Friday 25 January 2013

Growing bananas in Madeira

Going bananas in Madeira

The nation was confused when a famous TV gardening-guru declared that banana was a herb, but he was right! In the botanical world, banana is a herbaceous perennial, it is therefore a herb. 
In horticulture we get used to the dual uses of words.
To most of us a herb is defined as a plant grown for
(examples of herbs are given)

  • medicinal use, comfrey and Aloe vera (
  • culinary use, tarragon and mint
  • scent, lavender and thyme.
A herb (as normally defined - sorry TV guru) may be any category of plant such as a
  • tree, bay-tree
  • herbaceous perennial, mint
  • shrub, sage
  • hardy biennial, parsley
  • hardy annual, coriander
  • half hardy annual, basil
  • bulb, chives (chives is a bog plant too!)
Gardeners on holiday tend to ponder these things!

Funchal fennel
 Funchal is renowned for its fennel but these were the only plants we saw, although we also smelt their rich aroma as we  walked mountainside paths. It is widely used as a flavouring here. The fennel flavoured sausage was not to my taste but the hotel fennel mints were superb.
Aloe vera

Aloe vera is a medicinal herb. It is a wonderful salve if you slice a piece and apply it to a wound or a sore. It thrives outside in the UK in summer but is not frost hardy.

Aloe africana is Vera’s big brother. He is rather a handsome fellow. Agave attenuata appears rather fond of him

Bananas are as much of a botanical herb as any plant in a herbaceous border. Not winter hardy in the most of the UK, it thrives at sea level here in Funchal. They are grown as a crop in private gardens, for ornamental purposes, and as hotel planting. Mike tells me that when they started to visit the island before residential development thirty years ago, these gardens were a much more important local industry than they are now.
It takes about fifteen months for a banana to provide fruit. The top of the plant then dies, but propagates itself by suckers. At home, if grown as a conservatory plant, it might take as many as three years to fruit. I have never eaten as delicious a banana as those that grow here. The commercial variety grown is called ‘Dwarf Cavendish’ but we have also bought in the the markets ‘apple-bananas’ and ‘silver bananas’ which taste even better!

Bananas produce a large male flower bud which rarely opens. Pollination never takes place and the banana develops  parthenocarpically without seed. Some members of the banana family such as Ensete have hard black seeds. Mike and myself ‘in our cups’, over the sangria speculated how mankind over the millenia would have selected for bananas without seeds. What is generally accepted is that because bananas are only vegetatively propagated the ‘genetic pool’ is small and the future of the commercial banana is decidedly insecure worldwide.

Banana split

The split banana leaves are a natural wind protection and are induced by high wind. Contrary to some references on the net, this is a beneficial adaptation and is not detrimental to plant health.

Potted-up  banana suckers.
Cut back banana  + sucker + miscanthus, sugar cane

Because the suckers are well developed when the parent plant is cut down growers get a crop about every ten months. No longer a source of commercial sugar on Maderia, sugar cane is experiencing a revival as a result of the rise in popularity of the popular drink poncha (which I enthusiastically recommend).


  1. We have a couple of banana plants in the garden, Each year the top growth disappears and new growth pops up in spring.

    We have tried other varieties but only Basjoo tends
    to survive over winter. No bananas though and I guess they are not likely.

  2. No Sue, we are not renowned for our bananas in Yorkshire!

  3. Those are outstanding aloes! We have had a long-running family argument, that has gone on at least 10 years, about whether or not bananas were trees or herbaceous perennials.

    1. I hope I have settled your argument Jason. If one accepts that trees are defined as a plant with a woody trunk or stem (or stems, but that might be another argument) then clearly banana is a herbaceous perennial!

  4. Well, I never knew that Roger - you learn something new everyday. Having family living in Asia - I have had my fair share of different bananas to eat, I enjoy the tiny little sweet ones the best.
    I was having a conversation last night at work with a couple of my colleagues and we were each trying to give a 'fact' that the others wouldn't know. My fact was to ask them where pineapples grow - all 5 of them said 'on trees' and would not believe me that they don't. Out came the smartphones for proof!
    This will be another fact I can keep them guessing at.

    1. Thanks for your amusing response, Angie. Five smartphones, wow 5 more 'hits'!

  5. Some great tropical photos on your posting. Like them lots, especially with Winter snow coming down hard this afternoon. Here along the shores of Lake MIchigan I can use a little of the "tropics" today! Hope to be back soon.

    1. I have checked out your lovely photographs on your site. We are back home to York today but I am looking forward to a lot of spring colour soon!

  6. Thanks for visiting my blog and referring me to this post. Awesome photo of the banana plant bearing fruit. Trying to imagine what an apple-banana would taste like ..

  7. Unless anyone knows otherwise I think they may be just extra sweet bananas. Wish I had bought some in the market now!

  8. Interesting to read your post. The silver bananas in Funchal are smaller and sweeter and the plant grows taller than other types of banana. I don't remember trying an apple banana, maybe they taste of apple?

    1. I was particularly pleased to get your comment Tessa as I am again on holiday in Funchal at the Eden Mar hotel not very far from the garden you have written about on your recent post. Lovely pictures!


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...