Fruitfulpursuits Patience, research pays off with full-fledged banana trees

Fleming has bananas starting to mature.

It was Frank Fleming’s wife’s dream of growing bamboo that prompted him to raise bananas. When he searched the Internet for information on growing bamboo, information on growing bananas popped up as well.

The yellow-skinned breakfast and snack-time favorite is among several fruits being grown in the Lowcountry. You also can find oranges, grapefruits, tangerines and figs dangling from local branches.

For Fleming, bananas were a natural choice. Two of the fruit trees already were planted at the house he had lived in since 1992, but the 6-foot trees neither grew very big nor produced fruit.

“I was curious,” Fleming says. “I found that I could actually grow bananas here. I researched and joined bananas.org, people excellent at growing fruit trees in places where they don’t do very well.”

That was about 2004, when Fleming says one of the first things he did was to move the trees to the sunny side of the house and away from the wind.

Fleming harvested his first banana in 2005, he says. “It was sweet but shorter and twice as big around as those usually seen in supermarkets. It was four-sided instead of three.”

He learned it was called an Orinoco banana, after the region of Venezuela and Brazil where the fruit is from and the Orinoco River flows.

Now Fleming grows about 25 trees in a number of varieties that stand from 3 to 20 feet tall. The single bunch of bananas he gets from each tree has 6 to 8 hands (or bunches) and 20 to 60 fingers, as individual bananas are called.

The hardest thing about growing bananas is the patience required after the fruit has formed, Fleming says. The weeks it takes to get to the right size or ripen can seem like forever.

But a tree grows fast in summer, Fleming says. A banana tree can grow from zero to 14 feet in one summer.

“I don’t believe you need a special talent to grow bananas here. You need a little banana education.” About 40 percent of the banana growers he chats with in the farmers market where he sells small trees get bananas, he says.

One problem is prevalent among banana tree growers in Charleston, Fleming says.

“The problem is people think you have to cut them down in the winter,” Fleming says. “It resets the fruiting cycle. It gives the root the message, ‘Hey, something is destroying the top of this tree,’ and they put out more shoots, more plants. If you chop them back, those babies start competing for food and water.”

“Good luck,” says Kathy Woolsey, horticulturist at Cypress Gardens. “I studied pomology at Virginia Tech, and I came down here trying to grow apples and pears.”

Her efforts were not at all fruitful, she says.

The Lowcountry lacks the cold weather required for apple, pear and peach trees, which grow well in the Upstate, she says. The trees also have a lot of pests to contend with.

But there are some old pear varieties that do well in the Lowcountry, Woolsey says. A key to getting edible ones is to pick them before they ripen and put them in a brown paper bag to ripen.

“They will stay hard as a rock if you leave them on the tree,” Woolsey says.

Citrus, on the other hand, does well here.

A recent U.S. Department of Agriculture survey concluded there were more than 3,000 citrus trees growing in Charleston County.

“I have about eight citrus trees at home — oranges, grapefruit and tangerines,” Woolsey says.

The only pest for oranges is the caterpillar of the giant swallowtail butterfly, the biggest in North America, she says. The butterflies, which are as big as a hand, come from Florida each year in midsummer.

“I hardly have to do a thing to the citrus trees,” Woolsey. “They don’t have to be pruned. They don’t have to be sprayed.”

Last year, her grapefruit were hanging to the ground from a 10-foot tall tree.

“Some homeowners are able to grow Meyer lemons (a cross between and orange and a lemon),” she says. It makes a good potted plant, but is not cold-hardy. Limes, Woolsey says, just don’t grow here.

Jerry Weise grew up with century-old fig trees in her native Alabama, but it wasn’t until Hurricane Hugo took her palm tree that she started growing figs. Her husband, Robert, gave her the tree as a present to replace the palm in 1990.

The little brown turkey fig tree was no more than 2 feet tall, but in a decade it more than proved itself as a winner, says Weise, horticulture chairwoman for the Garden Club of South Carolina.

“It grew large enough to branch out and have good leaf coverage. It finally got to the point where it was taking off like a galloping horse.”

Eventually, it grew too tall for her to harvest the figs from the top of the tree.

“I cut it back to about a little over 4 feet every year in winter.”

The trick with fig trees is that they need time to mature, says Weise. “It’s not an overnight thing. You plant a fig tree for your children and grandchildren.”

Weise likes to make jams with her figs and strawberries when the plants provide enough fruit. “It’s loaded this year. I will probably not even get into the house with a lot of them because I eat them right off the tree. If I don’t eat them, the birds definitely will eat them.”

The trees do well with full sun, well-drained soil and natural fertilizers, Weise says.

Reach Wevonneda Minis at 937-5705.