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Banana shrub: an heirloom of exotic fragrance By Norman Winter

There have been weeks of tantalizing fragrance in the past few months that few children or families have experienced. This champion of aroma I am referring to is the banana shrub. The banana shrub is an heirloom from the 1700s. It produces blossoms for months of sweet, fresh bananas with a scent so intense, you’ll wish you could bottle it up so it could compete with the French perfumes, or put it in a shake and drink it. It is one of the more amazing scents in the plant world.

It’s funny how we all can fall under the spell of a smell. For me, it was night-blooming jasmine; for others, it is a gardenia or perhaps an old garden rose. Once we start growing plants for the enjoyable fragrance, our garden becomes not only a visual panorama, but a garden of participation. Here, the gardener and visitor alike are encouraged to bend and smell or even touch. Even a toddler somehow knows the routine. The banana shrub is so rich and wonderful, it will even tell you when you are within 10 or 20 feet of its presence.

Fragrant gardens become like recording studios, making imprints on our children and grandchildren’s memories of what life was like at a particular time, what Mom and Dad or the grandparents were like. I know without a doubt that my children will want to grow night-blooming jasmine, and when it blooms, they will think about it out by the pool when they were young or how it got hammered by the tornado but survived, as did the family huddled in the closet. Hopefully visitors to the Coastal Georgia Botanical Garden at the Historic Bamboo Farm in Savannah, Georgia, will approach our 12-foot-tall specimen and, because of the olfactory experience, remember both the garden and the family trip to one of the most beautiful cities in the United States.

When I was going to Texas A&M, we were taught that the banana shrub, botanically speaking, was Michelia figo and resided in the Magnolia family. Now, after all the taxonomists have earned their living, it is actually Magnolia figo and is obviously still in the Magnolia family.

It is cold hardy in an area running from Dallas-Fort Worth, through the middle of Arkansas, up to Raleigh, North Carolina, and Richmond, Virginia. ‘Port Wine’ is one of the more sought-after cultivars, as is a variety named skinneriana, which is a little superior in bloom and offers slightly more cold hardiness throughout zone 7. There are many gardeners who relish the fragrance to the extent that they choose to grow it as a movable container plant. The large specimen at the Coastal Botanical Garden started blooming in January this year, then a lot of buds were hammered by 25-degree weather in mid-March. It bounced back, is loaded up with blooms and is giving the welcome royal treatment to tour groups and visitors as we head into April.

The banana shrub is native to China and will be quite at home in your garden, possibly reaching 15 feet tall and around 10 feet in width at maturity. In our area, though, they are most commonly 8 to 12 feet tall. It can grow in full sun to part shade, but in the Deep South, a little afternoon shade protection gives a lusher plant. This heirloom should be planted in a prepared, fertile shrub bed that is moist and slightly acidic. We have ours growing in partnership with tropical-looking fatsias and a nearby Chinese pistache that gives a fiery orange contrast in the fall compared to the dark, evergreen leaves of the banana shrub. 

Since they are large, you may not have a need to cluster three together, but that would certainly work if you had the space available. Probably the most important consideration after soil, sunlight and available water is to grow them where they can be enjoyed. The Coastal Botanical Garden banana shrub is close to a gazebo that always seems to have a visitor. You may, however, want yours close to the patio, deck or a bedroom window that you are prone to open in the evening. If you are into homegrown fragrance, make the banana shrub a part of your landscape. Follow me on Twitter @CGBGgardenguru.

(Norman Winter is the director of the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens at the Historic Bamboo Farm in Savannah, Georiga.)

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