These plants are a close relative to the traditional banana (Musa), but they are not true bananas and are prized for the reddish coloration. They also differ in their growth habit: Ensete do not sucker like bananas, so don't form large clumps over time. In their native environment in tropical Asia and Africa, they can grow to 30 or more feet in height, but they will stay considerably smaller in containers or in cultivation.
Like many tropical plants, these can be successfully wintered inside, although they will likely stop growing or slow down. In the summer, they appreciate being moved outside, where they can get adequate sun, which is important for their full leaf coloration. Like bananas, these plants are rapid growers and love plenty of moisture, fertilizer, heat, and sunlight—the more you can provide for these conditions, the better your plants will look.
- Light: The more sun you can provide, the better. Ensete leaves grown in a spiral from the short central stem and resemble banana leaves, except they are reddish, with a strong red midrib. Adequate coloration depends on getting plenty of sunlight, so expect it to redden up in the summer.
- Water: Like bananas, these like lots of water. They can be found growing in wet soil alongside ponds or streams. They also appreciate plenty of humidity, so during dry winter months, it's best to set up a humidifier or mist the plants daily to provide plenty of moisture to the leaves.
- Soil: Any good, fast-draining potting soil will likely do.
- Fertilizer: These are very heavy feeders (also like bananas). Fertilize with a slow-release pellets fertilizer in the beginning of the growing season.
This is one of the major areas of difference between Ensete and banana: the Ensete is much harder to propagate. They cannot be easily grown from suckers or offshoots like bananas. They are grown from seed or tissue culture, but this is not a good option for most home gardeners. They will fruit in the summer with a banana-like fruit that hangs in bunches, but the fruit is not edible.
These are rapid growers that grow from a single, shortened trunk that can become quite thick over time. It's unlikely your plant will ever exceed ten feet in height, and you can keep it much smaller by limiting the pot size. Because these are tall plants, with broad leaves, it's best to use a heavy or weighted pot to prevent it from falling over. Repot annually in the springtime until the plant is too big to repot easily, then replace the top few inches of potting soil.
There are about 10 species of Ensete scattered through its range, but of this, only one is found in cultivation (and it's pretty rare). This is the E. ventricose, which is native to tropical East Africa. This is the plant described in this profile. There are a few cultivars, which are generally grown for their leaf color.
Abyssinian bananas, also known as black bananas, are very tropical specimen plants that would do beautifully in a conservatory or sunroom. The key to successful growth is more: more water, more light, more fertilizer, and more warmth. They are not especially tender and can withstand colder temperatures and will recover, although there might be some browning of the leaf margins. Ensete plants are vulnerable to pests including aphids, mealy bugs, scale, and whitefly. If possible, identify the infestation as early as possible and treat with the least toxic option.