Neglect can bring rewards
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