Banana Shrub – Used to Be a Michelia

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Scientific or Latin binomial plant names are standard and authoritative around the world, unlike common names such as red maple or common chickweed. But authoritative doesn’t necessarily mean permanent. Scientific name changes I’ve encountered in recent years include waxmyrtle, from Myrica cerifera to Morella cerifera; Leyland cypress, from x Cupressocyparis leylandii to x Hesperotropsis leylandii (and that may not be the final word); and rosemary, from Rosmarinus officinalis to Salvia rosmarinus.

These changes don’t happen arbitrarily, but are based on careful study, sometimes over a period of years. Plant taxonomists may reach a consensus that a certain plant belongs in a different genus or family than the one to which it was originally assigned, and this decision might be based on flower characteristics or more technical issues. In other cases, it may be determined that a large group of plants should be taken out of one genus and given their own genus name. For example, a September 2018 Facebook post from the Georgia Native Plant Society explains that the genus Eurybia “is a group of plants that were split out of the Aster genus when North American asters were taxonomically re-evaluated.”

Another example is a lovely plant that has made just a slight jump within the magnolia family (Magnoliaceae), from Michelia figo to Magnolia figo. This change was based on a 2006 “cladistic anaylsis” of the Michelia genus. Banana shrub is still the accepted common name, drawing attention to the highly fragrant flowers that appear in spring or early summer. Banana shrub produces lustrous evergreen foliage, and can grow up to 15 feet in height and a little less in spread. It should be planted in a somewhat shaded location rather than all-day full sun, and some protection from winter winds would also be advisable.

If you’re looking for something other than azaleas and camellias this year, consider adding banana shrub to your landscape, as a specimen plant, or as a component of a privacy screen.

Banana shrub foliage and flower bud

Left to right: Banana shrub foliage in mid-summer; flower bud in mid-winter. Plant donated by our Master Gardener℠ volunteers in Craven County.