For anyone that knows me well they will understand my attraction to tropical foliage. After all, I am a southern California boy. (Foliage in general is something worthy of being attracted to since it is far more lasting than flowers.) But tropical foliage (or shall I say “tropical-looking” foliage) is fun to me because it seems so out of context for the Northwest. It has that element of surprise or “what is that?” kind of response that I am always looking for when I plant my garden. Bananas, both tropical and hardy, are perfect for soliciting this kind of reaction.
Yes, I did just say “hardy,” for as incredulous as it may sound, there is a very reliable banana plant that we can grow here in the Northwest that will establish itself and return season after season. Known as a Japanese Fiber Banana, Musa basjoo hails from the higher elevations of Japan and, once established, can grow 12 to 15 feet in one season. I have had a clump in my garden for over 20 years now. Some winters it has frozen to the ground only to return with renewed vigor the following spring, and other years it has retained its stalks and grown even taller by the end of the summer.
Last winter, just for fun, I wrapped all the stalks with a bubble wrap material that had reflective foil on both sides for insulation. During the holidays I added some red ribbon and rope lights, and it was very festive, if I say so myself. The result was that none of my banana stalks froze and now they are 6 weeks to 2 months ahead of where they would be if I had let Mother Nature take her course. And as an added bonus, if I am really lucky, some of those stalks may actually bloom, which is a whole other experience in itself.
If you are not ready to take the hardy banana plunge, then try a red-leafed banana in a pot for the summer. For the price of a hanging basket, this banana will double its size by the end of the season and turn heads all summer long. You can try keeping it in the garage for the winter but it is a heck of a lot easier just to toss it out and start over next year. Of course, don’t expect Chiquita bananas on any of these species; they are purely ornamental.
On a different front, Heucheras, one of the Northwest’s favorite foliage plants, are suffering from an epidemic of rust (and not the kind you treat with Rust-Oleum). Heucheras have been on the hot plant list for several years now, and rightfully so. Their foliage comes in a rainbow of colors, they can take sun or shade, they are evergreen, and they work well in the ground or in containers. But unfortunately, somewhere along the path of breeding all these flavors, a susceptibility to rust crept in, and now we are dealing with it on a grand scale. If you see warty-looking bumps on the undersides of the leaves, then you have rust, and it will not go away on its own. In severe cases, you should remove all the leaves and dispose of them so the spores don’t re-infect the plant. Keep the area clean underneath them and add some fresh compost to smother any spores that might be on the soil. Apply a fungicide, either natural like Serenade or synthetic like Bonide Infuse, and plan on repeating every month if the rust returns. Vigilance is in order with this disease. Don’t wait until it has overcome your plant. Remove infected foliage as soon as you see any sign of problems. Hopefully, breeders will start finding ways to develop resistance into newer varieties.
Steve Smith is owner of Sunnyside Nursery and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.