Musella lasiocarpa: An Adaptable, Smaller Banana for Warm to Mild Temperate Gardens

I’ve been growing Musella in a larger pot as well. It performs much as it does in the ground reaching similar size, getting along with comparatively little water. This plant suffered no leaf scorch even during our record breaking streak of 108º, 110º and 116º in late June ’21. It was protected in shade in the afternoon. Here it sits on the deck next to my Musa accuminata ‘Zebrina’, a Malaysian tropical, which did suffer a lot of marginal leaf burn, losing several of its softer, newer, leaves, even with daily watering of its pot during the hottest stretch (It quickly recovered after the temps settled down.).

Musella lasiocarpa may be the most easily recognized of the 48 species within the small but economically important Banana family, Musaceae. It is distinguished from all others by its small size, its congested, quickly tapering pseudo-stem, which is nearly bulbous at its base, its leaf blades extending upward from its relatively long petioles, shaped much like the traditional blades of Aleut kayak paddles and its unique flowering structure. Like all bananas the pseudo-stem is made up of tightly clasping, channeled, petioles, and its inflorescence which resembles a golden lotus flower in bud, with tightly held yellow to orange bracts having very little separation from one to the next, shielding its later emerging flowers tightly held beneath.  The shape of this plant and its texture lies somewhere between the more commonly grown ,and proven, hardy members of its Order Zingiberales, the Hedychium spp. and both Musa Basjoo and Musa sikkimensis, which often fill a role in providing many mild to cool temperate gardens with their ‘tropicalesque’ characteristics. If your garden resides in climatically colder areas than those experienced by topical plants in the wild, then any of these may succeed as permanent contributors to a tropical ‘feel’ in your garden. Of course you can also choose to grow true tropical and subtropical species if you are committed to the necessary protections they will require over your cold season.

Musella is a genus of one species, lasiocarpa and it adds to the ‘tropical’ quality of a garden though it is definitely not a tropical plant. This is the secret to creating a tropical theme or ‘feel’ in a garden utilizing those plants hardy for your site that have the physical characteristics often associated with the real thing…Musella does this in a much smaller package that will require less work for the gardener than do its larger hardy cousins, Musa basjoo, M. sikkimensis and M. velutinus. While these other three better serve the tropical theme by virtue of their scale, with their much larger leaves and taller stature, those same characteristics lead directly to some of their negatives in that their size makes them more liable to wind damage and the fact that they are some what thirstier and hungrier in terms of their demands for nutrients. In addition when it comes time for maintenance work, whether dealing with the collapsed and stinking ‘carcasses’ that result from their pseudo-stems having been frozen down, or the task of cutting back and removing its much more massive rhizome as it spreads beyond the space you have allotted to it. None of these plants can provide this ‘feel’ on their own and so require the addition of others, such as the hardier Palm species, perhaps a bamboo and the liberal use of other temperated plants larger leaves while utilizing those with boldly contrasting surface textures, some ‘shiny’ while others nearby are ‘fuzzy’. The use of leaf textures and bold structure are essential. My point is that themes are established through creating the appropriate ensemble cast of plants.

Here in my Portland garden, in the roughly 20 years I’ve grown this, I’ve never lost Musella. It has proven durable and completely hardy for me in my USDA zn 8 on its way to being a zn 9 garden. Temperatures below 20ºF are becoming exceedingly rare, random occurrences visited upon us, when they do occur, are in sudden cold snaps. They come now as milder ‘arctic blasts’ when the Columbia Gorge will sometimes drains winter air down out of continental Canada. We are definitely warming here with such a blast once every four years or so. This last year we got a tepid version, the change coming suddenly, but staying several degrees above even more recent historic lows, especially here in inner SE Portland where we live in a ‘banana belt’ shared with the downtown core. While the pseudo-stem has often frozen down over our winters, which tends to happen when we drop below 25ºF, some years it’s been just the leaves that get nipped.

The Description

Musella is a genus of one species, lasiocarpa. Although I grow this primarily for the role its vegetative parts play in my garden, I do also for the possibility of its flowering. In its home range flowering can initiate in any but its coldest season, but most often occurs beginning in February and running through August. The inflorescence on my plant first came to my notice in mid-June of ’21, just before our intense heat wave, and has been continuing through mid-September. Flowering can proceed over a period lasting as long as 8 months in a mild enough climate. Its flowers are capable of taking some frost, and I’ve read that these can be interrupted by winter, restarting in spring, while losing their leaf blades to the same cold, which can happen at or below 28ºF. Like any other banana when Musella lasiocarpa matures, and begins to flower, it ‘flips’ a hormonal switch which stops the formation of new leaves from its apical meristem and concentrates its energies and nutrients on the flowering of its inflorescence.

This appears to be one of those wild/cultivated stands. Normally a flowering pseudo-stem gradually loses its leaves as flowering continues, though can also lose them from frost. These may have had theirs removed and been fed to pigs by local farmers. I found this picture on the iNaturalist website. It is attributed to Steve Shi and is of a ‘wild’ population found in the Chuxoing Yi Autonomous Prefecture, that is the ‘reddish’ area shown on the map below, the darker ‘red’ area shown at the center of the map below. Interestingly, I also grow the Cycad, Cycas panzhihuaensis which is found on a mountainside near Panzhihua at the southern tip of Sichwan Province in the ‘crook’ where the light green lies adjacent and north of Chuxoing Yi.

As in genus Musa, the inflorescsnce first begins to form as an embryo closely attached to the apical meristem, on top of the rhizome, sometimes referred to as the pseudo-bulb. In tropical Musa this takes place as early as the third month of the growth of the pseudo-stem, the embryo fully developed by the end of the fourth month, though still tiny, well protected inside and at the base of the pseudo-stem. It then begins its unseen and slow ‘trip’ up through the center of the pseudo-stem. The growth rate of all plants is temperature dependent and for tropical bananas stops at around 55ºF. For Musella this likely ranges down somewhat cooler, but I don’t know how much. The most rapid growth for tropical species occurs around 90ºF under humid conditions. Bananas growing in mild or cool temperate climates will experience much slower growth which can be suspended during colder periods, extending the maturation period, but the pattern will be the same.

The embryonic flower moves slowly up the pseudo-stem until, at maturity it appears exposed atop the mature pseudo-stem. In Musella the inflorescence’s peduncle, the ‘stem’ which supports the inflorescence, in contrast to species of Musa, is congested, abbreviated, opening immediately after crowning atop the pseudo-stem, without extending the elongated, downward growing ‘stem’, characteristic of Musa species. The inflorescence of Musella is held upright rather than drooping as do those of Musa. (A few Musa species, those in the Australimusa section, have a similar upright inflorescence. This group has since been rolled into a larger group Calimusa, due primarily to their genetics, but the designation Australimusa is still helpful for grouping them on morphological characteristics.)

Musella lasiocarpa’s individual flowers are unisexual, female flowers forming first toward the base of the inflorescence, whereas male flowers are produced later, closer to the apex. This pattern is similar to genus Musa’s with its female flowers opening first as the peduncle extends and the bracts open. Both open as their corresponding bracts do so, each revealling a ‘hand’ of flowers. In Musella the congested nature of the inflorescence crams all of this tightly together, unlike that of Musa. In Musa female flowers are parthenocarpic and will form seedless fruits without pollination. Musa species and their cultivars also have an intermediate stage, one of hermaphroditic, complete flowers, though these never produce fruits successfully. Musa also ‘finish’ each inflorescence with the production of male flowers, in the case of the fruiting, polyploid hybrids, unnecessary as pollination is itself unnecessary…Musella, in contrast, require pollination to produce both the fruits and seeds that they contain. Because Musella flower from the bottom up over a very long period, a single flowering plant generally is not capable of pollinating itself as the female flowers in a single inflorescence are generally spent before the appearance of male flowers. Outwardly, the flowers of the two sexes appear much the same with the same corolla, each, however, developing only one, or the other, sexual parts within. If successfully pollinated, fruits will form containing numerous black seeds. Single plants then will be fruitless and unable to produce seeds.

Musella are insect pollinated, specifically honeybees, bumblebees and some wasp species, their flower structure and function is adapted to them, while genus Musa species are generally bat pollinated, but can also be bird pollinated, flowers of the different species corresponding to the anatomy and needs of their pollinators. Musella is the only case of insect pollination in the family requiring it to produce both fruit and seeds.

While Musella evolved a different reproductive pathway than did most of its family members, it shares many of the broad morphological traits characteristic to bird pollinated Musa, their bright yellow to orange inflorescence bracts, a bright color attractive to birds, while bees are most strongly attracted to bright blue and violet, color mattering far less to the night flying bats; odorless flowers, birds are not attracted to particular odors, as are insects and mammals including bats; and their production of copious amounts of nectar which is more essential for bird and bat attraction. Recall that Hummingbirds are a New World Genus and so did not evolve with plants of the Banana family.  That Musella possess these traits demonstrates that these were at one time essential for their progenitor’s successful reproduction even though they no longer are. This is relatively common in many species, traits once acquired persisting long after they are necessary, now anachronistic, passed on through the stability of their genes and are lost only if they become a hinderance to the species under its altered conditions…a kind of genetic inertia. In this case the changes that are needed arise while the others persist.

Musella lasiocarpa has gray-green, glaucous, foliage, sometimes described as ‘blue’. Its leaves are smaller than most bananas, fanning out in a more upright swirl from the terminal of their pseudo-stems, the tightly packed petioles of the leaf blades, characteristic of all of the species in the family. The pseudo-stems are generally under 3’ tall. The leaf blades reach upward to as much as 6’ or so and are in a narrow paddle shape, having more substance than those of Musa species.

These features make them more durable and less likely to be damaged by wind. Musa leaves tend to splay out in a broader and flatter pattern and are easily shredded by wind, which because of their vein pattern does not appreciable damage their performance. The petioles, where they separate and splay out from the pseudostem, are deeply channeled within all family members. As the process of flowering proceeds, those leaves not already lost as a result of frost damage, will whither away, leaving a declining pseudo-stem with its flowers on top and pups at the base. This banana multiplies more  slowly than most Musa species via offsets.

The map above is from Matt Hartzell’s Blog. Keep in mind that 1,000 meters is equivalent to 3,280’. The highest elevations are concentrated to the upper left, in the rugged, north and south running Hengduan Mountains, a complex of several mountain ranges, cleaved by three major rivers draining out of Tibet, the Salween, the Mekong and the Yangtze. The Himalayas cap the northern flow of the monsoon draining it of most of its moisture, which is able to drive into Yunnan from the south and southwest across the province’s border with Myanmar, still mountainous, but far less imposing.

A Description of Home: Its Native Range In Yunnan and Along the Upper Yangtze River

The Golden Lotus Banana is found in SW China on the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau (into southern Guizhou, central and western Yunnan) locally common in the upper Yangtze River watershed. It grows in the mountains where It can be.found between 1,500m (4,900’) and 2,800m (9,000’), as a semi-wild (or semi-cultivated) plant in association with mixed conifer-oak forest, in its higher elevation range, down into the sub-tropical broadleaved evergreen forests at lower elevations in southern central Yunnan. Very little of the region’s wild landscape exists today outside of limited protected pieces and the most rugged areas of the mountains. It has been largely disrupted by development including the construction of multiple hydroelectric dams and agriculture, with much land now grown up as secondary scrub or a sparse woodland association that consists of taxa in the heath family (Rhododendron, Vaccinium), and Quercus, Eurya, Myrica, and Myrsine.

Yunnan Province is home to some 19,000 different higher plant taxa, in an area of approximately 152,000 sq.mi., the highest plant diversity of any province in China. Northwestern Yunnan, in particular, is internationally recognized as a biodiversity hotspot with more plant species than any other such temperate region in the world, a center of plant diversity with some 3,000 endemic species extending north into the Hengduan Shan (Mountains) alone. 

Due to the disturbance, development and exploitation the region has undergone, several thousand of these are believed to be threatened with extinction.  Many of these taxa exist in only very small, isolated ranges, often limited to small areas in a single narrow gorge (For much more on this, see….) In comparison the state of Oregon, with its wide range of landscape types spread between Latitude: 42°N to 46°N, contains about 4,700 plant species across an area of about 100,000 sq.mi., 1/4 of Yunnan’s different plant species. Yunnan is a mixture of northern temperate and southern tropical and sub-tropical plant pallets with central and northwestern areas dominated by temperate plants. Musella is far from being the only plant there limited to this relatively small region.

Musella can be found scattered across its range between 24º-29º N latitude, so comparable to that of Florida and southern Texas. Yunnan’s climates vary widely, ranging from a summer wet, sub-tropical climate, in its southern stretches, into mild temperate and significantly drier as you go north and gain elevation, on into cool temperate forests and, eventually, into treeless, glaciated, alpine areas in the far north. Climates and niches can change drastically in relatively short distances. Musella is believed to have been very common across its range at one time. The flatter, lower, sub-tropical wet landscapes along the southern border of Yunnan have been occupied, arguably, for more than two thousand years and were most supportive of farming. The earliest signs of occupation are around Lake Dali in central Yunnan. It was most likely extirpated early on from these lower areas. Still it hangs on likely due in part because of its value as a sacred plant for Buddhists and the fact that it is still used as a supplemental feed source for pigs.

The Yunnan Guizhou Plateau has a summer monsoonal rain pattern so regular rain is associated with warmer temperatures, unlike here in the PNW. There winters are quite dry. All of the rest of the Musa species, as well as the Ensete, are tropical or sub-tropical and will need some attention for winter ‘protection’. Overall, around the world, as temperatures drop the number of species that can succeed, declines drastically. This is consistent with the larger pattern of much higher plant diversity in the tropics where the large majority of Earth’s species live.

The Competition – The Musa and Ensete Cousins

The modern cultivars used in the commercial production of edible fruits, along with those grown for local consumption which may be traded in local markets, including the plantains, are derived mostly from Musa accuminata or are hybrids of it and M. balbisiana. Both of these evolved as tropical species. Others may produce edible fruits, but they have not proven to be viable at commercial levels for a variety of reasons. Plantains, those generally having larger, drier, fruits require cooking to convert the starches to sugars and make them more palatable unless you are willing to wait for the fruits to darken considerably when the fruits become dead ripe, All of these are ‘polyploids’…they possess generally three or more complete sets of chromosomes in their DNA. Some contain DNA only from M.a., but still contain 3 or 4 complete sets of chromosomes, while others may be a mix including those of M. balbisiana. In bananas polyploidy can manifest in the form of increased vigor and/or in the form and size of their flowers and fruits when compared to those of a ‘normal’, diploid banana, an individual with two sets of chromosomes, one from each parent. Polyploidy sometimes occurs during hybridization and this increase expands the genetic ‘toolkit’ of an individual generally effectively rendering them sterile, especially the triploids (with three sets) and as so, capable only of reproducing asexually, through their offsets or tissue culture. These edible cultivars don’t require pollination to form their edible fruits, fruits which contain no viable seed. These sterile clones also have a tendency to ‘sport’, spontaneously forming new individuals with different morphological characteristics, differences in leaf coloration, among others. This has added to the enormity of the problem of establishing lines of descendance. 

The First Bananas

The Musaceae family (including five Ensete, 45 Musa and one Musella species) have been analyzed using a large phylogenetic framework encompassing 163 species from the larger Order Zingiberales to best determine their first appearance in the ancient world. Such dating is not a precise science because evolution happens over periods of millions of years in lineages which evolve from earlier species moving from ‘not a banana’ to ‘that’s a banana’. Where to draw this line exactly makes the process less precise.

It is generally accepted that the three Musaceae genera all originated during the Eocene, a period beginning about 50 MYA (million years ago), in the Indo-Burma area of Southeast Asia, spreading and diversifying from there determined through both fossil evidence and genetics. This is roughly the same period that India, broken away far earlier from Africa and Madagascar, first began to ‘crash’ into Asia, beginning the uplight of the Himalayan Mountains, the Tibetan and Yunan-Guizhou Plateaus and several other associated mountain ranges. From that start Bananas, in their earliest forms, began to move, shifting in response to longer term geological forces and cyclic climatic changes.

The Effect of Geology on Climate and Their Combined Impact on Biodiversity

Yunnan is very mountainous, with many ranges, separated by deep ravines and canyons. Most of the province sits atop the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau heaved up by the still advancing continent of India. Its mountain ranges ripple across and punctuate the plateau, extensions and sister ranges of the Himalayas to their southwest. The ‘greener’ areas, shown on the top map are the lowest elevations, with the most productive soils, the largest human habitations and the longest human history of occupation. It is impossible to say today what the full range of Musella lasiocarpa was originally. It is not found commonly anywhere in the wild today, but it is probably safe to say that it once occupied many of the mid to lower elevations, those areas colored in yellow and greens on into the orange in the above map. As the millions of years ticked by, this part of China ‘lifted’ and its mountain ranges buckled upward. This combined with an overall cooling of the Earth began to trap certain species, their northern expansion cutoff by the mountains. Lesser mountains formed to the south cutting these now isolated species off from their genetic cousins to the warmer south. Beginning around 2.5 million years ago the Earth began to undergo a cycle of Ice Ages. There have been at least 17 cycles between glacial (cold) and interglacial (warmer) periods. The glacial periods lasted longer than the interglacial periods. The last glacial period began about 100,000 years ago and lasted until 25,000 years ago. Today we are in a warm interglacial period. Over this cycling, protected, isolated, as these species were in this mountainous region, the species ‘moved’ slowly up and down trapped at survivable elevations. Due to their north-south orientation plants in this area were also able to migrate north and south over a couple hundred miles which expanded their range given the huge elevational changes from the far lower sub-tropical areas of the southern plateau and the glaciated northern extremes.  During glacial periods Musella would have had relatively short distances to shift in its move to survivable elevations. In other regions of the world the distances between such a wide range of environmental conditions would have been far longer. In others such migration north and south was cut off by the barriers presented by east – west mountain ranges.Were it unable to do so, Musella would have gone extinct during one of the glacial periods. This pattern makes sense today as the warmer, lower elevations tend to be absent Musella stands which have followed milder conditions upward. This is one of the reasons the region’s flora is so diverse.

The Hengduan Mountains are a series of high, precipitous, parallel ranges running north-south, connecting the Tibetan Plateau to its northwest, to the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau. Through these mountains run the ‘3 Rivers’, three of the largest in Asia, draining the Tibetan Plateau, parallel and in close proximity to each other, but separate, each contained by their own steep gorge often with their own endemic plant species. The western most is the Salween River, which after leaving the mountains breaks off to the south and drains through Myanmar into the Indian Ocean; The Mekong takes the middle coarse draining into the South China Sea near Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; and the Yangtze, the third longest river in the world, wends its circuitous route east to the East China Sea at Shanghai. Both these mountains and the Himalayas serve as massive barriers to the monsoon, directing and condensing most of the rain out on to their slopes while blocking the cold continental air masses of the north from sliding further south. The two massive regional high plateaus are believed to contribute greatly to the world’s overall weather patterns intensifying the Indian Ocean monsoon as the Tibetan Plateau warms in summer and setting up the conditions for the monsoon over eastern China as the Y-G Plateau warms over the summer months. The region of the Y-G Plateau is unique in that it receives monsoonal rainfall from both the Indian Ocean to its south and west and from the East China Sea.

Over 50% of China’s land mass is mountains greatly affecting its many climates. The Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau draws the heavy warm moist air from the Indian Ocean and the East China Sea, the moisture dropping out as it moves inland and up, drawn by the warming drier air over these Plateaus. Most of the Y-G Plateau’s rainfall occurs in the months of May through September, the winters, for the most part, are dry. Musella has remained isolated here away from other Musa species. The mountains serve as a barrier to Musella’s further movement north as well as blocking it’s ‘return’ southward effectively trapping them. In the lower elevations they also served as a haven during glaciation periods. The mountains blocked the advancing ice sheets of the several glacial periods of Earth’s Ice Age. The Plateau, continues rising with the shifting of the several very active plates in the larger region, continuing to isolate the monotypic genus.  In fact the larger area of the Plateau is home to as many as 90% of China’s considerable population of endemic plants, the several mountain ranges having created ‘safe’ havens, or refugia, for many species in ways similar to other like regions around the world such as the mountains of Mexico. With a more or less static population and its lack of gene flow between species, isolated Musella has adapted to the conditions here, with its cooler temperatures and long ‘dry’ winters, its slowly shifting genome, changing without any mixing, away from all of the family members beyond the mountains.

The Tropical Bananas

While Musella moved northerly to where it became ‘trapped’ from its origin in northern Indo-Burma, the genus Musa began its south and easterly trek into other regions with a suitably moist, tropical climate. Much of northern Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam is very mountainous with peaks and ridges often topping 9,000′ They presented quite a barrier to the tropical species. Their expansion was relatively limited to the south and southeast primarily. This changed with the onset of the Ice Ages. Over its freeze-thaw cycles Musa extended its range ahead of the expanding cold from the northern polar region, before being ‘drawn’ back, returning once again to its vacated lands of its former northern range. During the cold, glacial periods, the oceans lowering 100 meters or more as polar ice expanded and thickened, ‘created’ more arable land toward the equator. Islands of the Malay archipelago were connected by land bridges as coastal plains dried and became exposed, becoming available for migrating plants, for the several thousand years of earth’s cold phases…before once again, the ice melted back, retreating toward the poles, submerging coastlines and isolating islands once again. With each advance and retreat of polar ice a remixing of genetic material occurred before being isolated again to stabilize a species or particular population. Sterile hybrids, polyploids, sometimes resulted from this mixing and as such became more geographically ‘fixed’ to place in the islands. With the development of human agriculture our own selective pressures were put to work spreading and protecting preferred cultivars, though, geologically speaking, this would have been very late…though still a major shaping factor i which survive and where they are today.

Ensete faced a wide, arid, barrier to the west of Musaceae’s Indo-Burma ‘birthplace’.  Often unsupportive, the lands to reach Africa required frequent enough, if still scattered landscapes, with moist enough conditions to make Ensete’s ‘transit’ possible. This may not be as difficult as we might imagine today because the Sahara Desert and its surrounding semi-arid lands, only first formed a mere 7 million years ago when precipitation amounts roughly were cut in half. This is today attributed, primarily, to the African continent moving north, ‘shrinking’ the vast Tethys Sea into its much smaller and shallower Mediterranean Sea of today. At the same time the European Alps began their rise. This vast shrinking of the ‘northern sea’ and the equalling important increase of dry land has added to the continental warming and drying of the huge Saharan land area. Here as well the 2.5 million years of cyclic Ice Ages were a factor, the expanded frozen polar cap of the glacial periods reducing the amount of rainfall across the huge desert nearly in half. The interglacial, warm, periods were actually once wetter prior to the change of climate over the sprawling desert, but the shifting continental plates transformed the land form and with it the climate. 

Ensete species also moved east and making it all of the way to North America, crossing the old land bridge connecting Asia and North America via what is today Alaska. They made it to at least Oregon territory, long before the rise of the Cascades and the massive volcanism which added 2-3,000 feet to the Columbia Plateau’s elevation. Fossilized seeds were found in the Pacific Northwest’s Clarno formation. Ensete species remained seed dependent for propagation, but unlike its Musa cousins it is capable of self-pollination so that isolated, scattered individuals were better equipped to accomplish the spread of the species without first building up larger local populations, likely helping to speed its spread across less hospitable landscapes. It is also speculated that birds may have consumed seed along with the fruit expeditin

The expansion of tropical Musa species south into into lower India and into present day southeast Asia was aided as more land was added as a result of the several tectonic plates, slowly collided into one another, Australia moving north and rotating counterclockwise, into Asian plates, causing the uprising of the ocean floor throughout the Malay archipelago. In addition this collision has created thin, weak, points in the plates which has lead to the creation of new islands through volcanism, expanding the geography of the lands available for colonization and movement of species even more during the Earth’s warm cycles. Species moved in and back out of the archipelago from more northerly, marginal areas. In addition, species which had made it as far south as Australia began their own process of advance and retreat in the Malay.

The Cold Musa Species

There are a few colder ‘true’ banana ‘hold outs’ of genus Musa, exceptions from the lower Himalayas of Sikkim east into Assam, India and sub-tropical China into Sichuan Province.  These are limited to 3 of the 42 species of Musa, M. basjoo, M. sikkimensis and M. velutina.  These species remained in colder areas  to the north of Musa’s Indo-Burma ‘birth’. These are still found in more isolated  more mountainous regions, the former in the highlands pressing up into the Himalayas of Sikkim and Assam;  M. velutinus in Assam and the eastern Himalayas; M. basjoo, long confused in the literature, is in fact neither native to Japan nor the Ryukyu Islands to their south, areas where it was previously attributed because that’s where westerners first found it. It was, as were all Musa species grown in Japan, brought there. The banana grown for its fiber in Okinawa, and the Rykuyu’s, is now known to be a cultivar of M. balbisiana, brought there because of its superior fiber quality and used to produce textiles. M. basjoo fiber is very poor. (Because M. basjoo is sometimes called Japanese Fiber Banana, is neither evidence of its nativity nor its use as a textile plant. Attribution are often given incorrectly.) This species was brought to Japan as a hardy ornamental. Botanists now believe Musa basjoo to have originated in northern China, wild populations now being reduced to Sichuan Province, but prior to the Earth’s ‘cooling’ at the end of the Eocene, the several glacial periods of our Ice Ages and the much later human development and disturbance, it was thought to have ranged nearly as far south as 23ºN and north to 66ºN latitude. (See The truth about Musa basjoo David R. Constantine)(

This is all far more than you need to know to grow Musella lasiocarpa successfully…but our gardens are more than collections of simple ornaments. They are living entities, members of created communities with which we share our own experience and lives. It is good to know the stories of our friends, their origins, preferences and proclivities. Such knowledge enriches our own lives and stories and, in the cases of plants whose success is less widely demonstrated in our area can be very helpful in determining its precise location and the care it might need.. The success or failure of any given plant in our gardens can be attributed to multiple factors: the physical conditions provided by the soil and place on this Earth in which we garden; our climate and the weather patterns that follow from it; the living, biotic community we’ve created with whose members it must both compete and in turn support; and, maybe most importantly, our own habits and cultural practices we impose on our gardens. Our gardens are of our own inventions, contrivances and, as such, their success relies upon our understanding of each plant’s needs and assets, of both those we have ‘chosen’ and those which have found their way in on their own. Success is most easily gained when we rely on plants tested and proven in regional gardens around us. Those plants have repeatedly demonstrated their adaptability and vigor in a range of conditions like ours. those which haven’t demand much more of our attention. ease of success or failure in one garden does not necessarily assure the same outcome in another. new plants, those less tested will always present a challenge. again for me Musella was ‘easy’ from the start. My original plant has proliferated. Others tell dissimilar stories, stories of repeated winter failure. For Musella we are still in that stage where we should be paying attention to details, because we are missing something, some particular detail or combination of details that cause this to fail in one garden and succeed in another, within the same region. Plants will always be this way. They are not ‘one size fits all’. All the variables to success need to be considered to understand what is going on. Failure is linked to the overall health of any plant. All of the little compromises a plant suffers are accumulative. So failure is often attributable to a combination of cold, latitude, soil type, drainage, exposure, heat and cultural practices. Our cultural practices, beginning with how much and how often we may water, varies widely and when one of us says we don’t water too much, that can be very different than the practice of the next gardener who might claim to water similarly. Success is complicated and it requires that we be good observers and aware of how our conditions vary from a plant’s ideal or at least of how ours may vary from it.


This article provides a particularly good look into the evolutionary forces in play in the Musaceae, the banana family: “Evolutionary Dynamics and Biogeography of Musaceae Reveal A Correlation Between the Banana Family and the Geological and Climatic History of Southeast Asia”, in The New Phytologist, 2016, 210: 1453–1465.

Also see, Martin Gibbon’s article on Musella Lasiocarpa here.


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