Tropicals Need a Lift Now To Ensure Summer Splendor

An Abyssinian red banana dug and cut for storage.
An Abyssinian red banana dug and cut for storage. (Michael Temchine - Freelance)

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By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 16, 2006

Like many gardeners these days, Bart Windsor is a big fan of showy tropical plants. In high summer, his poolside garden in Manassas becomes a joyful jungle of banana plants, cannas and elephant ears.

Suddenly, the sticky heat of July and August makes sense. "It's like being on vacation every single evening when you come home," said Windsor, a facilities manager for Boeing.

Now, however, the party's over.

A few light frosts have destroyed the cells of these leafy giants, causing them to shrivel, collapse and rot away. Windsor and the rest of us who are mad about exotic flora are faced with three choices: Cut the tropicals to the ground and hope they will grow back from their underground bulbs (some will, many won't); dig them up and throw them out; or lift them and store the bulbs indoors until spring.

The last is his preferred course. It's easy to do and allows plants to reach a size unattainable by new, store-bought bulbs. It also can save money in the long run. Mass production of these plants has lowered the price: In the spring, Home Depot was selling one-gallon banana plants for $9.99. Garden-variety dahlias can be found for less than $5, but prized varieties can cost $20 a tuber from specialty catalogues. In addition, some serious increase in your stock will let you build your own jungle.

Most of all, preserving tropicals puts a satisfying green sheen on your thumbs. Everyone will think you're a skilled horticulturist even if the plants are more than willing to increase on their own. "They do multiply," said Windsor, a part-time stage conjurer who has now found magic lurking in the soil.

Oddly, several banana varieties can be counted on to make it through a Washington winter in the ground if they have a protected site with excellent winter drainage. Windsor has three he is confident to leave in the ground: the Chinese yellow banana, the Japanese or Basjoo banana and a maroon-leafed variety called Bordelon. Once the frostbitten top growth is removed, he advises putting some mulch over the crown and laying some plastic sheeting over it. He did this last winter with a single Chinese yellow banana, and it sprouted this spring with 45 new shoots. He shudders to think what it will do next spring.

Other varieties are not as reliable and need to be lifted, including the red Abyssinian banana and Saba, a towering variety.

Elephant ears, a catchall name for three big-leafed tropicals -- colocasia, alocasia and xanthosoma -- will have to be dug if they are to survive.

Dahlias won't survive, as a rule, and cannas, while hardier, benefit from being dug and lifted so that new clumps next year remain uncrowded and vigorous.

Digging

Cut off the top growth of cannas and elephant ears, but don't cut tall banana varieties to the ground unless you want them to come back shorter. For tall banana plants (they are not trees, botanically) to add height year to year, you need to allow the stalk to remain. Windsor tops his at six feet. The leaf stalks of elephant ears, bananas and, to a lesser degree, dahlias contain large amounts of water and will bleed profusely when cut.

Windsor uses a sharp shovel to dig. I like to use a good digging fork to minimize the risk of slicing one of the bulbs (actually a rhizome in the case of banana and canna, a tuber with elephant ears and dahlias). Windsor takes a hand cultivator and forks soil from the bulbs while taking care not to bruise or slice them.


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