After 17 years, local banana tree unexpectedly bears fruit

pramati@macon.comNovember 4, 2012 

BYRON -- Seventeen years ago, Tom Dixon bought a banana tree for his backyard, because he liked the tropical effect it lent to his pool.

For the first 16 years, he moved the tree to various spots in his backyard, and cut the tree down as winter approached.

“I cut it down to the ground every year,” he said. “I use a garden saw, because (the tree) turns to mush in winter.”

Last Saturday, Dixon, 59, went to the backyard with plans to cut the tree down once again when he noticed what looked to be a patch of purple leather underneath the tree’s giant leaves. When he got closer, the patches turned out to be pieces of “inflorescence,” or what is more commonly called “banana heart.”

When he looked up into the branches, he saw something he had never seen on the tree before -- stalks of bananas, as well as another banana heart that has just begun the blooming process.

Bananas tend not to grow in North America -- virtually all of the bananas on sale in groceries and food markets are produced in foreign countries. While Georgia’s climate is perfect for peanuts and peaches, it’s not well-suited for bananas.

Except, for some reason, it is this year.

Dixon isn’t the only one to have a banana tree bearing fruit.

Helen Nixon, 73, of Macon has had a banana tree for five years and got some bananas this year because the frost never came in. Now, she says, she has three separate bunches on the tree.

“It’s unusual for anywhere in Bibb County,” she said. “This is the first time I’ve ever had bananas like this. ... My grandson, who visited Costa Rica, said he’s never seen a banana tree outside of Costa Rica (in the U.S.) bear fruit.”

A few years ago, researchers at the University of Georgia began a program trying to grow bananas in the state. But otherwise, people who plant banana trees don’t tend to expect the tree to produce something that can go into a breakfast cereal or on top of a sundae.

Not only are the banana trees bearing fruit, but they also are growing a lot larger than normal. Dixon said his tree may go 2 or 3 feet above the fence next to which it sits; this year, the tree is twice as big, nearly 20 feet tall.

Nixon’s tree also is taller than normal.

“It just grew and grew and grew,” she said.

Nixon said she plans on giving the bananas every chance to ripen, and plans to pay close attention to weather reports to see when temperatures are expected to significantly drop.

Dixon, meanwhile, said he’s been researching bananas online to try to discover why his tree is suddenly fruitful, though he said his search has been pretty fruitless thus far. He said he might consult university professors who have some expertise in the field.

He plans on waiting a couple of more weeks to see how ripe the bananas can get before picking them and cutting the tree down. Once the frost sets in, the tree turns to mush pretty quickly and is much harder to clean up.

Dixon said the last time he heard of someone else growing bananas in the midstate, it was friends from Warner Robins -- and that was in 1986 or ’87.

When he first planted the tree, Dixon said he didn’t particularly want bananas, partly because he spent so much time picking fruit off his father’s trees.

“My daddy was so much into that,” he said. “Peaches, nectarines, plums, cherries ... I swore I’d never do that again. He did his garden every year, and I swore I’d never shuck another ear of corn as long as I live.”

But the bananas present a different opportunity to Dixon. Should they ripen, they may find a place in his kitchen.

“I do banana smoothies almost every day,” he noted with a chuckle.

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.

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