For a tropical treat, go bananas

Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)September 26, 2013 

— When Randy Needham saw banana plants growing in his father’s yard in Tampa, Fla., he brought some to his southeastern Virginia home to see if they would thrive here.

They fared remarkably well and have been part of his landscape for at least two decades.

“I like the appearance of the plants and the challenge of growing them in Virginia,” he says.

“I also wanted to find out if I could actually grow bananas by moving the plants inside during winter months and transplanting them outside in spring. It’s also sentimental to me as my dad passed away 91/2 years ago.”

The Japanese hardy banana called Musa basjoo is cold hardy to zones as cold as Zone 4b, considerably cooler than the Raleigh area, which is in Zone 7b. When happy, the vigorous plant can grow up to 15 feet in one season, and can produce “pups” that sprout and emerge to form new plants that can be potted and shared. The plants are 90 percent water, so fall’s first hard frost claims them quickly.

“I do have several sprouts from the banana trees throughout the summer,” says Needham. “What used to be a few are now many – front and backyard.”

In Japan, banana plant’s broad leaves are beaten, bleached and dried into raw material that’s used for making carpet, cloth and paper, according to plant experts.

This past winter, Needham moved a large plant into the basement, sticking it in a 5-gallon bucket of sand and keeping it moist so it would go dormant but not die as long as the indoor temperature did not dip below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

“This particular plant that now has bananas is about 2 years old,” he says.

“They normally take 18 to 24 months to bear the bananas. Since the pouch has appeared, it will now take two to three months for the bananas to grow.”

The bananas are good in banana pudding, Needham said.

“The bananas are a little smaller than you buy in grocery stores but look basically the same, and taste the same in banana pudding,” he added. “I’ve not tried them outside the pudding, but my mother says they do not taste the same.”

If you don’t have a basement, or suitable space otherwise, the summer-mature banana trees can be cut to about 12 inches above ground and stored under the house, which stays pretty temperate when the air vents are closed due to under-house heating ducts. When the soil warms in late spring, replant the rootstocks outdoors in full sun or as much sun as you can give them.

After spring planting, Needham suggests mulching and giving the plants frequent feedings. In summer, he uses Espoma organic Tree-tone Fruit and Shade Tree Food. Remove dead leaves as they naturally appear, he advises. Plants he winters indoors get Miracle-Gro feedings.

In addition to bananas, Needham grows other tropical plants such as some ground palms and about 100 elephant ears, also from his Tampa roots.

RANDY'S BANANA PUDDING 25-35 vanilla wafers 3 medium bananas, sliced 2 packages (3.4 ounces each) vanilla cook-and-serve pudding 3 cups milk

FOLLOW cooking directions on the pudding package.

POUR pudding into large bowl and follow directions for cooling.

ARRANGE wafers and banana slices on bottom and side of serving pan before pouring in pudding.

COVER with meringue topping (see recipe below). Refrigerate for 3 hours and serve.

MERINGUE PIE TOPPING This is Randy’s mother’s version of the vanilla wafers meringue recipe: 4 egg whites 1 / 4 cup sugar 2 teaspoons vanilla extract Pinch cream of tartar

SEPARATE egg whites and place in a large bowl. Let egg whites stand at room temperature for 30 minutes starting to make the meringue.

ADD cream of tartar and vanilla before beating egg whites to soft peaks with an electric mixer on medium speed. When ready, they will curl over as beaters are lifted.

ADD sugar gradually to the bowl, 1 tablespoon at a time, while beating on high speed. Make sure to beat all of the mixture evenly.

CONTINUE BEATING on high speed until stiff, glossy peaks form. When ready, peaks will stand straight up and the mixture will feel smooth; you shouldn’t be able to feel any sugar granules

SPREAD meringue over pudding.

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