Musa sikkimensis ‘Red Tiger’ is a relatively new hardy banana variety suitable for outdoor cultivation in cooler climes. Occurring naturally in the foothills of the Himalayas particularly in the as you might guess Sikkem region where it regularly is at the mercy of unpredictable cold often freezing winter temperatures. Ideal for the U.K. then! Seriously I have seen this beautiful banana growing to over 3 metres tall outdoors here, at first similar in appearance to the much-loved hardy banana, Musa basjoo. Musa sikkimensis ‘Red Tiger’ is identifiable by its more robust deep green leaves which are randomly splashed in deep purply-red bands on the upper leaf and tend to be a dullish purple on the underside. Again, this is very variable changing from leaf to leaf even plant to plant. No two plants being identical. The leaves themselves are also thicker and more robust against the wind being less liable to shredding. Musa sikkimensis ‘Red Tiger’ is capable of producing edible bananas too, albeit rather small but before you get your hopes up fruiting requires a very long hot summer so consider it a real bonus if your ‘Red Tiger ‘ fruits successfully. Like Musa basjoo, Musa sikkimensis ‘Red Tiger’ grows from a large underground rhizome or caudex capable of slowly spreading ultimately producing offsets forming a clump. One of the reasons for this is that naturally as the banana plant grows each stem produces a terminal flower, fruits and the whole stem dies and the bananas ripen. If grown side by side with Musa basjoo I’ve noticed that basjoo is happier to start growing whilst the weather is still chilly often starting off in late February whereas Musa sikkimensis ‘Red Tiger’ tends to be slower to get going, waiting for the warmer weather to arrive. Having said that once May/June arrives they tend to grow rapidly both basjoo and sikkimensis looking equally impressive.
For growing outdoors, it is important to understand the requirements for long term establishment. The term hardy banana means that the root-rhizome is hardy and to overwinter it successfully we recommend protecting the trunk with straw or fleece to prevent it freezing. If you do this the banana will start off in the spring where it finished off last autumn. left unprotected the above ground stems and leaves will usually be frozen and die down to ground level. As a rough guide when temperatures fall between 6-4. degrees centigrade during the day growth will stop. Once frosted the leaves will collapse and below minus 3 degrees centigrade the trunks will start to break down. There are all manner of techniques out there for protection and I guess much of it depends on where you live and how severe the winter is but as a rule I like to build a wigwam of bamboo poles round my bananas once the leaves have been frosted and fill the wigwam with straw, winding sisal string around this to prevent the wind from blowing the straw out. This looks quite wacky in the garden, doesn’t take long and means you can grow impressive size plants each year. Having said this as I write this in mid-March 2020 from my office in West Sussex our bananas here in our nursery garden haven’t been protected at all as the winter has been so mild. What I do like to do for maximum growth is feed the banana plants well. I do this by mulching around the base with rotted farmyard manure, this also help insulate the roots from cold. And top dress with organic fertiliser from April through to August with an organic feed such as pelleted poultry feed.
If you like big leaves, exotic, jungly or colonial gardens then I’d say both Musa sikkimensis ‘Red Tiger’ and Musa basjoo are essential. Just be prepared for comments from passers bye, neighbours and film crews.