I’ve chatted about this in a few threads, but I haven’t put it all into one place before. So I’ll do so here.
One of my major projects is to breed some cold hardy bananas that can do well in my zone. Here are my goals, in order of priority:
#1: Work as an annual: Grows from seed to mature fruit before frost. I have about 180 frost-free days.
#2: Delicious flavor. Sweeter is better.
#3: Works as a perennial: Survives without any protection through my zone 7b winter.
#4: Germination: Seeds are easy to germinate when direct sown.
Bonuses that I’d like:
#5: Seeds that are not annoying. This can take a lot of different forms, and I’ll go in whatever directions the plants offer me. Possibilities include: the same number of seeds, except smaller, so they can be swallowed easily; the same number of seeds, except easy to chew with a nonbothersome flavor; far fewer seeds; and, most intriguing of all (a few cultivars like this exist) a parthenocarpic variety that is seedless when not pollenated, and seeded when pollenated. I would love the last one. That seems like the ideal.
#6: More fruit flesh.
#7: No more than eight feet tall. Shorter is better.
#8: Drought tolerance. I live in a desert with sandy soil, so lower water needs are best. Drought tolerance is usually an extremely high priority for me, but I’m making it a lower priority here because I don’t know how possible it is. Bananas tend to have very shallow roots.
#9: Fruits more than once per year.
#10: Fruits don’t split open at maturity.
Species: Anything short and at least somewhat cold tolerant from the Musa genus. Nothing from the Ensete genus, which isn’t known for producing good fruit.
Frequency of pupping: (A banana sucker is a pup.) More pups would mean I can clone the best ones easily; fewer pups might may the plant can concentrate on maturing fruit more quickly. I may decide I have a strong preference on this one way or the other later.
Appearance: I prefer pretty, but I want good fruit more than prettiness. If I have some that are significantly prettier than others, I may keep them in the main landrace and also start seeds of the pretty ones in a semi-separate landrace of ornamental delicious bananas in my front yard.
Color: I’d like a rainbow of different colors. I’ll probably heavily favor having as much of every different color as possible.
Type of flavor: I’d like some of them to taste like Cavendish bananas, or close. I’d love for some of them to taste different in equally good ways, especially if I can get a bunch of different flavors. I’ll probably heavily favor having as wide a range of different flavors as possible.
Ability to grow with low fertilizer: Sorry, but these are bananas, which are among the most fertilizer hungry crops possible. Not only that, they don’t fruit based on what season it is – they fruit based on how much fertilizer they’re given! If I want fruit at all before frost, I will need to give them ridiculous quantities of high nitrogen fertilizer, so I intend to do that. Human urine is pretty much the perfect fertilizer for bananas, and it’s free and nontoxic and always available, so guess what I intend to pour on them every day.
Okay, now that I’ve gone over my goals, you’re probably wondering how I intend to do this.
Step 1: Gathering germplasm.
RIght now, I have the following:
Seedless banana plants:
Dwarf Namwah (Musa acuminata x Musa balbisiana cross)
Hardy to zone 7b. 6-8 feet tall. Tasty, sweet, high-quality fruit. The most drought resistant seedless banana. The third most cold hardy seedless banana.
Seeds of wild banana species:
Hardy to zone 5. 14-24 feet tall. The most cold hardy banana species. Mainly I have this as a failsafe. I don’t actually want to work with it, because it’s much taller than I want and the flavor of the fruit is sometimes good and often bad, but I’m willing to if it’s the only option that seems to work.
Hardy to zone 8a. 5-7 feet tall. Very pretty pink flowers. Also known as the Pink Banana. The most popular seeded banana species, usually grown as an ornamental, so I figure it’s probably a bit domesticated by this point already. That may make the germination rate good. It grows like a weed in some tropical climates, so that speaks well for its ability to take care of itself. The flavor is supposed to be very sweet and tasty. The fruits split open when ripe, which I’m not wild about, because that’s basically shouting to all the birds in the neighborhood, “Eat me!” I’ll select against that if I can; I’ll live with it if I can’t.
Hardy to zone 7b. 4-8 feet tall. Very sweet flavor. People say the seeds are easy to germinate.
Hardy to zone 7b. 4-12 feet tall. Very sweet taste. Hybrid of Musa sikkimensis and Musa chini champa.
Hardy to zone 9. 8-10 feet tall. Very pretty purple flowers.
Hardy to zone 9. 3-4 feet tall. Very pretty red flowers. Supposed to be able to germinate within three weeks. The main reason I want to grow this is because it’s so short; even if I can’t overwinter it, it may work be able to grow to maturity as an annual only, and I can live with that.
Hardy to zone 10. 5-10 feet tall. I bought seeds from a dwarf variety that is supposed to fruit at 6 feet tall. Ancestor of all seedless bananas, because this is the species that has parthenocarpy in its gene pool. Breeding this to be able to overwinter in zone 7b is a huge stretch, but I may be able to make some interesting crosses with it.
I don’t know the zone, but it comes from the cold mountains of Yunnan in China, which sounds promising. 2-4 feet tall. Supposed to grow to maturity in 4-6 months. This species was discovered only a few years ago, so not much is known about it yet.
Step 2: Germinate the seeds.
Now it gets hard!
Banana seeds are notoriously hard to germinate. Right now, I have at least one seed of every species sitting in a cup on my desk, in moist soil, and I’m hoping they will sprout soon. None have yet. It’s been months. This is normal for banana seeds. Sigh.
I recently read David the Good’s book Free Plants for Everyone, and he suggested using nail clippers to cut off a bit of the seed coat, and then soaking the banana seeds in water for 24 hours. He said that helps them germinate in weeks, rather than months. So I started a new batch on December 21 that have been soaked and scarified. I have never tried scarification before because it sounded too hard, but when he mentioned nail clippers, I thought, “Oh! I’m willing to try that!”
He said you’d know you had reached the seed when you got to the white part, so I nail clipped some of the hard-as-rock brown coating off each seed until I saw a hint of white. Then I stopped.
I really hope they’ll be nice and sprout for me.
This is where I’m at currently. The rest is in the future, and I have nothing to report yet.
Step 3: Grow the first generation. Hopefully collect a whole lot of seeds.
Step 4: Grow the second generation. Plant the seeds from anything that survived. If I have abundant seeds, I will try direct sowing them, because I want them to be direct sowable eventually. (Banana plants don’t mind being transplanted, which is great and all, but I mind the bother!)
Step 5: Grow the third generation. By this point, I certainly hope I’ll have abundant seeds. By this point, I would like to be sharing my extras of the best with fellow freelance plant breeders.
Step 6: Somewhere around this point, or maybe beforehand or afterwards, I’ll start trying to make deliberate crosses. I’ll try to cross all the different species, and I’ll also try to cross the seedless varieties into the landrace.
Step 7: Eventually, if I have something great, I’ll probably OSSI pledge it and see if any seed companies are interested in it. I bet lots of people would be very interested in a brand new seedless, delicious, cold hardy banana cultivar. I suspect fewer people, but still many, would be interested in a brand new seeded, delicious, cold hardy banana variety.
The final thing worth noting, at this point, is that I’m still very interested in gathering more germplasm. I’ll give anything in the Musa genus a try, even if it looks like a long shot (such as a tall seedless variety that is only hardy to zone 10, or something ).
I’m particularly interested in any of the following:
California Gold (the most cold hardy; a sport of Dwarf Orinoco)
Viente Cohol (zone 9, but fruits very quickly)
Raja Puri (zone 8, and very tasty)
Misi Luki (zone 8, and very tasty)
Thousand Fingers (zone 8, and the fruit is said to be only okay, but it’s weird, and that tickles my fancy)
Dwarf Orinoco (the second most cold hardy, hardy to zone 7a)
Musa cheesmanii (I have a few seeds, but I’m almost out)
Helen’s Hybrid (same)
This is probably a tricky project, but I want to do it, so I’m gonna. (Grin.) I find it especially intriguing that a lot of mountain banana species are hardy to zone 8; since I live at a similar elevation in zone 7b, I think there’s a good match for landracing them to be a bit more cold hardy.
The biggest challenge is likely to be that they’re used to high humidity, and . . . . desert . . . but I was delighted to learn recently that bananas do great in Arizona because they strongly prefer sandy soil, and they’re ecstatic about deep organic mulches. I live in Utah, which is part of the same desert. So I’m mostly concerned about how much water they’ll need. I’m hoping highly targeted drip irrigation from my stored rainwater will be sufficient for their needs.
I’m open to any advice, ideas, and inspiration. And seeds.