Do not be disturbed if you know this plant as Michelia figo, or even if you knew it as Magnolia fuscata. It has been renamed and is now goes by the scientific name of Magnolia figo. The banana shrub is a member of the Magnoliaceae (Magnolia) family. Named because of its banana-like scent, it can be identified as a magnolia by the small, magnolia-like flowers that clothe the stems when the shrub is in bloom.
Introduced into this country in 1789, this Chinese native grows into a large shrub or small tree up to 20 feet tall. In spring and intermittently throughout the summer, creamy yellow flowers with maroon edges line up on the stems in perfect complement to the glossy, evergreen foliage. Flowers have six waxy petals and are about 1.5 inches wide. They are quick to shatter when touched, so it is best to simply enjoy the flowers while they are still attached to the limbs. The narrowly oval to slightly obovate leaves range from 1.5 to 4 inches long and 1 to 2 inches wide. Limbs are numerous, and the shrub makes a dense, solid form. Hardy from Zones 7-10, the banana shrub is a useful evergreen shrub or small tree in areas within its hardiness range.
Banana shrub is probably at its best in partial shade. In full sun, leaves tend to be yellow-green, but in full shade the limbs grow more open and leggy. Best growth is in moist but well-drained, fertile, slightly acid soil. Although drought tolerant once established, it will get off to a good start if watered regularly during the first year or until a good root system is established. Before new growth begins in spring, sprinkle a complete, slow-release fertilizer lightly underneath the shrub and out to the drip line. Mulch well to maintain moisture, but do not allow the mulch to pile up against the stem.
Banana shrub is usually pest resistant, but scale insects can infest them. If white specks appear on the leaves of your plant, you can bet that the scale insects are paying your shrub a visit. Discourage them from setting up permanent housekeeping by spraying with horticultural oil. Alternatively, drench the root zone with a systemic product such as Bayer's AdvancedTM Tree & Shrub Insect Control Concentrate. As always, follow package directions carefully when applying any insecticide.
Banana shrub grows naturally into a rounded to oval shape. If desired, the lower limbs can be removed to make a small, multi-trunked tree. Propagation is by cuttings.
Cultivars and Varieties
‘Stubbs Purple' has flowers that are more purple than the species. ‘Port Wine' is more compact than the species and tops out at about 6-feet tall. Flowers have more maroon coloring. ‘Purple Queen' bears dark red-colored flowers, and the foliage is a bit darker colored than the species.
Magnolia figo var. skinneriana (Skinner's banana shrub) is touted as a superior or improved banana shrub, more vigorous in growth and longer flowering than the old-fashioned banana shrub It is very similar to the species except that it is larger in all its parts, growing up to about 30 feet tall. Three-inch flowers are usually pale cream, but are sometimes pink or maroon-tinted in the center.
Magnolia figo var. crassipes has flowers that vary in color from rose to dark red. It is hardy only to the lower reaches of Zone 8.
Several hybrids have been developed between M. figo and M.doltsopa. Most are known as Magnolia ×foggii. Cultivars of the hybrid forms include 'Allspice' and 'Jack Fogg'. These hybrids are more upright and pyramidal and are less hardy than the species.
Gardeners who live within the hardiness range of banana shrub and like fragrance in their gardens will surely want to add this shrub or one of its cultivars or varieties to their gardens. Some sources are listed on Dave's Garden PlantScout.
At a Glance
Scientific name: Magnolia figo syn. Michelia figo
Common name: Banana shrub
Family: Magnoliaceae (Magnolia)
Size: 10-20/6-15 feet tall/wide
Origin: Introduced from China in the late 1700s
Hardiness: Zones 7-10
Salt tolerance: Slight
Cultural preferences: Prefers rich, well-drained soil and partial shade
Drought tolerance: Tolerant after establishment
Grateful appreciation to xstemboatr for the image of 'Port Wine'. All other photographs are the author's.