Articles written by Darryl McCullough (unless otherwise noted)

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Bananas 101

For a couple of weeks we'll be talking about bananas. Next time we'll look at the question of whether to remove the banana flower once the fruit has formed. For now, let's make sure everyone has seen the basics about banana plants.

The first thing to know is that there is no such thing as a banana tree--- banana plants contain no wood. They consist of a tuberlike underground stem, called a corm, and individual stalks that emerge from it. Each stalk will flower and fruit only once, and then should be removed. Indeed, once the plant is well established, you can whack off stems without hurting it a bit. An often-recommended approach is to allow only three stems at a time: a full-sized one, a partially grown one, and a small one. This forces the plant to put all of its energy into fruiting on one stalk at a time.

Remove young stems by chopping them off the corm with a sharp-edged shovel, as cutting them at ground level just lets them keep growing. Allow a stem to grow only if it shoots up close to a big stalk and puts out just a few narrow leaves at first. These are "spears" growing directly from the corm and drawing on its stored energy. The smaller new stems that leaf out more, and are usually farther from the big stalks, are starting more-or-less from scratch, and will take much longer to grow and fruit. These should go in the compost, but spears can easily be potted up or just directly planted to make a new banana plant.

If you've never seen a banana plant forming fruit, it's like something from another planet. Each stalk puts out one large leaf at a time as it grows, keeping the last five to ten leaves as older ones wilt. After about 35 leaves, a single large deep red bud emerges on a leafless central stem. As the stem lengthens, little hands of tiny bananas are formed just behind the bud. Eventually this process stops, and the bananas grow in size until you or the squirrels decide they are ready to harvest.

The bud is generally called the banana flower, but it's really a housing for the male flowers that are exposed as leaves curl off the bud. The tiny female flowers that actually become the bananas are on the stalk itself. After the formation, the bud just sits there at the end of the stalk as the bananas grow and ripen. Many folks, including commercial growers, cut the flower off once the fruits are formed, but others leave them on. Next time, we'll look at the arguments on both sides of this grand controversy.

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