. The plant’s “trunk”, which is actually a thickened stem, is a dramatic dark red. Confined to an indoor container, ‘Dwarf Red’ may reach up to 6 feet in height.
On the smaller end of the banana spectrum is another hybrid, Musa ‘Truly Tiny’, which tops out at just 2 to 4 feet tall. The plant makes up for its small size with big green leaves, occasionally splashed with red. It is perfect for a corner, pedestal, or even a table accent.
Scarlet banana (Musa coccinea) is another low grower that reaches about 4.5 feet tall, with large green leaves. The “scarlet” in its name comes from the brilliant petal-like bracts that enclose the small, true flowers and provide maximum visual interest. Another compact beauty with red color is the 4- to 6-foot pink velvet banana (Musa velutina ‘Pink Velvet’), which quickly bears pinkish-red bananas. The fruits are very sweet but contain large, tough seeds.
Growing Indoor Bananas
Like most other plants, bananas do best in conditions that match their native habitats. Indoors a greenhouse is probably the best situation. In the absence of a greenhouse, you can still grow banana plants in comfortable living situations with bright light.
Start with cozy temperatures. Bananas thrive at temperatures that are equally congenial to humans, 60 degrees Fahrenheit and above, but the warmer, the better, especially in the daytime. High humidity is also helpful. Place the plants in saucers filled with pebbles and water, or position shallow pans of water near the plant. Mist regularly.
Choose the right pot for your banana. Online vendors often sell young plants in four-inch containers. Transplant to a six or eight-inch container and watch for signs that the plant is becoming root-bound (roots emerging from drainage hole). Installing your new banana in a very large container immediately is not a good idea, because the large amount of potting soil will retain water and potentially cause root rot. Instead, increase the container width by two inches each time you repot. Eventually your banana will need a roomy container—at least five gallon capacity and possibly larger for taller specimens–in order to thrive.
Fill containers with a quality potting mix, like Fafard® Ultra Container Mix with Extended Feed or Fafard® Natural & Organic Potting Soil combined with perlite in a ratio of four parts soil to one part perlite. If you use a potting mix without built-in fertilizer, feed your banana every month with a balanced fertilizer following package directions. Stop fertilizing in the winter months when the shorter days and somewhat cooler temperatures slow growth.
Indoors, bananas need as much light as possible, and will do best in a south, east or west-facing window. Position the plant away from drafts and rotate the container on a regular basis for even growth. Water thoroughly whenever the top of the soil is dry to the touch.
Bananas appreciate a summer vacation outside, provided the container is not too heavy or awkward to move. Be sure to return the plant to its indoor home when night temperatures fall below 65 degrees Fahrenheit.
Getting Indoor Bananas to Fruit
Bananas grow fast, but fruiting is slow. If you choose one of the varieties that produce edible fruit, you may have to wait two or three years for the pendulous flower stalk to appear. When flowering happens, don’t worry about pollination. Bananas don’t require pollination to set fruit. The fruit bunches will not be as large or plentiful as those that hang from outdoor banana trees, but they will be a source of much greater satisfaction.
And if you never get any fruit from your banana, take pleasure in its elegant leaves and the fact that with the addition of only one plant, you have established a little corner of the tropics in the temperate confines of your home.
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