The past two months have been weeks of tantalizing fragrance that I am afraid not many 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 1800s and produces extremely sweet aromatic blossoms for months. 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 the night jasmine for others it is a gardenia or perhaps an old garden rose.
Fragrant gardens become like recording studios making imprints on our children's and grandchildren's memories, of what life was like at that particular time, what Mom and Dad or the grandparents were like. I know without a doubt my children will want to grow the night 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 Gardens will approach our 9-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 attended Texas A&M we were taught the banana shrub botanically speaking was Michelia figo with it residing in the Magnolia family. Now it is actually Magnolia figo and obviously in the Magnolia family. It is cold hardy in an area running from Dallas-Forth Worth, Texas through the middle of Arkansas up to Raleigh and Richmond, Va., though gardeners are touting a variety named Skinneriana as being a little superior in bloom and offering slightly more cold hardiness throughout zone 7. Then there are many gardeners who relish the fragrance to the extent they choose to grow it as a movable container plant.
Our large specimen started blooming in January this year and then a lot of buds were hammered by 25-degree weather in mid-March. It has bounced back, is loaded up with blooms and giving a 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 is deserving of being planted in a prepared fertile shrub bed that is moist and slightly acidic. We have ours 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. Ours is close to a gazebo that seems to always have a visitor, you may, however, want yours close to the patio or 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.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Norman Winter is director of the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens at the Historic Bamboo Farm, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension, and author of "Tough-as-Nails Flowers for the South" and "Captivating Combinations: Color and Style in the Garden." Follow him at: @CGBGgardenguru