Bananas are one of the most well-known and loved fruits, but many people do not even wonder what plant they are obtained from. Bananas or bananas are perennial herbaceous plants of the genus Musa . At first glance it is easy to confuse them with palm trees, but they really have nothing to do with it, since the banana trees do not have a trunk. What appears to be a stem is actually a pseudostem made up of very tight leaf sheaths. They only form an aerial stem when they flower. The true stem is kept underground and is what is known as a rhizome, which only rises abroad in very old specimens.
Even among those who know these plants there is a belief that they are strictly tropical plants, and this is not true. From which the fruits sold in greengrocers are extracted, they are tropical, but there are many other species that are very resistant to cold. The most cold-resistant banana tree, Musa basjoo , withstands temperatures close to -20ºC. Below you can see the most important and striking species that we have selected for each of the two types of banana: tropical and cold resistant.
Tropical banana trees
These banana trees generally do not withstand the cold well and their fruits normally take more than half a year to mature, so it is not possible to obtain fruit in frosty climates. They prefer warm temperatures and high ambient humidity. They need a lot of water and fertile soil with good drainage. They prefer to be in full sun but tolerate some shade (the less humidity, the more shade they need). All banana trees that are cultivated on a large scale to extract fruit are in this category.
It is not a species in itself but a set of hybrids and cultivars of Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana . This is the name given to all large banana trees that produce edible fruit, commercial banana trees. Next we will see some plants included in this name.
One of the parents of Musa paradisiaca . It is called Malay banana or red banana, since its bananas have a reddish color. It has a large distribution area since it inhabits Southeast Asia, like most species of the genus. and also part of the islands of Oceania close to Asia. Normally the fruit of the wild specimens is not edible and is full of black seeds. Its size is highly variable, from more than 7m high to less than a couple of meters. Wild plants are usually completely green, with a wax coating that gives them a slightly bluish hue.
Musa acuminata ‘red dacca’
An ornamental cultivar (actually set of cultivars) of Musa acuminata with completely red fruits and pseudostem. Its bananas are edible, taste good and do not develop seeds , but it is not common to see it in plantations. In Central America it is fairly common to find these bananas for sale, but in Spain if you want to try them, you have to buy the plant and wait for it to bear fruit. It tends to be moderately large (more than 5m tall) with a very fast growth, so it can be grown in frost climates as an annual plant, taking advantage of the tropical aspect during the summer.
Musa acuminata ‘cavendish’
Another set of cultivars. Cavendish banana trees are the most important commercially, generating more than 90% of banana production today . They are medium plants that produce yellow fruits without seeds. The fruit is less tasty than that of other cultivars, but due to the robustness of the plant and the quantity of bananas it produces it is the most widely used. Canary banana trees are of this type. There is a dwarf cultivar, Musa acuminata ‘dwarf cavendish’ that is widely used in gardening. They usually have a reddish pseudostem with black spots. In young and vigorous specimens the leaves usually present reddish and metallic spots.
The other parent of Musa paradisiaca . It is a large plant (up to 7m tall and more than 30cm the base of the pseudostem) with long leaves with yellowish green fruit (with seeds in wild plants, without them in commercial cultivars) . It tolerates heavier soils than other banana trees and also some drought. It is called male plantain since it is from where this fruit is extracted (although the one obtained from hybrids with M. acuminata is of higher quality ). Its fruit is edible although somewhat tasteless and greatly improves when fried. It can also be used to extract fibers, although there are better options. It lives in Southeast Asia, from India to China, up to 2000m of altitude, which explains its resistance to cold. Depending on the originIt can hold up to about -5ºC . It needs very high temperatures to grow, so even if you tolerate the cold you need hot summers. We put it in this group because its bananas only ripen in frost-free areas.
Image – Reddit
The giant banana tree. It is the largest plant in the entire Musaceae family, reaching a height of more than 20m , with a circumference at the base that can exceed 2m and leaves of about 5m in length (counting only lamina and petiole), which gives it the stall of the larger acaule plant (remember that the pseudostem is not a real stem, it is the leaf sheaths). Bananas are yellowish and of good size, but are not edible . A peculiarity of this banana tree is that it does not tolerate heat. It wants temperatures that are always around 20ºC, with an environmental humidity close to 100%. It inhabits New Guinea forests at a certain altitude.
Cold-resistant banana trees
These plants generally also come from the intertropical zone, but they grow at high altitudes so they tolerate low temperatures. Something to keep in mind is that with any frost they will dry the leaves, and if strong frosts are expected, the pseudostem must be protected or it will freeze to the ground. This is a must do if you want to get a large plant or watch it bloom. Without this protection, all these species will freeze to the ground below about -5ºC, having to sprout from the rhizome, which will make it rare for you to get plants over 1m high. Very few produce edible bananas.
To protect them, it is as simple as surrounding the pseudostem with a good layer of straw and then surrounding it with thermal geotextile mesh, putting a plastic roof on it. If you don’t expect too much cold, wrapping them with several layers of thermal geotextile mesh is enough.
Musa balbisiana ‘atia black’
Image – seedman
A purely ornamental cultivar of Musa balbisiana with the black pseudostem . It is somewhat more resistant to cold than the species (it usually holds up to -5ºC without problem). Bananas are probably edible , but as they are often grown in areas with cool winters they are rarely seen. In any case, it is an ornamental plant, so although the fruit is edible it will not be of quality. Like the species, it needs a lot of heat to grow, so it is not recommended for cool climates.
The banana tree more resistant to cold , which in theory can hold up to around -20ºC . Its natural distribution area is southern China, mainly the Sichuan province, although it is more common to see it in Japan, where it is cultivated for the extraction of fiber (which gives it its common name, Japanese fiber banana). Its resistance to cold added to the fact that it does not need much heat to grow makes it the most cultivated in climates with frost . It is a medium or small plant, which usually does not exceed 3m in height of a light green color. Its pseudostem is usually surrounded by remnants of dry leaves. Its greenish fruit is not edible . Its leaves are rather thin with short petioles.
Similar to Musa basjoo but with a more tropical air. It has many cultivars with different cold resistance, from -5ºC to about -15ºC. Its most interesting cultivars are those with fully or partially red leaves, such as ‘red tiger’. They are medium-sized plants that usually do not exceed 5m in height, with fairly wide leaves compared to the rest of this group , which gives them their tropical appearance. They are dark green with more or less marked reddish tones. Its pseudostem is usually covered in dry leaves. It is not recommended for cool climates since they need a lot of heat to grow. Bananas are always greenish and are not edible. Native to northwestern India and lowland Himalayas (up to about 2000 meters above sea level).
A very small banana tree that rarely goes more than a meter and a half high . Withstands temperatures close to -10ºC . Appearance similar to Canna indica but with more scattered leaves and a pink pseudostem. The fruits are pink and edible, but very small (about the size of a big toe) , full of seeds and somewhat tasteless. It is a very interesting species since the fruit ripens very quickly, so that bananas can be harvested even in cool summer climates, in addition to being very striking. Another unique feature of this banana tree is that it flourishes even after it has frozen to the ground.
A recently discovered banana tree that has been cultivating for only a short time. Medium to large in size, it can be up to about 10m tall , with a very fine pseudostem. It appears to be almost as tough as Musa basjoo , but it is still not known for sure. What is known is that it recovers from the cold faster than Musa sikkimensis . It inhabits forests from the eastern Himalayas to western Yunnan (China). They have a dark colored pseudostem, from reddish to purple, almost black. They are completely covered with a white wax, which added to the dark pseudostem gives them a truly striking appearance. The leaves are very long, attached to the pseudostem by a very fine petiole.Their bananas are inedible and always stay green, but the wax coating makes them appear bluish.
Musa ‘Helen’s hybrid’
Image – plantdelights
It is not particularly resistant to cold (down to around -5ºC , the pseudostem down to around -3ºC), but it deserves a mention for having fully edible and tasty fruits, with seeds , but not very bothersome. It is a hybrid of Musa sikkimensis and Musa ‘Chini-champa’. It has leaves similar to those of Musa sikkimensis , but covered with wax and with a reddish color only on the underside, and with a slightly pink pseudostem.
There are many other banana species and cultivars, both tropical and cold hardy, but these are the easiest to find and most interesting. I invite you to try to grow some of these plants regardless of where you live, and I hope this article can serve as a guide to decide the species.