Bananas and Palms
(Originally Published January/February 2006)
DAVID FRANCKO GROWS banana and palm trees. In Ohio. In the ground. Through the winter. He says anyone in the southern half of the Midwest can do the same, and he tells how in his recent book, Palms Won't Grow Here and Other Myths: Warm-Climate Plants for Cooler Areas.
"I wanted to share with others the fun I've had growing these plants," says David, a botany professor and associate dean of arts and science at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
David became interested in what he calls "North-by-South" gardening in 1996, when he and his wife, Diana, landscaped their home in Oxford. He had grown palm trees in central Oklahoma, where he previously lived, and wondered if they would grow in southern Ohio. By 1998, David had planted dozens of palms, bananas and other tropicals at home and on campus, where he could monitor various factors.
By exploring the science of cold-hardiness, David learned how warm-climate plants could best over winter in colder regions.
"Plants can't read the information on their tags," David says jokingly. In other words, the plants don't know they can't grow here." Choose the right plants, site them properly, plant them with attention to their needs and care for them until they're well-established," David says. "Then sit back and let the neighbors gawk."
Gawk they do. In a protected area of campus called the Upham Palm Court, visitors marvel at a tree that forms small, pink inedible bananas. "Bananas are a lot tougher than folks give them credit for," David says. The surprising collection of tropical plants gives the campus a Southern look. "There are places," David says, "where you're not sure if you're in Ohio or northern Florida."
David says several palms in his yard lived through a record low of 14 degrees below zero. How did they survive? First, the plants do much of the work. At least 100 species of palm trees survive 20-degree temperatures, and several endure drops below zero. Some plants, David found, may produce a type of antifreeze compound.
Second, plants are more likely to survive a cold spell if they're mature and in good health. Third, each yard contains microclimatesareas that are colder or warmer than other places.
David and other scientists are attempting to create a banana tree that sets edible fruit in a single season, and they're breeding even hardier palms. "There's a huge demand for these from gardeners," David says. "Five years from now, I'd like to have the next generation on the market."
His book is available in bookstores or at Timber Press (800/327-5680; www.timberpress.com).