With the right mulch and minerals, you might just grow a collectable banana plant. Words Diana Noonan
Banana grower, Hugh Rose, heads the group Tropical Fruit Growers of New Zealand, a community of professional and amateur growers specialising in the sorts of fruit that most of us probably don’t even realise grows in our part of the world. On his 24ha property, a short drive from Whangārei, it’s bananas that have captivated Hugh’s attention, most of all. I asked him why.
“I’ve always liked to grow plants that I can browse on. As a kid, in England, I used to know exactly where every wild blackberry, hazelnut and walnut grew. Nowadays, I find wild peach trees and grapevines, and I snack on the fruit from them!”
Over the years, Hugh has owned a number of farms and rural properties, and on every one he found himself planting edibles to nibble on as he passed by. He grew his first bananas back in 2000, planting them quite randomly, here and there. But in one particular location (where a former pigsty had stood), his banana plants flourished.
Hugh clicked to the fact that the bananas were growing in their perfect element – a spot where they had lots of decaying, organic matter to draw on. Over the years, however, fruit on the pigsty banana trees grew smaller and smaller, even though the plants themselves continued to do well.
That’s when Hugh realised there had to be more to growing bananas as fruit than he thought. And so, his serious interest in this remarkable plant began in earnest.
Even though Hugh enjoys bananas as fruit, he doesn’t grow them in a market gardening sense. The fruit produced from his plants is sometimes sold by others, at local markets, but Hugh is more interested in growing plants for those who do produce bananas on a commercial scale. And his passion for collecting different varieties of banana is insatiable, as he explains.
“I have around 40 varieties of banana in my collection, sourced from all over the place. The thing is, New Zealand is like a Noah’s Ark. Before concerns about biosecurity, people would come into the country, and bring banana plants with them. Some of the banana plants we have in New Zealand would now be quite difficult to locate in other parts of the world.”
Hugh often hears ‘banana stories’, such as: “Grandad came home from the Boer War with this banana, and it’s been growing in our backyard ever since.” The oldest variety in Hugh’s collection was brought into New Zealand in 1890 by Robert Lester, who ran the Kohukohu General Store.
Hugh nurtures the bananas in his collection, and if they look like they might have commercial potential, he is happy to grow divisions from them, and sell or swap them.
The land on which Hugh grows his bananas is virtually all rock, but he says that soil is immaterial to his plants.
“It’s the mulching that goes around the banana plants that’s important – I use a huge amount of pine mulch.”
Hugh also adds a scattering of nitrate and phosphate, and some magnesium and boron – but is quick to point out that it’s young plants he’s aiming for rather than quality fruit.
“If you want quality fruit, you’ll need to top up on minerals and fertiliser (a couple of handfuls of Nitrophoska per plant) twice a year (starting in September). Place it around the drip line, and let the rain wash it in. Organic growers should concentrate on adding lots of decaying vegetation (dig a shallow pit around the outside of the patch you’re planting your bananas into, and just keep filling it with compost).”
Every so often, a particular banana variety will attract significant interest from buyers. Hugh explains: “There are collectors out there who sometimes want to plant a banana for its novelty value. The ‘Royal Hawaiian’ banana is not a particularly good fruiting variety, but it’s certainly the most beautiful plant imaginable. When kept indoors, where it can’t be shredded by the wind, its leaves display a perfect purple edge and central stem. The leaves and fruit are striped. It was originally reserved for royalty.”
In 2021, a single ‘Royal Hawaiian’ plant reached a bid of $999.99 on Trade Me. Hugh has a few ‘Royal Hawaiian’ plants available (for $500 each). However, he says he would prefer to swap for the likes of a ‘Gros Michel’ banana – now that’s a collector for you!
Banana plants sourced from garden centres need to be carefully cosseted over the winter months as they are not normally grown from an established corm (the rhizome at the base of a parent plant) and lack an internal energy supply to see them through the dormant period. To help them survive the coldest months, bring them inside and treat them as a potted plant.
The best bananas to grow are young plants (also called ‘pups’) that are taken from a parent plant between October and February (take them from a clump that reliably produces good fruit). When taking a pup from its parent, always cut away a good section of corm, along with the pup’s stem. Remove the leaves from the pup before planting it.
Those who live in colder regions can still grow bananas, provided the plants are sheltered from frost. However, fruit is unlikely to result.
To obtain large fruit, maintain just three stems on your banana clump (they are known as the ‘Mother’, ‘Daughter’ and ‘Granddaughter’). Young plants, which form around the base of the parent plant, will rob the parent of nutrients.
Young plants (pups) can be dug and potted up or replanted, however this weakens the root structure. Hugh often kills off young plants he doesn’t require by cutting across their stem, then injecting them with a tiny (2ml) drop of diesel. This prevents the stem from regrowing, but maintains the corm’s root integrity.
Yellow Sigatoka is a common fungal disease that affects all banana plants over winter in New Zealand. It moves in when the plants are stressed and at their weakest. Once the warmth arrives and the bananas start growing again, they shrug it off. Yellow Sigatoka can be treated with an antifungal spray, but Hugh chooses to simply remove the affected material from the plants after winter.
Although bananas will survive with little water, they require adequate moisture when fruiting. Place open-ended bags over flowers as soon as they appear to protect them from blemishes.
Weed/mulch banana plants regularly as they are very shallow rooted, and do not enjoy competition.
Hugh runs workshops to teach others the art of banana growing. If you’re interested in attending, contact Hugh at his website landofthelotus.nz. But be in quick – the courses are swiftly booked out. To learn more about banana growing in New Zealand, join Tropical Fruit Growers’ Facebook group Banana Growers of NZ.
• In the wild (where bananas don’t fruit well), a banana eventually exhausts itself because of the demands placed on it by its young suckers. Reproduction of wild bananas is successful because of the spread of their seed. Edible bananas generally don’t have viable seeds as they are hybrids of two wild species.
• New Zealand has around 100–200ha of land in commercial production. The most popular bananas grown are the hardy ‘Misi Luki’ and ‘Lady Finger’.
• Bananas make an excellent fodder crop for stock, and would suit being grown on dairy farms where effluent is readily available. If fodder, rather than fruit, is the priority, cool climate banana varieties, such as the ‘Musa Basjoo’ (or Abyssinian plants, which can tolerate snow) can be grown in cold regions.
• Bananas are the perfect plants for cleaning up our waterways because they thrive on the nitrates and phosphates that often enter waterways from farms.
• Iceland does not import bananas. Even though the country has only six months of sunshine a year, it grows all its bananas in double-skin greenhouses using underfloor heating. This is thanks to country’s geothermal energy reserves.