A stately Abyssinian banana guards the entrance of the Administration building at the Harry P. Leu Botanical Garden in Orlando, Florida.
Abyssinian banana is in the banana family and it looks a lot like a banana (Musa spp.), but (and you knew this was coming) it is not a banana and it does not produce an edible fruit. The plant is an herbaceous perennial with huge leaves shaped like giant boat paddles. The leaves can be 20 ft (6 m) long and 3-5 ft (1-1.5 m) wide. They are bright olive-green and the midribs on the undersides are maroon. The leaves emerge from the center of the plant on a short trunklike pseudostem, so that the plant's overall height is usually little more than the length of a single leaf. In its native habitat, however, Abyssinian bananas can sometimes attain trunk heights of 30 ft (9 m) or more, with the leaves emerging from the top of that stout trunk. The white cup shaped flowers are partially hidden within huge hanging clusters of reddish bracts 3-4 ft (1-1.2 m) long. Fruits look like little dry bananas but are not good to eat. The cultivar 'Maurelii' has reddish leaves and red leaf stalks. 'Montbeliardii' is tall and slender with narrow leaves and black midribs.
Location Ensete ventricosum is native to mountain slopes in tropical East Africa from Ethiopia to Angola. It is grown in plantations as a food crop in parts of Ethiopia where the leaf stalks and pseudostems provide an important source of starch for some 15 million people. Different cultivars are grown in the different regions and climates of Ethiopia. Abyssinian banana is a popular ornamental in tropical and subtropical regions in the New World.
Culture Light: Abyssinian banana can be grown in partial shade to full sun. It does best in full sun. Moisture: Abyssinian banana uses a lot of water in growth. Water frequently and keep the soil moist, but not water logged. Hardiness: USDA Zones 9 - 11. This tropical beauty does not like frost, and can be grown as a permanent landscape plant only in zones 10B and 11. It is killed to the ground by a light freeze, but returns in spring, and thus can be grown as a returning perennial in zone 9. Abyssinian banana will produce flowers and fruits only in tropical climates. Propagation: Unlike the true bananas, Abyssinian banana does not produce suckers, and it dies after flowering, a condition called monocarpic. Seeds can be sown, but vegetative propagation is a detailed and labor intensive process. First the mother plant (before it flowers) is cut almost to the ground. Then the apical meristem (the central, growing part of the trunk) is cut or otherwise damaged, causing it to regrow with several adventitious branches, each of which may be removed and planted out.
Abyssinian banana is a fast growing plant, and like the true bananas, can get up to its full height in a single growing season. In frost-free climates, Abyssinian banana is grown as a specimen plant. Its tropical appearence and tall stature command attention in stately court yards. They should be protected from strong winds. In cooler climates the plant is grown in the greenhouse or in a large container in the conservatory. You can have the dramatic tropical effect of this stately beauty in your temperate garden if you set it out in summer, then dig it up and bring indoors in winter. Dig up the plant before the first frost, cut the longer roots back, remove all but the newest 3-4 leaves and pot up for winter. You may need to cut the leaves back to half their length if space is a problem. Water sparingly during the inactive winter period.
There are 7 species in the genus Ensete, all from tropical Africa and Asia. They were formerly placed in the banana genus, Musa. In Ethiopia, in addition to being an important food crop, it is also used in traditional medicine, and the leaves are used for thatching.