Home & Garden Columns

Bananas in Berkeley? Yes, We Have Some

By Ron Sullivan, Special to the Planet
Tuesday May 16, 2006

Lemons aren’t the only fruit trees growing in Berkeley’s streetside strips. Yes, we have some bananas.  

Parts of the East Bay and San Francisco are known as “banana belts” because they have slightly higher average temperatures than the rest of the place. It doesn’t take much, just a few degrees Fahrenheit, to tip the balance to a friendly microclimate—most years—for tropical and semitropical plants. The Mission in San Francisco gets more sun than the outer avenues, for an example that’s hardly a surprise. 

There’s a sort of nanoclimate strip through Berkeley that, on a good day, might include the neighborhood of the Daily Planet’s office, and a broader swath of East Oakland where people can grow hot peppers and big tomatoes. The banana belts on this side of the bay are, in my experience, less predictable than San Francisco’s unless you have the time to perch on a hill, watch the fog patterns, and hold a finger to the wind all day.  

Or you could walk around looking for big bananas. Banana trees.  

They aren’t technically trees, of course; they’re even shrubs mostly by courtesy. A banana plant is typically big but the whole thing is herbaceous, not woody. The functional equivalent of a trunk might strike you, if you’ve ever seen one cut down, as a sort of vertical green onion structure of leaves tightly wrapped in more leaves until the whole is strong enough to support a broad umbrella of extravagantly big floppy feather-shaped leaves. These hang along a central midrib in various configurations, depending on the variety of the plant, and generally get shredded into little pennants by the wind. 

The Oxford Companion to Food, which I recommend reading if you can heft it, calls this “a neat evolutionary adaptation to lower their wind resistance, for the ‘trunk’ is not as strong as a real tree trunk and risks being blown down.” 

Like most adaptations, it’s not perfect, and they get blown down sometimes anyway. Don’t fret; the stalk dies back anyway after flowering and maybe fruiting, and the whole plant retreats to its bulbous tuber. Over a few years, it grows offsets from that cache of energy, and makes its own little grove. Offsets—“pups”—can be separated from the central plant along with some roots, and replanted elsewhere.  

What fouls up bananas here is not so much pests as cold, poorly drained clay soils. The plant likes rich, well-drained humus, warmth, and lots of moisture but not soggy root zones.  

Even those of us who shop at the Berkeley Bowl or the produce stores on East 14th or whatever they call it this year might be surprised at the variety of bananas in existence. Your basic Cavendish or Gros Michel, the yellow ones you see everywhere, aren’t the half of it; one Georgia grower mentions ripe fruit that can be green, pink, red, orange or purple, and the classic cooking banana, generally labeled “platanos” on grocery shelves and restaurant menus, is best for baking when it’s good and black outside.  

Hide color isn’t all that varies. Descriptions of flavors—“sweet but sharp,” “aromatic,” “approaching apple”—make me curious mostly because they’re so vague. I’m not sure that precision would be more helpful, though. Durian has been closely described, as by Alfred Russell Wallace (“… indescribable. A rich butter-like custard highly flavoured with almonds,,, intermingled with it come wafts of flavour that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, brown sherry…”) but there’s something to it that no one has quite named, and I can’t either. Good tho’, as Utah Philips says.  

Banana flowers, meaning the male part of the inflorescence, and banana leaves have their culinary uses too, cooked or cooked-in. Aside from wrapping sweet rice for desserts, the leaves, used to line a cooking pot, give the rice a nice flavor even when they burn a little on the bottom.  

In spite of the assertion that some edible banana varieties can be grown as far north as Kentucky, most of the ones I know personally are decorative. They’re handsome and evocative, and the red and mottled cultivars are spectacular. Still, I wonder if we might give the big corporations as well as the scary Panama Wilt disease a bit of competition by growing our own.  



Photograph by Ron Sullivan 

Very Berkeley pairing: banana (Musa X paradisiaca, probably) flower and foliage in foreground, coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia) behind.