A Gardening Journal

Golden Lotus Banana

Musella lasiocarpa overall 072616 640

 

The show has begun! Two weeks after the astonishing inflorescence of Chinese dwarf banana appeared, yolk-yellow bracts have begun to flex open around a central cone  that seems like the lotus bud of the gods.

 

The massive central cone is anything but delicate and, when I give it a tentative squeeze, it resists with nearly woody firmness.

 

Musella lasiocarpa closer with fingers 072616 640

 

This surprising rigidity arises from the cone's counter-intuitive structure. Unlike the lotus bud, it doesn't contain one massive floral structure. Instead, the flowers are tiny and almost comically unshowy; you can see them peering out between the unfolded bracts and the cone of still-immature ones.

 

Musella lasiocarpa close up for flowers 072616 640 

 

The pictures above were taken in late July. Those below were about two weeks later. Now, the inflorescence's performance is in full swing, with a score or more of bracts already flexed back. 

 

Musella lasiocarpa overall best 080616 640

 

For months, bracts will continue to peel back from the cone—which, strangely, never seems to grow smaller as a result. Older bracts don't fall off, either, but stack up atop one another, forming a tall and thick ruff like one worn by a Shakespearean nobleman.

 

Musella lasiocarpa overall best cropped 080616 640

 

As dramatic as this inflorescence is, the quirks of the overall growth habit of Musella lasiocarpa are even more so. Completely out of view at the base of each stem is the real source of all of the action: a single growth point. For a year or even two, it produces only leaves, whose petioles nest around one another, layer upon layer, to form a thick structure known as a pseudotrunk. Bananas don't have true stems at all.

 

With enough maturity, that growth point switches from producing more leaves to producing the immense inflorescence. But while each of those leaves originated at the center of the bottom of the pseudotrunk, the inflorescence emerges from the top of the pseudotrunk, and continues to develop there. Did that single growth point migrate from the base to the top? Or did it send a daughter growth point to the top, which then produces the inflorescence?

 

For this plant geek, this ornamental banana's most intriguing display remains out of sight and, therefore, a mystery. My clump has only ever produced a single inflorescence a season, and I couldn't bear to sacrifice it and its pseudotrunk to do the dissection that would, hopefully, reveal the central details of the growth. Perhaps by faithfully following my recommendations below for culture and handling of Musella lasiocarpa, my clump will thrive sufficiently to produce mutiple inflorescences. Then, the mystery could be resolved.

 

 

Here's how to grow this extraordinarily showy perennial:

 

Latin name

Musella lasiocarpa; also known as Ensete lasiocarpum and Musa lasiocarpa.

Common name

Golden lotus banana, dwarf Chinese banana, Chinese yellow banana

Family

Musaceae, the Banana family.

What kind of plant is it

Surprisingly hardy herbaceous perennial.

Hardiness

Zones 7 to 10.

Habit

Musella lasiocarpa forms dense clumps of short thick stems known as pseudotrunks (see the discussion of "its foliage" in "Grown for," below), each of which terminates in five or six short paddle-shaped leaves. In ideally nurturing circumstances (see "Culture," below), a pseudotrunk can mature enough in its first year to produce an inflorescence the next. (See "its inflorescences" in "Grown for," below.) After inflorescing, that stem usually dies but, because by then it has already produced offsets (which are, charmingly, known as pups), the fullness of the colony tends only to increase. Musella lasiocarpa doesn't wander, let alone race—and can grow happily in a container for years—but the density and width of a colony does increase.

Rate of growth

Medium to fast. As is typical for bananas, growth is much faster in high heat, and when the plant enjoys rich soil and plenty of water.

Size in ten years

Ultimate size is dependent on culture and handling. Clumps growing in-ground where frosts are mild as well as infrequent could produce pseudotrunks that are six feet tall. The foliage at their tips could add another two or three feet, so that overall colony width could be eight feet or more. In the subtropics, then, Musella lasiocarpa has a substantial and shrubby presence. Even at the cold end of its hardiness range, where routine Winter cold kills the paddle-shaped leaf blades as well as the upper portions of the pseudotrunks, clumps growing in-ground can still rebound to five to six feet tall and wide by September. I have always grown Musella in containers, some as large as twenty-five gallons, but the clump itself has never become wider or taller than three to five feet.

Texture

Big-boned and tropical.

Grown for

its inflorescences: A pseudotrunk that is at least one year old sometimes forms a staggeringly large, colorful, and enduring inflorescence at its tip. From the moment of emergence, it is a shocker. As big as a fist or an avocado, its width can exceed that of the upper portion of the pseudotrunk up through which it must pass, distending it the way a giant anaconda is distended by swallowing a goat. As countless waxy yellow bracts unfold around the (seemingly) ever-more-productive central cone of immature ones, the inflorescence becomes truly titanic, and acquires an unnervingly volcanic or at least disgorging vibe. The structure can remind you of several possibilities, all impossible: a yellow lotus (an aquatic perennial with iconic round leaves, but without a dark-yellow form); a yellow giant protea (a shrub whose flowers are pink and silvery white); or an artichoke (a thistle-leaved perennial whose flowers are lavender, pink, and blue). Only on closer inspection are you likely to realize that the inflorescence's large-scale excitement doesn't involve flowers at all. Those are just the tiny bits-of-detritus things that seem to have accumulated at the bases of the thick waxy bracts. What would be the heart of the floral structure for the lotus, protea, and artichoke is, for Musella, the cone of tightly overlapping bracts that are still to unfold and expose more of the tiny flowers at their bases.

 

its ease of handling:  Musella lasiocarpa isn't troubled by pests, browsers, or diseases, and couldn't be easier to carry over year after year. That said, it's not nearly as sure a thing that your clump will produce even a single inflorescence each year; my clump has been "blind" as many years as it has infloresced. See the "Culture," "How to handle it" and "Quirks" boxes below for suggestions.

Flowering season

Summer into Fall. This year, my clump's inflorescence emerged in early July; June is reported to be a more typical commencement of the season. An inflorescence remains colorful and floriferous for months; three is the minimum, and performances extending to six are known.

Color combinations

Although the blue-green foliage would complement any scheme, the enormous yellow-bracted inflorescences are so prominent and so remarkably enduring that, even if just one appeared, it would still limit this species to a yellow-friendly context. Avoid pink or rose nearby, and welcome yellow, burgundy, and white. The extraordinary size and tropical bravura of the inflorescence suggest further limitations to the surrounding plants: Contrasting colors such as blue and grey would harmonize well if the banana's inflorescence were on the scale of flowers of, say, roses. But the "Watch me do this!" showmanship of Musella lasiocarpa makes coloristic contrast unnecessary and even unattractive. Let the banana be the star, and surround it with plants of harmonizing or even neutral coloring that are clearly happy to play the spear carriers to this amazing Aida. See "Plant partners," below.

Partner plants

The startling and, usually, season-long inflorescences of Musella lasiocarpa are so large and eccentric that this species doesn't combine well with plants with "normal" flowers. Surrounding your golden lotus banana with roses and petunias is likely to look as ridiculous as nail polish on a dinosaur. If possible, then, avoid near neighbors that might be more at home in cottage gardens, such as roses, hollyhocks, digitalis, dahlias, and baby's breath. More broadly, it's wiser to avoid entirely companion plants that depend on flowers for their impact. Blossoms of normal size and traditional structure will look twee, but blossoms that are huge and bizarre will look competitive (and would probably come in a distant second).

 

Instead, choose plants that are celebrating both texture and coloring via foliage, and for whom flowers during the bloom season of Musella are secondary or absent. Also choose ones that remain in peak form Summer into Fall, lest their unattractive post-season show detract from the still-chugging-along banana inflorescences.

 

Start by choosing among these: Acer shirasawanum 'Aureum', coppiced trees such as Catalpa bignonioides 'Aurea' Salix babylonica 'Crispa', or Ulmus glabra 'Aurea'; or grasses, perennials, and shrubs such as Arundo donax 'Golden Chain', Cornus alba 'Aurea', Ilex x 'Whoa Nellie', Helianthus salicifolius, Hakonechloa macra (especially in its 'All Gold' and 'Aureola' cultivars), Lysimachia nummularia 'Aurea', Miscanthus x giganteus 'Gilded Tower', and Ophiopogon jaburan 'Vittatus'. (I'll profile this last plant this Fall.)

 

Any variety of fern is likely to pair well. Shorter ones, such as Dryopteris, could create the low groundcover at the front of the clump, whereas larger ones, such as Osmunda regalis, could function as shrubby filler at the back. For those in subtropical and tropical climates, tree ferns (which are mostly in the Cyatheaceae and Dicksoniaceae families) could be the ultimate partners, in that they combine terrific textural contrast, appropriately huge size, and an aesthetic that can also seem both prehistoric and ultra-modern. Asparagus sprengeri would bring the same ferny texture to a planting or container at the front of the Musella clump.

Where to use it in your garden

When just in leaf, Musella lasiocarpa could function as shrub-sized filler: Its foliage is decent but not thrilling, and that of any number of cannas (and other forms of banana) are more excitingly colorful or, simply, far larger. But when in flower, Musella couldn't be more eyecatching. (See "its inflorescences" in the "Grown for" box above.)

 

Golden lotus banana needs to be sited, then, not just where its bizarre inflorescence receives appropriately "ta dah" focal emphasis from a distance. The entire colony also needs to be puzzled over at very close range. If your climate permits growing the clump directly in the ground, allow only a narrow band of companion horticulture at the front, or supply a stepping stone or two through wider foreplanting. If you grow the clump in a container, don't let companion containers prevent viewers from standing directly before it; ideally, allow room for plenty of stooping over and even kneeling, so that this species' vegetative as well as reproductive oddities can be appreciated easily. See "Plant partners," above.

 

The challenge with incorporating Musella into your garden is for the clump not to seem like just a weird tropical stunt intended to stun the masses. Success arises as much from convivial and robust horticultural context (see "Plant partners," above) as from siting a clump where its iconoclastic inflorescences enhance an already dramatic setting, rather than puncturing an already weak one.

 

Site a containered Musella on a deck or terrace, at the terminus of a walkway or the intersection of a pair of them, or at the side of an important doorway or gate. If you're gardening where Musella is hardy, consider it for similarly prominent planting pockets. If circumstances are both spacious and grand enough, you could hardly rise to the occasion more completely than by flanking that doorway or gate with a pair of inflorescing Musella. If containered, I'd wait to position them until it was clear that both were in fact going to infloresce that season; if either clump were shy, the pair would be tragically out of balance.

 

If your garden features "naturalistic" curving beds, a large clump of Musella could anchor a peninsula that projects into the lawn. In a giant container (or planted directly in the ground), a clump could be the year-round centerpiece of even a large formal garden. In Zone 10, where frosts are brief and Musella will have its most sustained year-round presence, clumps could be used in the generous plural as a large-scale groundcover beneath a grove of tree ferns or palms in a bed at the center of a large courtyard or entry, or as the counterpart to a sleek pool. In contemporary settings, the banana's paddle leaves, bizarre conical pseudotrunks, and huge inflorescences ringed by shark-tooth bracts all strike similarly arch and "There's more integrity in weirdness than mere beauty" poses.

Culture

Full sun except in the hottest climates or where adequate soil moisture can't be guaranteed, in which case mid-day shade or dappled sun all day is preferred. As is typical for bananas, rich moist soil is ideal when the plant is active. However, this species' unusual degree of hardiness is fully realized only when the location, soil, and handling also ensure sufficient drainage and, even, outright soil dryness during the long Winter months this species tolerates. Then, the clump can become be fully dormant, and when it is, excess moisture could be fatal. For options and strategies, see both "Where to use it," above, both "How to handle it" boxes, below.

 

My experience suggests that Musella lasiocarpa is more likely to flower when growing in a container if individual pseudotrunks are two years or older, cultural conditions as well as handling (see both boxes below) all assist the clump to become fully dormant during the Winter, and the clump is somewhat pot-bound. Pot up only stingily; it's easier to refresh the soil by dividing your clump and repotting one portion of it in the current pot.

How to handle it: The Basics

Plant at the start of the annual season of growth, ensuring sufficient water for establishment. Ongoing care is modest: cutting off faded leaves and inflorescences as they expire and, as needed, the pseudotrunks they arose from.

 

Go with the flow as days become shorter and cooler, reducing the water as needed so that the clump settles into dormancy: Flowering the following year is more likely when the clump is encouraged to enter dormancy. As I mentioned in "Culture," above, just as classic English perennials seem to flower better after the deep dormancy of a long and snowy Winter, Musella lasiocarpa seems to infloresce more reliably the Summer after it, too, experiences a lengthy dormancy during the cool and short-day months of the preceding Winter.

 

As the clump settles into dormancy in the Fall, does the foliage acquire Fall coloring before dying off? Let me know.

 

If you're growing Musella lasiocarpa outside year-round, and frost would be likely and you've found that Fall foliage coloring is unexceptional, you could cut off the leaves proactively, exposing the stubby architecture of the pseudotrunks. If you're growing this species at or beyond the typical cold end of its hardiness range—Zone 7a or, for the adventurous, 6b—experiment with mulching amid and around the "forest" of pseudotrunks. Remember that in Spring, you'll want to remove that mulch to allow warmth to penetrate more deeply. Would a deep layer of straw be easier to remove than chipped bark? It's certainly easier to swaddle the pseudotrunks more thickly with straw than with chipped bark. Plus, a pile of mulch looks only like a whole lot of mulch, whereas a mound of straw with big clubby things thrusting up through it looks like some sort of gigantic dessert commentary: a gigantic pile of shredded phyllo dough nestling thick juicy things that dinosaurs may enjoy chomping on.

 

Preserving at least the lower portion of a pseudotrunk this way doesn't in itself enhance its ability to flower the following year, because new growth originates at the base of the pseudotrunk—at ground level, in other words—rather than at its tip. That said, preserving at least some of a pseudotrunk's height from one season to the next does ensure a quicker and higher return to bulkiness, in that new leaves will first grow up through the center of the surviving portion of pseudotrunk to its top before attempting to unfurl their paddle-like blades.

 

Nonetheless, preserving the bottom portion of a pseudotrunk can benefit inflorescence production in this way: By maintaining that thickness of viability—that height of live tissue above the base—you're also ensuring that its basal growth point is less likely to have been damaged by cold.

 

As Spring warmth encourages emergence of new leaves, scuffle back the mulch gradually. Leave plenty in place in case there's a last vicious frost but, after that, pull out the rest before developing foliage makes access more tricky.

How to handle it: Another option—or two?

If you're growing this banana in a container, reduce watering in the Fall as foliage is shed and growth slows down. (Remember that dormancy is normal and even preferable for this banana.) Because a fully foliaged clump is bulky, and overwintering space is always at a premium, it's usually smarter to embrace dormancy with a vengeance. If you're careful, let the clump experience the first mild frost or two of the season before hustling the container into shelter. With the foliage now frosted (but the pseudotrunks unscathed), the plant will have experienced a natural nudge into dormancy. Now bring the pot to a cool (but frost-free) spot out of direct light, reserving your choicest sunny and warm spots for other tender plants that require them. Cut off the foliage and withhold water, possibly for weeks at a time; water only enough to keep the pseudotrunks from shrivelling. It's reported that clumps can be held even in full darkness this way for the entire Winter.

 

By February or March, you might notice the tips of new leaves emerging from the tips of the pseudotrunks. Increase watering only a bit: Unless you have the room, a re-leafed clump will take up a lot of your sunny space, so don't water with abandon.

 

Return the containered clump to the garden only after danger of frost has passed. Water generously, and supply weekly doses of, say, fish emulsion, to maximize the banana's response to the gathering warmth of late Spring. 

Any (other) quirks or special cases?

Although the foliage of Musella lasiocarpa isn't very interesting compared to that of many other bananas and cannas, the pseudotrunks are very thought-provoking. Bananas are herbaceous perennials, not woody plants, and don't produce true stems; all the vegetative growth originates at the base. What enables the foliage of a banana plant to develop a trunk-like stem instead of remaining as a cluster of large leaves emerging from the ground—like, say, a hosta clump—is that the petioles of the leaves are nested around each other. New ones emerge from a center point around which the petioles of older leaves wrap tightly. The result is a vertical sheaf of concentric leaf stems that in cross section looks more like the rings of a tree, and can have the rigidity of a true stem or even a woody trunk.

 

As the blade of each new leaf emerges into the sun at the top of the pseudotrunk, the height of the pseudotrunk increases because the petiole of each new leaf must extend upward, at least a bit, beyond the extant leaves, so that the new leaf can unfurl into sunlight, not into the shade of the already-emerged leaves. Pseudotrunks of some bananas can exceed ten feet.

 

Although pseudotrunks function like trunks in elevating the plant's foliage higher and higher above ground, in other ways they are their reverse. Trunks increase in diameter by forming new layers at their perimeter. The older layers at the center are fairly static and—as proved by every hollow tree—can die and decay entirely without affecting the viability of the tree.

 

But all the new growth of a pseudotrunk originates at its center, where each new leaf forms and then forces its way upward, surrounded by the tightly concentric sheaf of older leaves. Because the overall diameter of the pseudotrunk increases as additional leaves form, as does its circumference, those older leaves are anything but static. To make room for the ever-emerging younger leaves forming at the center, do the concentric petioles of the surrounding older leaves thin out or stretch out? Do they slide past one another, millimeter by millimeter, to expand their concentricity enough to permit that constant central activity?

 

The older and older leaves are nearer and nearer the outside of the pseudotrunk. The very oldest are the outside and, eventually, die and fall away. Often before that, the expanding diameter of the pseudotrunk exceeds the petioles' ability to thin out or to stretch or slide past each other, and splits the older petioles vertically to make more room.

 

Do new leaves emerge exactly from the center of the base of the pseudotrunk? If so, how would the next emerge? The next leaf would push the prior leaf up through the pseudotrunk in its entirety, ejecting it from the top. But the leaves' petioles are arranged concentrically, and a new leaf doesn't die away until many others have emerged after it and, in the process, pushed it to the perimeter.

 

More likely, while there is some central growth point, new leaves emerge around its perimeter, so that the true center remains intact and viable. When circumstances permit, that growth point stops forming new leaves around its perimeter and, at its true center, forms an inflorescence. Each pseudotrunk produces just one inflorescence, after which that entire pseudotrunk usually dies. Spatially and existentially, the  inflorescence is now the central activity in the life of a pseudotrunk; in both senses, the foliage is peripheral.

 

The elements displayed during flowering itself are no less surprising. The true flowers are tiny and yellow, and peek out from the bottom crevice where each thick yellow bract, which looks like nothing so much as the fleshy (but green) bract of an artichoke, meets the inflorescence's dense core. As successive rings of bracts peel back—roughly three at a time—many rings of older bracts to continue to show beneath. The result is a ring or two of active yellow bracts atop a thickening ruff of still older bracts that have dried to a stiff papery brown. The pale white central egg-shaped tip of the inflorescence is formed of the tightly-clasping layers of still-immature bracts; throughout the long life of the inflorescence (six months isn't unheard of), this tip remains at the top of the ever-lengthening ruff of expired bracts. There would seem to be no limit to the number of bracts that the inflorescence can form, in that many scores of bracts peel out from the central core but, even so, it doesn't decrease in size. New ones must be developing at its center.

 

Has the central growth point at the base of the pseudotrunk, which produced all the foliage around its perimeter, now become contained in this egg-shaped inflorescence at tip of the pseudotrunk? Or does inflorescence formation involve creation of a second inflorential growth point? Either way, the ability of the vegetative growth point to produce, seemingly, an infinity of leaves over many months, is mirrored in the inflorential growth point's ability to produce, seemingly, an infinity of bracts over many months. This makes sense, in that a bract is a modified leaf.

 

The flowering of a gold lotus banana, then, is only partly a matter of production of the flowers themselves, let alone the inflorescence that bears them. At a deeper level, literally and conceptually, it's a matter of raising that growth point up through the center of the pseudotrunkone—or forming a duplicate that supersedes the vegetative one—to its top. To keep the growth point at the top month after month despite the unfolding and peeling back of scores and scores of bracts, the growth point must maintain a location above the point of origin of those bracts. Are there two growth points—one basal and vegetative, the next tip-top and inflorential—or does the same one change from producing leaves to flowers, in the process migrating from the very base of the plant (where the leaves and pseudotrunk they form are atop it) to the very top of it (where the mature bracts are all beneath it)?

 

Either way, growth arises from only a single point at a time. When an inflorescence begins to form, leaf formation stops. Without the supply of new leaves, the stability of the pseudotrunk gradually degrades from the continued die-off of the oldest leaves at its surface. Although the inflorescence is attached to the base of the plant by some sort of stalk, does the gradual failure of the pseudotrunk's leaves affect the lifespan of the inflorescence? Perhaps not: Penty of pictures show the inflorescence atop a leafless pseudotrunk.

Downsides

None.

Variants

I'm sorry to say that I'm not aware of any variants, even though this species is popular worldwide and so, presumably, there are many thousands of plants that receive the close gaze they deserve (see "Where to use it," above). Has no one discovered a mutant with leaves edged in yellow or blushed with burgundy, or with bracts that are white or at least pale yellow?

Availability

Online and, where it's solidly hardy, at retailers.

Propagation

By seed, and by division in late Winter or early Spring. It's also easy to remove smaller pups individually and, so, avoid the heavy lifting of full-on division.

Native habitat

Musella lasiocarpa is native to Yunnan Province in China. Its Zone 7 cold hardiness is no doubt related to its origin in higher-elevation terrain there, of up to 7,500 feet above sea level. It also makes sense that this species' upper limit of hardiness—its tolerance of climates that are warmer and warmer all the time—stops at the merely subtropical Zone 10, not the warm and frost-free Zone 11 or the always hot-and-steamy Zone 12. Occasional Winter frosts are normal in Zone 10, as are temperatures that regularly descend to the forties and even the high thirties Fahrenheit. It's more typical for bananas either to relish or even require high heat year round, and to have very little tolerance even for sustained temperatures in the fifties Fahrenheit, let alone Zone 7's heavy frosts and occasional deep snow, both of which Musella lasiocarpa handles well. The other easy banana I grow, Ensete maurelii, is cold hardy only to Zone 9. It withstands only brief frosts, and thrives in-ground only where it can enjoy the consistent warmth typical of Zone 11. 

 
 
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