Banana trees are what most people think of when speaking about tropical plants. Surprisingly bananas are classified botanically as berries, and the banana tree is a distant relative of ginger. The term banana comes from the Arabic word ‘banan,’ which means finger.
Bananas are native to tropical areas in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Australia. They were first cultivated in Papua New Guinea. Bananas are listed as one of the most popular fruits worldwide and are grown in numerous countries.
Bananas are from the Musa genus and the Musaceae family. Banana plants are called trees, but this is inaccurate as they have a false trunk. Their stems consist of giant leaf stalks, making them the biggest herbaceous plants in the world. They can grow thirty to sixty feet tall, depending on the cultivar.
Banana trees have an underground rhizome surrounded by a network of roots. The stems give rise to enormous leaves which may be twenty-two feet long. The leaves are bright green with a clear stem and leaf lamina on either side. The false trunk is usually brown with peeling layers.
Banana trees produce bananas that are curved fruit that vary in size according to the cultivar. They are usually yellow but may be red, brown, pink, green and white striped or black.
Bananas grow in hot, humid conditions where water is plentiful. They are not cold tolerant and die quickly with frost. Recently bananas have become popular as indoor ornamental plants.
1. Giant Bird Of Paradise
The Giant Bird of Paradise is more correctly known as Strelitzia nicolai. It is sometimes called the Natal Wild Banana in South Africa, where it grows naturally. It also grows well in the whole of Florida and the coastal regions of Texas, California, and Louisiana. Strelitzia nicolai is often called the White Bird of Paradise.
Strelitzia nicolai is an impressive plant, growing to twenty-three to twenty-six feet tall. They grow as a dense clump that is approximately eleven feet wide. The shiny grey-green leaves are six to seven feet long and grow upright. They often tear in the wind, giving their edges a feathery appearance.
Strelitzia nicolai has a crane flower in white, blue, and purple. The flower, which resembles a crane’s head and sharp beak, is seven inches tall and eighteen inches long. When the flowers die off in fall, they leave a triangular-shaped seed capsule containing black seeds. Strelitzia nicolai may be propagated by seeds or suckers, which give rise to new plants.
Strelitzia nicolai is drought, wind, and salt tolerant making it a popular choice with gardeners along coasts. It does not cope with frost and must be planted in protected areas to avoid frost damage. Strelitzia nicolai is an evergreen, providing color in a garden throughout the year. It is a popular replacement for gardeners who do not wish to plant banana trees.
2. False Bird Of Paradise
The False Bird of Paradise is falls under the Heliconiaceae family and is given the title Heliconia rostrata. It is a threatened species in its natural environment, the tropical regions of South and Central America. They may also be found growing naturally in Gambia, Thailand, and Florida. They are also sometimes called wild plantain or lobster-claw plants.
Heliconias have quite a size range and can be one foot to fifteen feet tall. They grow in dense clumps making their size even more impressive. Like the banana tree, they have large leaves. Most leaves are six to ten feet long. Heliconia leaves are attached to the stem by long leaf stalks or petioles. These petioles are sometimes longer than the leaf.
Heliconias have brightly colored flowers, which are usually pollinated by hummingbirds. The flowers may be red, yellow, pink, white, orange, or green. Heliconias are fast-growing and provide an interesting alternative to banana trees.
The False Bird of Paradise plant does best in filtered or partial sun. It grows in a range of soils, from well-drained fertile soil to sandy soil to clay. It requires moderate amounts of water during the long blooming season from spring to fall. Heliconia has very low water needs during winter and is not suited to winter rainfall regions.
3. Abyssinian Banana
Abyssinian Banana (Ensete ventricosum) is also known as Enset, Wild Banana, Red Banana, Black Banana, Ethiopian Banana, Pseudo Banana, and False Red Banana. Enset belongs to the Musaceae family, which is the same as banana trees. Enset grows indigenously in high rainfall areas such as tropical forests, ravines, mountains, and along streams throughout Africa.
Like bananas, Enset is not a true tree but is a large, herbaceous, non-woody plant. It is a perennial evergreen that can grow to twenty feet in height. The leaves are an impressive sixteen feet long and four feet wide. Enset leaves have a clear dusky pink or red midrib with leaf blades on either side.
Similar to banana trees, Enset leaves grow upright. The ‘Maureli’ cultivar has leaves that have red undersides and red petioles. Other cultivars have green, burgundy, lavender, or purple foliage. Abyssinian Bananas have flowers, but they are small and insignificant. They produce fruit that looks like a banana but are only one to three inches long and are tasteless.
Abyssinian Bananas need full or partial sunlight and have high water needs. They grow best in mild to moderate climates in soil with good drainage. They require regular fertilizing and are vulnerable to plant pests such as mealy bugs, aphids, scale, and whitefly.
4. Traveler’s Tree
Travelers Tree (Ravenala madagascariensis) belongs to the family Strelitziaceae. It is also sometimes called a Traveler’s Palm. Traveler’s Tree is native to Madagascar but is cultivated throughout the world.
The Traveler’s Tree grows to twenty-six feet tall. The leaves have a fan-type arrangement and are located at the end of pale leaf stalks or petioles. The leaves are thirteen to sixteen feet long. The Traveler’s Tree has a white flower similar to the Bird of Paradise crane flower. The flowers give rise to light blue seeds.
The plant is known as a Traveler’s Tree because each leaf has a cup-shaped hollow at the base, which can hold approximately one liter of rainwater. The fan leaves grow in an east-west line, helping travelers to find their way.
Traveler’s Trees need warm, humid conditions and grow best in full sunlight, although they can tolerate partial shade. The soil should be damp but not waterlogged.
5. Ruffled Fan Palm
The Ruffled Fan Palm (Licuala grandis) is also called the Palas Palm or the Vanuatu Palm. It grows naturally in the Solomon and Vanuatu Islands and is part of the Arecaceae family. The Ruffled Fan Palm grows on the floor of tropical forests. It is usually six to ten feet tall.
Licuala grandis has large leaves with a pleated or folded look that makes them look ruffled. The leaves are not divided as their appearance suggests. The emerald-green leaves have a feathery appearance, similar to Banana Tree leaves. They need moderate water but only need to be watered when the top soil levels are dry to the touch.
Ruffled Fan Palms are adapted to filtered sunlight and grow best in partial to full shade or indirect light. Full sun or direct sunlight burns the leaves, turning them brown. A warm, humid environment is best for these palms. They can be grown in pots but will not grow as big as a Ruffled Fan Palm growing in the wild or a garden. Mature plants can tolerate temperatures at freezing point, making them ideal for cold climate gardeners that want a similar tree to a banana tree