By Linda Dillman
What are those big, leafy plants growing in the yard of the stately brick home on North High Street in Canal Winchester?
This is a familiar question for Brooks and Patti Lybrook from the days after the final frost in spring to the first frost in fall. The answer? Five varieties of 250 banana trees more suited to the tropics, but happy to spend a few months in the couple’s yard.
“We bought the house in 1988 and I planted my first banana plants a year later,” said Brooks after a day spent moving dozens of plants down to his cellar for the winter. “I was driving by an old guy’s house in German Village whose whole yard was filled with banana trees. He said they were 25 years old and came from his dad who had them for 25 years. He was taking all of them up and I helped him finish the job.”
Intrigued by the banana trees, Brooks bought a couple of plants from the elderly gardener and planted them the following spring.
“That was 25 years ago, so these plants date from 75-year-old stock,” said Brooks, “and I get babies off of the main bulbs every year. Some of the bulbs can get bigger than 3-feet across and have multiple babies growing out of the side.”
Attaining heights of 12 to 18 feet, all of the trees are cut back to no more than 6-foot tall trunks—with all the leaves removed—before they begin their hibernation. They are only watered twice in order to keep the plants viable, but dormant.
The trees are hauled back outside in the spring, hardened to the climate and placed in the yard when the soil is warm enough to support growth.
Brooks estimates he has about 100 trees in pots. Many contain multiple trees, bringing his inventory to nearly 250. Discarded plant matter, including 6-foot long leaves and trimmed tree trunks, is composted. One year, a visitor asked for a few leaves to include in a recipe.
Banana leaves are often used as decoration or as a wrap for Mexican, Southeast Asian, Caribbean, and Central and South American cooking. In the tropics, the trees feature large pods that open and mature into bananas.
“We’ve gotten some small bananas, but we don’t have a long enough growing season for them to get big,” said Patti. “They do attract a lot of attention from people walking by the house and from people taking classes at Robert Warren’s studio down the street. Sometimes they’ll come down and ask if we have any plants for sale. During the Labor Day Festival we get a lot of questions from people passing by, but what’s really interesting are the comments from children. The trees do become an obsession. It is a lot of work, but they’re a lot of fun.”