About Fred Saleet of The Banana Tree
In 1948 as a young boy living in a cold region of western Pennsylvania I had become fascinated with the concept of successfully growing a banana in our house. There were many failures. I was doomed from the start but I didn’t know it. There are no tropical conditions in the spring, fall, or winter in Pennsylvania and to try growing indoors during those cold months with low light can only guarantee failure and there were many. I had managed to obtain small banana suckers from a farmer in south Florida. These small thin starter plants were too small to be of any use but that was not the main reason for failure. Bright light of 12 hours daily would have been ideal but I did not have the light or enough skill to create an indoor lighting system. The soil used should have been porous as opposed to the dense black potting soil that I used and it was kept wet. The temperature was usually around 67 F which was a bit cool although it did not matter since failure would be imminent. I was impressed when a plant managed to grow 4 inches before it succumbed. Years later I had finally learned how to create an ideal interior space with adequate humidity, air circulation and high intensity lighting and managed to have a stout 6’ Cavendish banana that produced flowers – but no fruit. With some reservation I decided to call it a success. With luck, determination and the eventual understanding of how to create the needs of this tropical plant I had unwittingly opened a curiosity and desire to experiment with other tropical plants but thought it might occur some time in the future. To eventually study botany never occurred to me.
Six years after leaving high school I was a 24 year old freshman at Youngstown University. I had not determined a field of study and had to make a decision. I committed to Biology and eventually to Botany and a new hunger had developed for uncommon plants that were indigenous to the tropics. After more school in Arizona and Massachusetts came internships with a nursery and a botanical garden. I soon found an opportunity to be as independent as possible and I began by using my expertise the banana plants. With an inexpensive lease I began exporting banana corms from Columbia, SA to some large volume buyers in Canada. It was a difficult labor intensive role which I could never recommend but highly profitable at the time and it served its purpose for needed income and allowed me the chance to explore and go native.
I had made many trips to south Florida to nurseries and botanical gardens but one of my most life changing events took place when I had become a member of the Rare Fruit Council, Intl. I met Bill Whitman from Bal Harbor. His knowledge, his skill, and his reputation for successfully growing rare tropical fruits in Bal Harbor had become legendary in the south Florida community. His world travels allowed him to seek out fruit plants that were rare or uncommon and he would import them to his private property where he would usually grow and successfully obtain a “first” fruiting in the US. His property was a hidden magical place not open to the public – a place of such acclaim that the Ortho division of Chevron would photograph the various trees and use them in their products brochure for south Florida. With his passion he had provided the extra fuel for my first ever tropical seed catalog. In 1967 with leased space in Costa Rica I began growing various tropical fruits and plants mainly for the seed with the goal of adding new items to the catalog each time that it was printed. Other growers would also bring seed to me from their farms and it was a busy time. There was no internet – no email. Truly it seems like centuries ago by today‘s standards. In the meantime my phone contact with Bill continued over the years and it is sad to know that he is no longer here. We highly recommend the purchase of his book Five Decades With Tropical Fruit.
In regard to the subject of books we had added Flowering Vines of the World and Edible Nuts both by Karl Menninger. Also added was Tropica by Alfred Graf. This was at a time that most people actually would read. Today there is the internet and spell check and English is not considered an impactful course of study.
Nearly 500 different types of seed are offered on the Banana Tree website at www.banana-tree.com. Specializing in tropical and sub-tropical plants and trees with new items added throughout the year. Much of the seed that we offer is purchased by industry and by chemical / pharmaceutical research divisions which means the seeds often go to a laboratory and are not always planted out. Today the majority of our seed comes from Columbia, Brazil and Costa Rica. Customers receive their order from our address in Pennsylvania. It is possible to request seed that you do not see on the website and we will advise if we can provide the items.
The original Banana Tree catalog offered 30 different banana cultivars which were very large corms. Today we have pared this to 12 types and they are no longer corms, rather they are small rooted rhizomes.
Banana seeds are also offered under the botanical listing of Musa and Ensete. Banana seed is from wild uncultivated plants that do not produce edible cultivars. The seeds may be the size of a pea to the size of a thumb nail depending on the type that is chosen. It is erroneous to think the specks that you see in the fruit are seeds – they happen to be remnants of the banana flower
While emphasis continues to be placed on new seed entries the following short list contains seeds for plants that have some form of merit:
From west Africa comes a shrubby small tree that produces a red holly-like fruit that when eaten causes a change in the enzyme structure of your taste buds and for the next few hours it will cause the taste of a lemon, or anything acidic, to taste deliciously sweet and will cause the taste of other foods to be greatly enhanced. It is commonly called Miracle Fruit. Botanically it is known as Synsepalum dulcificum.
In the meantime if you consider growing fresh un-roasted coffee seeds you may be surprised at how easily the plant is grown and within 4 years can produce red coffee berries. Although tropical plants are not a common sight in the northern hemisphere it is possible to grow many of them if you have clear accurate instructions and can make any needed adjustments. A good test would be the Bird of Paradise which is known for its colorful flowers that have a beak-like shape and is often seen in florist’s arrangements. In cooler zones greenhouse conditions would be necessary.
Passion flowers have become quite known in recent history and there are many to choose from since over 300 are known. The Giant Grenadilla is an interesting candidate that is grown for its unique flowers and its very large edible fruit. Although it is a tropical it can tolerate some coolness but must have bright light or be grown in a warm greenhouse.
This is an era where we have become more health conscious and the large Pomegranate has become popular and is easily grown from seed but it is the Dwarf Pomegranate that takes center stage as a beautiful small plant that develops bright red flowers and very small red skin fruits that are only one inch in size. A rewarding plant that should receive more attention by growers.
Some plant enthusiasts become fixed on collecting as many species of a plant as they possibly can and constantly seek varieties that they are missing. Over 13,000 palms are known – imagine trying to have one of each. On a more practical side there are about 200 types of Heliconia and some are in constant demand because of their tropical foliage and colorful flowering bracts. The “Lobster Claw“ happens to be a favorite with florists. Some botanical garden grow many species of Heliconia.
In 1959 a relatively unknown edible nut began to arrive in the U.S. It was the Macadamia nut which was being grown in Hawaii on a large commercial scale. It has now become the star in the edible nut industry being referred often as the most delicious of all nuts. The small plants ( actually a tree ) are quite handsome with long narrow leaves that resemble the Holly leaf except they are elongated – makes a unique house plant if bright light is available.
A real tropical challenge would be to grow the Averrhoa bilimbi – also called the Pickle tree because of the small smooth skinned fruits that develop in tight clusters. The fruits are juicy and very acidic. It seems that those that grow it are not at all interested in eating the fruit since it is more desirable as a curiosity tree.
The flowering of the “Black Bat “ is an exhibition that looks like the open wings of a bat with long cat-like “whiskers “ dangling from the center face. Tacca specie.
The south African Proteas have become the darling of exotic flowers in the florist trade. Most of the Protea species have huge, colorful flowering heads. The unusual seeds are covered with a colorful soft hair and give the impression that you are looking at fishing lure for trout.
Jacaranda would be an ideal tree for a newcomer to try. For the sake of being able to successfully grow a tropical plant we have seed for a handsome tree that is fast germinating and produces lacy foliage. It
is fast growing and can be pruned to a desired height at any time without any required skill.