Cooperative Extension Service 
Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
Hendry County Extension, P.O. Box 68, LaBelle, Florida 33975-0068  Phone (863) 674-4092

Hendry County Horticulture News

Bananas - Americas Favorite Fruit

Bananas, America's favorite fruit, are good choice for local gardeners, who wish to take advantage of our warm subtropical climate to experiment with exotic crops.  Bananas are easy to grow here in Hendry County. They grow quickly producing a tall plant with a lush tropical appearance.  They are useful in situations where vertical height is needed rapidly while slower growing trees gain size.

The banana is native to southeast Asia, where it was one of the first cultivated crops.  While the origins of bananas are shrouded in the mists of  antiquity, its universal appeal lead to its rapid dispersal throughout the tropics and warm subtropics.  The banana reached Africa very early being carried by Arab traders.  It was then distributed around the world in the 16th century by European navigators.

The banana is a fast growing herb, which consists of an underground rhizome like stem and an upright psuedostem or stalk which is actually made up of concentric layers of leaf sheaths, which form the functional trunk.  The true stem begins underground.  It grows upwards through the stalk eventually emerging from the center of the stalk 10-15 months after planting.  It is this true stem which bears the terminal inflorescence or flower which later produces fruit.  The large flag like leaves are characteristic of all bananas.  The individual florets are arranged spirally along the long axis of the inflorescence in groups of 10 - 20, covered by purplish fleshy bracts which are shed as the flower develops.  The first flowers to appear are female.  These develop rapidly without pollination into clusters of fruits, called hands.  The fruit is seedless in most edible cultivars.  As the inflorescence continues to elongate, sterile flowers are produced.  These are eventually shed in most varieties.

Most bananas and plantains are hybrids of Musa aciminata and Musa balbisiana, two wild species which are quite seedy.  In contrast to dessert bananas, plantains are large, starchy types which are generally cooked before eating.   Many types of bananas have been selected over time, so there are literally dozens of varieties available to the adventurous gardener.  The "Dwarf Cavendish" is more widely planted and adapted to the subtropics than any other dessert cultivar.  It is recommended for South Florida, with good care it will produce abundant fruit in frost free years.  "Apple" is another recommended desert type which produces small fruit with a pleasant flavor.  More unusual varieties include: "Ice Cream" which produces small bluish green bananas which yellow upon ripening and "Red Jamaican" which has red fruit with orange colored flesh.  The Horse banana or Horse plantain is a cooking type, which does well in our area.  It has the advantage of tolerating some amount of drought and neglect.

There are two common ways of propagating bananas.  Large suckers are the preferred planting material.  They should be removed from vigorous clumps with a sharp spade when they are 4-5 feet tall.  Suckers should have healthy roots and should be examined for pest and disease.  Only clean healthy suckers should be planted.  In the absence of healthy suckers, rhizomes may be dug and used for planting after paring off  all diseased or damaged tissue.   Large rhizomes may be cut into several pieces.  Each piece should have only white healthy tissue and a few buds.
March through May is the best planting time if irrigation is available.  Otherwise, planting should be delayed to coincide with the beginning of the rainy season.  The two greatest threats to banana production are wind and cold so choose a warm sheltered location for your plants.  Planting holes should be large (3 feet wide and 2 feet deep).  For top production, it is recommended to fill the hole with compost or soil mixture containing manure or other organic material.    Planting distance should be a minimum of 8 feet between holes for dwarf varieties and 12-15 feet for larger varieties.  With good care, suckers will produce fruit in 10-15 months after planting, rhizomes will take longer.

Banana plants need fertile conditions and an abundance of moisture for best growth and production.  The growth attained in the first few months of development of the stalk will determine the number of hands and the weight of the fruit produced.  Therefore, it is necessary to provide the best of care during this period.  On infertile soils, such as those found locally, bananas should be fertilized frequently for maximum production.  Bananas require high levels of potassium.  A fertilizer for bananas should contain a N-P-K ratio of 3-1-6.  Fertilizer requirements will vary according to the size and age and the number of stalks per clump.  Young plants should receive one pound of a 6-2-12 mixture every two months.  This amount should be increased gradually to 5-6 pounds at flowering and fruiting.  Adequate soil moisture is essential for good growth and production.  Use of mulch will help suppress weeds and maintain favorable soil moisture conditions.  Bananas are sensitive to flooding and will suffer from poor drainage and waterlogging.

Bananas produce suckers freely, excessive suckering will result in small bunches and low quality and lead to conditions favorable for disease.  For best production, each clump should be limited to 3-5 suckers in various stages of development.  Excess suckers are removed by chopping them off below ground and gouging out what remains to kill the bud.

Bananas are harvested when the fingers fill out and become plump.  Immature bananas will be angular in cross section; mature fruit will become rounded.  Alternatively, the fruit may be left on the plant until the first fruit turns yellow.  A banana stalk only produces fruit once.  After harvest the stalk is cut down and chopped up and left on the ground as mulch.  The harvested stalk should be hung in a cool shady place to ripen.  You should use caution not to get banana sap on clothing as it is quite staining and nearly impossible to remove.

There are several diseases that attack bananas.  Panama disease, which is devastating to bananas, is worldwide has no chemical or cultural control.  It can only be combated by using resistant varieties, such as Cavendish and its clones. Sigatoka, is a leaf spot disease, that lower production by destroying leaf tissue.  It can be controlled with fungicides.  Insects and nematodes are usually of little importance when the plants are kept healthy and vigorous.  The banana weevil, which bores into the stalks weakening them can occasionally become a problem.  It is controlled through the use of soil applied insecticides.

A stalk of bananas will yield more fruit than the typical family can consume.  Be prepared to give some away and have plenty of ice cream on hand for sundaes.  Good luck and good gardening.

Gene McAvoy is the horticulture agent with the Hendry County Extension Service.  Direct your horticulture questions to PO Box 68, LaBelle, FL 33975,  e-mail - or phone 863-674-4092 or 863-983-1598.  You are also welcome to visit the Hendry County Extension Office at 225 Pratt Blvd., LaBelle.   Office hours are from 8:00 - 5:00.

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