Banana tree is low-maintenance landmark

Derek Thurber

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Many myths surround the banana tree planted outside Penrose Library at Whitman. The most common of these myths is that it is uprooted every winter and put into a greenhouse for storage until the spring.

These myths are not true. Banana tree is low-maintenance landmark | Illustration by Iris Alden

“There are a few myths around campus,” Director of Grounds Gary Brown said. “One is that we pull up the tree and store it, another is we heat Lakum Dukum year-round, but these aren’t true.”

The Physical Plant, a department that hires students and community members to keep the natural parts of campus looking good, planted the banana tree five years ago, and in those five years it has never been uprooted or moved. The plant was a good way to fill an isolated, empty space.

“We had a spot contained by sidewalk on all three sides, and we wanted to fill it with some kind of ornamentation,” Brown said.

The banana tree is especially good in this location because banana trees have a tendency to spread rapidly and uncontrollably. In many places around the world they are considered to be an annoyance because of their rate of growth. When the banana tree was first planted it was about the size of a human thumb.

“The banana tree is an inexpensive ornamental plant in the Northwest and grows like a weed in the tropical parts of the world,” junior Physical Plant employee Chloe Tirabasso said.

This particular type of banana tree, known formally as Musa bassjoo, is from Japan where the climate is colder than it is here. The tree can survive at temperatures as low as 10 degrees below zero.

The tree is not uprooted and stored for the winter but rather is cut down to the base of the stem and then mulch is thrown over it. The tree remains dormant for the winter until the mulch is removed in the spring and the tree grows back.

“It is one of the easiest things on campus to take care of,” Brown said. “It doesn’t take any extra resources.”

Since the tree is cut every winter no bananas grow from the tree. It would have to be about twice the height for it to bear fruit.

The tree would normally die back during the winter because of Walla Walla’s low temperatures. Cutting the banana tree is not harmful to the tree.

“The physical plant cuts the trees back in the winter because them dying back would look ugly,” Tirabasso said. “And it is their job to keep our campus looking pretty for us, our parents and the alumni.”

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