GARDENING : Bananas' Appeal Grows in Bunches

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For Frank Burkard of San Clemente, a banana was just a banana until he starting growing his own plants and harvesting the fruit as it ripened on the stalk.

"The fruit is much sweeter than commercial bananas in the markets, and each variety has a different flavor," he said.

Burkard is so impressed with these plants that he now grows 10 varieties. He predicts that banana plants will be the next plant trend, especially for gardeners along the coastal areas of Orange County.

And he should know, because he has more than 46 years of experience in the nursery and landscape industry.

His father, Hans, founded Burkard Nurseries in Pasadena in 1938. From an early age, Frank worked in the family business and, when he retired, turned the thriving nursery over to his son, Frank Jr., who continues the family tradition.

The nursery is famous for perennials and bulbs, and the Burkard family enjoys experimenting with new plants, with Burkard's San Clemente garden used as a testing site.

Three years ago, Burkard began experimenting with banana plants and says he is delighted with their success.

"They're so easy to grow, take very little care, and they're gorgeous plants in a landscape," he said. "Their broad, green leaves complement other leaf shapes, and the plants give definition in the garden."

Although some people refer to banana plants as trees, and some varieties soar up to 30 feet, the plants are, in fact, herbaceous perennials that grow from corms or rhizomes. Each stalk grows rapidly and, within a year or two, depending on the variety, sets a flower, fruits and dies back to the ground. The mother plant produces "pups" that spread from rhizomes to form a large clump.

Native to Southeast Asia, bananas now grow in most tropical and subtropical areas of the world. Until fairly recently, it wasn't known that bananas could flourish in Southern California.

Doug Richardson, owner of Seaside Banana Gardens in La Conchita, between Ventura and Santa Barbara, began growing bananas in his own garden 10 years ago. A landscape designer specializing in edible landscapes, he wanted to introduce more types of edible plants into his designs. He kept detailed records of his cultivation methods and determined that bananas thrive in his area of La Conchita. He got more varieties and now grows 50 of the world's 300 fruiting varieties. As news of his success has spread, so has the cultivation of back-yard bananas. Now he supplies many nurseries throughout California and the West.

The enemies of banana plants in Southern California are freezes and strong winds, so they must be planted in sheltered locations, such as against a wall or structure. Wind easily shreds the large leaves and can topple tall plants, especially when they're bearing fruit that can weigh up to 100 pounds. They do best in sunny locations but will bear fruit in a partial shade exposure. There are no insects in North America known to attack bananas, and the plants are also resistant to plant diseases.

Richardson reports that an established plant can withstand freezes. "Although the plant will die back to the ground, after the temperature warms up the plant will usually regenerate."

As a professional landscape designer, he also sees the value of the plants in a garden. "They can screen out an unwanted view, create privacy and shade a wall, window or patio more quickly than any other landscape plant."

The versatility of bananas carries through to their use in the kitchen. In addition to producing edible fruit, the young shoots are edible, as is the heart or core of the stem obtained after the bunch is harvested. (Bunches of fruit are commonly known as "hands," and each fruit is a "finger.")

In many cultures, the leaves are used for wrapping foods such as tamales or fish and rice dishes and are used for steaming, baking or grilling. In many areas, the leaves are also used as plates.

Spring is ideal to plant bananas, and they're usually available bare-root, as corms, at a lower price than containerized plants.

How to Grow Bananas

Plants range from dwarf varieties growing to five or six feet to soaring plants that tower 30 feet. Select the size that suits your landscape. Dwarf varieties also grow well in containers.

For a landscape setting, select a site that's protected from wind. Dig a hole 24 to 36 inches wide and 18 inches deep. Add an organic fertilizer and a supplemental potassium source such as green sand or kelp meal (available at nurseries or garden centers) to the soil that's been removed from the hole.

Place most of the amended soil back into the hole, and place the corm three to four inches below soil level. Leave about two inches of the top of the corm exposed and fill with soil gradually, as leaves appear, usually in four to six weeks.

Water thoroughly and keep soil moist, but not soggy, until several new leaves appear. Banana plants need a lot of water and fertilizer because they grow rapidly. Irrigate once a week (or more in hot summer or fall weather), and fertilize every two months with an organic fertilizer containing potassium.

The plants also benefit from a thin layer of organic material spread as a mulch around the base. Burkard and Richardson use old well-shredded banana leaves.

If you'd like to see what bananas look like in a landscape, you can visit the Fullerton Arboretum in Fullerton or Sherman Library & Gardens in Corona del Mar.

Richardson recommends the following varieties for Orange County:

* Brazilian, or ladyfinger. Richardson's top choice for Southern California. Also called "Hawaiian apple," this is a tall, rapidly growing plant that reaches 25 feet. It produces medium-size bunches of small fruit and is considered one of the best-tasting varieties in the world.

* Cardaba. Hardy, vigorous, 12 to 16 feet tall. Quickly produces large clumps. Bears medium bunches of fruit with bright yellow, waxy skin. Fruit has an orange flesh that can be eaten raw and is also used as a cooked vegetable-like dish or dessert.

* Cavendish varieties. Produce large bunches of large-size fruit with exceptional flavor and sweetness. Plant grows to eight to 12 feet. Also grow well in containers.

* Ice cream, or blue java. Extremely vigorous and healthy, growing 15 to 20 feet. Medium bunches of bananas with a silvery-blue hue before ripening. Flavor suggests ice cream; fruit can be eaten raw or cooked.

* Manzano. A rapid grower of both fruit and clumps. Bears fruit within 15 months of planting. Fruit must ripen fully or it will be astringent. Flavor is reminiscent of apples.

* Mysore. Widely grown in India. Grows 15 to 18 feet. An ornamental landscape plant because of the reddish purple coloring in the trunk, leaf petioles and undersides of the leaves. Produces heavy bunches of very sweet bananas.

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Seaside Banana Gardens, a nursery and tropical fruit stand 12 miles north of Ventura, is open to visitors from 9 a.m. to dusk daily. Visitors can walk through the 12-acre banana plantation and buy plants and freshly harvested bananas and other exotic fruit. The address is 6823 Santa Barbara Ave., La Conchita. Phone (805) 643-4061.

A number of independent nurseries and all Nurseryland stores in Orange County stock plants from Seaside Banana Gardens. Check with local stores for availability.

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