It’s about 28 degrees out right now, putting us in the midst of the first freeze of any real significance this winter (about eight hours of freezing temps and counting). That’s just a blip on the radar screen to my northern friends, but what it means here is that we almost certainly will not harvest the four large bunches of Raja Puri bananas that began forming at summer’s end.
About half the size of their commercial brethren, Raja’s fruit in my opinion taste better. But their loss is no tragedy at all and was expected; it’s really rare to make it through a winter in this part of Texas without at least a couple of hard freezes.
The event underscores a fact: Even if you’re in the Deep South, if you aren’t in south Florida, you can’t count on home-grown bananas for any meaningful portion of your family harvest. Because of their fruiting requirements, homestead bananas can be a great bonus, but never a sure thing.
Rajas are a great choice for the southern gardener, because they usually stay under 10 feet tall and have very wide, dramatic, deep-green leaves that give a swell tropical look to your landscape. Plus, their fruit are delicious and the plants will survive the coldest weather the gods have to offer here in USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 9a, and on up into Zone 8, too. But to successfully bear fruit, the plants need eight or nine uninterrupted months of freeze-free weather (many other banana varieties require even more).
For that to happen, you need a winter mild enough so that the fat pseudostems of the biggest plants survive and then put out a flower by May or June. The fruit then can plump up and ripen by November or December, before our coldest weather. Even though the fruit are done for, the pseudostems on our three clumps of Rajas probably still are fine, which means we could have some good eatin’ by next fall, with a little luck. I have learned that, even if all the leaves wilt and turn brown and the stems look mottled and sickly, the inner workings of the pseudostem still can be alive – so I usually wait until early spring and cut the dead leaves and just a few inches off the stem top, leaving the rest for a few more weeks. A lot of the time, new growth will pop out.
Another hardy banana that does well in this area is the Orinoco. They are tall – hitting 13 or 14 feet – and produce larger fruit than the Raja, although I don’t find them quite as sweet. We obtained ours by accident, as they sneaked under the fence from the neighbor’s yard one year. This year none of ours fruited.
I was going to include a picture of one of our frozen banana bunches here, but thought our bromeliad winter warming technique made for a better picture. The plants in the photo are from the Neoregelia genus. Most of them are believed to be cold hardy to the point they can take temperatures down to 26 degrees for several hours, despite being native to eastern Brazil. I could ensure survival by bringing them all inside, but my preference is to propagate only those species that can live outdoors in our climate. However, I’m willing to boost their survival chances by providing the extra heat from a few Christmas lights.