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Originally published Wednesday, November 3, 2010 at 7:04 PM

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In the Garden

Exotic banana plants survive winter if they get shelter from the elements

Ciscoe Morris, Seattle Times garden writer, offer tips on protecting exotic banana plants from the winter rain and cold, attending the annual Poinsettia Festival at Molbak's in Woodinville and knowing heather from heath.

Special to The Seattle Times

Few, if any, plants can rival hardy bananas (Musa basjoo) when it comes to adding a tropical flair to Northwest gardens. These exotic plants can grow to over 20 feet tall with 12-foot- long leaves. The coup de resistance comes when they produce spectacular yellow flower spikes followed by showy bunches of ornamental (but inedible) bananas.

The problem is that unless the stem is protected from winter cold, temperatures in the low 20s will freeze the plant to the ground. Well mulched, the plant will grow back the following season, but it will only reach about 12 feet tall and won't flower and form bananas. To guarantee a much taller banana, and possibly even get (ornamental) fruit, you've got to protect the stem from winter cold. Pick a few good-sized stems you want to protect and cut off all of the old leaves. Wrap the stem with old blankets or rolls of building insulation and wrap those with plastic sheeting tied in place with string to keep the insulation material from getting wet.

Finally, cover the top with a plastic trash bag to make sure that water can't get in from the top. Remove the covering as soon as the danger of hard frosts is over in spring. By the end of summer, your bananas could rival those in the tropics and produce bunches of bright yellow (inedible ornamental) bananas!

Poinsettia Festival

It all started in the '70s when Egon and Laina Molbak held the first Poinsettia Festival at Molbak's in Woodinville. Now it's one of the biggest events of the region, attracting busloads of visitors from as far away as California, Idaho and Oregon.

There are many reasons why the Poinsettia Festival is so popular. The nursery looks fantastic decked out with thousands of spectacularly colorful poinsettias, including several new varieties only available at Molbak's.

A big attraction is getting a family photo in front of the massive 14-foot-high poinsettia tree. There are other dazzling holiday displays, live holiday music and special activities for kids. But the biggest attraction of all has to be the free samples of the absolutely irresistible, mouthwatering incredibly delicious, can't eat just 10, Danish Kringle offered during the festival. By the way, did I mention that I like that stuff?

The Poinsettia kicks off Nov. 6 and continues through Dec. 24. Visit www.molbaks.com, for information and daily schedules of events.

Heather, heath

for winter

At first glance, heather (Calluna) and heath (Erica) might look alike; however, it's easy to tell them apart. Heather has feathery foliage while the leaves on heath are needlelike.

Another difference is that heather blooms in summer or fall, whereas heath blooms right in the middle of winter. This might lead you to believe that only heaths would add cheery color to the winter landscape, but there are a number of heathers that are every bit as showy, with foliage that turns brilliant colors in winter.

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A few of the best ones include flaming red 'Firefly,' brick red 'Mair's Variety' and burnished reddish-orange 'Robert Chapman.'

To thrive, heaths and heathers require full sun and well-drained soil. Feed with an organic rhododendron food in March. In spring, work a light sprinkling of compost into the plant to provide a protective layer of mulch over the roots.

Ciscoe Morris: ciscoe@ciscoe.com. "Gardening with Ciscoe" airs at 10 a.m. Saturdays on KING-TV.

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About In the Garden

Ciscoe Morris' column runs Thursdays. His show "Gardening with Ciscoe" airs at 10 a.m. on Saturdays on King 5.
ciscoe@ciscoe.com

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