Ne­glect can bring re­wards

Country Life Every Week - - In The Garden - Mark Grif­fiths

OUGHT to have been at the beach, like any other eight year old on a fam­ily hol­i­day in Corfu, but I pre­ferred a thicket of the ba­nana Musa basjoo that grew in the ho­tel gar­den. I was cap­ti­vated, never be­fore hav­ing been so close to any plant so mar­vel­lous. Its waxy stems were thicker than my body (this was a very long time ago), up to 10ft tall and canopied with im­mense pad­dle-shaped leaves that un­furled with watch­able speed.

From their midst hung buds the shape and size of rugby balls and the colour of half-ripe peaches. A suc­ces­sion of great rub­bery bracts would peel back from these buds to re­veal rows of flow­ers, caramel-toned and sweet, that drew swarms of hor­nets and iri­des­cent bee­tles. Within a few days of one of these pol­li­na­tion or­gies, the bract would fall to earth with a plop, leav­ing ex­posed a hand of bud­ding bananas. It was The Lost World, Jean-henri Fabre and Where the Wild Things Are rolled into one. It was the best plant ever.

The ho­tel’s gar­dener was a for­mi­da­ble ma­tron, whose at­ti­tude to­wards me turned from quizzi­cal to com­pan­ion­able over the weeks that I paid court to her Musa. On the last day of the hol­i­day, she ap­peared hold­ing an adze of Her­culean heft. Demon­strat­ing a swing that would have graced the Corfu Town cricket ground, she de­tached one of the ba­nana’s rooted suck­ers and pre­sented it to me with a smile as sparkling as the Io­nian.

Over the past 44 years, I’ve planted her gift in all of my gar­dens

Iand watched it form stock­ades of stems as mas­sive as its mother’s. I’ve also given some of its many off­sets to friends. It has flow­ered for them, but never for me un­til a few weeks ago, when it erupted into bloom. Credit for this long-awaited tri­umph should prob­a­bly go to the weather (al­though my ba­nana has known hot­ter Eng­lish sum­mers) and to some­thing less mea­sur­able that prized plants rarely re­ceive but un­doubt­edly of­ten crave: ne­glect.

Along with other semi-hardy Musa species, M. basjoo needs win­ter pro­tec­tion out­side Lon­don and the far South-west. I wait un­til hard frosts loom and then di­vest each stem of leaves, wrap it loosely but thickly with hor­ti­cul­tural fleece and en­case that, in turn, with plas­tic sheet­ing. These years, in our shel­tered Ox­ford gar­den, dress­ing the ba­nana is a Christ­mas Eve rit­ual. The cov­ers come off soon af­ter Easter: M. basjoo chafes against its con­fines in spring and will sur­vive short freezes dis­robed.

Friends for whom my ba­nana has flow­ered don’t al­ways bother with this swad­dling. Last year, for once, I didn’t ei­ther, as all hours were de­voted to my late fa­ther. As far as the weather went, the win­ter proved mild and now the ba­nana is re­ward­ing me for leav­ing it to ripen in the bright brac­ing air rather than lag­ging it to sweat and strug­gle in dark­ness.

A sim­i­lar case is Nelumbo Momo Botan (‘peach pe­ony’), the most de­mure sa­cred lo­tus cul­ti­var for tubs on sunny ter­races. Nor­mally, I’d drag it un­der cover for the win­ter and re­plant its rhi­zomes in fresh soil the fol­low­ing spring. This year, hav­ing left it to the el­e­ments, I gave it up for lost. Come May, just as I was about to con­sign the tub’s con­tents to the com­post heap, shoots be­gan to ap­pear. It’s gone on to give us the best dis­play of fo­liage and flow­ers that I’ve ever seen on a lo­tus grown out­doors in Eng­land.

The basjoo of Musa basjoo is an in­ept translit­er­a­tion of basho, Ja­panese for ba­nana. This species grows wild in Ja­pan’s south­ern­most is­lands and is cul­ti­vated, with vary­ing de­grees of win­ter pro­tec­tion, through­out the rest of the ar­chi­pel­ago. In the late 17th cen­tury, a young plant of it was given to the coun­try’s great­est poet and in­stalled be­side his cot­tage. He de­vel­oped such a love of sit­ting be­neath its canopy and lis­ten­ing to the rain on its leaves that he adopted the pen-name Basho.

In our gar­den, the Musa that was his muse grows be­side the house in sun and rich damp soil. It dom­i­nates an area given over to Ja­panese plants, where, by chance, there’s also a ven­er­a­ble pond com­plete with plung­ing frogs, just as in Basho’s most fa­mous haiku. Far from Corfu it may be, but, af­ter its four decade-long odyssey, my ba­nana fi­nally seems to be feel­ing at home.

‘In our Ox­ford gar­den, dress­ing the ba­nana is a Christ­mas Eve rit­ual

Mark Grif­fiths is edi­tor of the New Royal Hor­ti­cul­tural So­ci­ety Dic­tio­nary of Gar­den­ing

Go­ing bananas: Musa basjoo might not need the cod­dling you think

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