Banana plants attractive even when not in bloom

December 14, 2011

Our sense of smell is strongly linked to our memory. A whiff of a fir tree will remind us of Christmas, or the smell of popcorn can flood us with memories of watching movies with friends.  So it’s no wonder that we often choose our house plants for their smell as much as their beauty.  A trace of bananas in the air may remind us of cozy breakfasts or the tropics, regardless of the weather.  A rare but worthy houseplant called the banana shrub (Michelia figo) has flowers with a distinct, delightfully sweet banana aroma.  Originally from China, this member of the magnolia family blooms all year.

Banana shrub flowers grow out of a cigar-shaped, fuzzy brown bud.

The waxy flowers are like tiny magnolias, just under two inches across, with fuzzy purple stamens.  Usually the blooms are a creamy off-white with a thin edge of dark burgundy red, though some varieties have solid purple flowers.  The evergreen leaves are glossy deep green, making it attractive even when not in bloom.

This shrub was introduced to America in the 1700s and soon became a classic evergreen in the South, where it grows outdoors up to 15 feet tall.  As a houseplant it usually stays between two and four feet tall.  It grows well in a bright window. This is one houseplant that doesn’t mind it being a little cool, though avoid drafts.

This is a slow-growing houseplant with a rounded, open habit. It prefers a slightly acidic, sandy potting soil that drains well.  You may want to add Perlite or peat moss to the soil.

This plant may be hard to find in some areas, so you may need to special order through a local nursery or buy one through mail order form companies such as Logees. Like all houseplants, the banana shrub does best in a pot with a drainage hole. Keep the soil evenly moist and avoid cold water; lukewarm water is better. Let the soil dry then thoroughly soak the pot until water runs out of the bottom. Feed banana shrub every month during spring and summer with a diluted water-soluble fertilizer.  Don’t feed it during the shorter days of winter when most growth slows down.  Only repot when necessary as it does best slightly root bound.  If your banana shrub gets infested with mealy bugs apply pure Neem Oil.

You can take stem cuttings in the late summer and root them in a mixture of moist peat and Perlite. Cover the entire pot and cutting with a plastic bag secured by a rubber band to keep the moisture level up. Place the potted cutting in indirect sunlight and it should root within a few weeks.

Long Island Greek-American greengrocer Jimmy Costas’  broken English first popularized  a catchphrase that became the title of a Broadway hit song in 1922.  But Broadway aside, you really can have the fruity fragrance of bananas with banana shrub in bloom, even when “Yes, we have no bananas!”

  • Paul Barbano writes about gardening from his home in Rehoboth Beach. Contact him by writing to P. O. Box 213, Lewes, DE 19958.

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