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Have we gone bananas?

by Sara Henderson, Gardens Manager
We are often asked about the exotic looking plants included in several of the plantings at Oakland. Are they hardy? Are they appropriate for a historic garden? The answers are yes and yes. In fact bananas are one of the few plants we can document as being grown on the grounds during the Victorian period.
Bold foliage Victorian engraving
Amateur botany and plant collection were favorite pastimes in the 1800’s and numerous expeditions to far flung parts of the world were funded to acquire new and exotic material. Many plants died during the long sea journey from China, India or other parts of the Orient; however the introduction of the Wardian case in 1842 allowed many exotic plants to reach the West. Elegant versions of these cases became the rage in sophisticated drawing rooms, but the simple, functional forms were responsible for the availability of many new garden worthy plants.
The number of these plants is astounding. In the 1905 edition of his ‘Cyclopedia of American Horticulture, L. H. Bailey listed 23 species of banana plants (Musa) as being commercially available in North America. He dedicated three pages to various types of Canna and over seven pages to ferns.
Many of these new plants were considered tender and were grown in greenhouses or brought into one for the winter. This was the practice at Oakland where Atlanta’s first greenhouse was built in 1870. Some of these plants were indeed tender, but others have proven themselves to be quite hardy. Liriope is one that is no longer considered tender or worthy of winter protection, however Bailey described it as ”a tender, bulbous plant from China….It is procurable through Dutch bulb growers, and should perhaps be grown in the greenhouse year round.”
Banana postcard c1910
A popular picture postcard from the early 1900’s shows a very exotic planting of bananas and other plants growing at Oakland. There’s no way to tell if they are hardy but they are large and flourishing and they inspired us to include them in our plantings today. The varieties of bananas we have planted are both hardy and tender. Those flanking the fountain require winter protection and spend the winter in the basement. Others, such as the Musa basjoo across from the greenhouse, are totally hardy. It even tried to produce fruit last summer.
We have planted many other tropical looking plants in the restored areas. Look around on your next visit and see how many you see. You might even try to locate the site of the postcard picture. It’s in the original six acres but it looks very different today. Perhaps we’ll replant the bananas in the future.IMGP1318x

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