Delta sees bananas, 14-ft sunflowers after record-breaking summer

The heat and sun prompted massive growth in heat-happy plants

Despite the abundance of flora that flourishes in Delta, one could be forgiven for assuming bananas are absent from that list.

And yet, a Sunbury family is watching their first ever bunch grow and counting the days until they can do something it’s safe bet few — if any — people in North Delta have done: eat a banana straight from the plant. (Technically they aren’t trees as they aren’t woody and “die” at the end of the growing season.)

“We’re going to try,” said Natasa Zullo. “Hopefully they get bigger.”

Zullo (39), her husband Antonio and their two young boys Rocco (7) and Gino (4) recently returned from vacation to find that the banana plant they had sown four years earlier was fruiting for the first time.

“It’s funny because always people ask us, ‘Oh, do you get bananas?’ And we’re like, ‘No.’ Then we got back and my husband was like, ‘What? There’s bananas on there,’” Zullo said.

When the family moved four years ago, her husband took a cutting from one of the banana plants at their old home near 112th Street and 84th Avenue and planted it in their new backyard.

But even in the seven years the family lived at their old house, no one had never known any of the plants to produce anything.

“We’ve never even seen what the flowers look like,” Zullo said, adding she grew up in North Delta and has never heard of anything like bananas being successfully grown here.

There’s a reason for that.

Bananas are a tropical plant, adapted to growing in areas of high temperatures with no cold snaps. In North Delta, they simply aren’t able to get the amount of heat they require to grow to their maximum capacity and produce fruit.

If bananas are now growing in Delta, Kwantlen Polytechnic University sustainable food systems director Kent Mullinix said, then there had to have been a change in Delta’s typical summer weather.

“If you’re seeing it, and you’ve not seen it before, something changed,” Mullinix said.

The change this year, he said, was likely the hot, sunny summer days — many of which broke temperature records across the Lower Mainland.

Related: 18 temperature records smashed

“Plants are ectothermic — they are dependent on ambient temperature, or heat … to drive their growth and development,” Mullinix said. “Typically tropical plants require more heat to grow and develop.”

They are also driven by sun — more sun means more photosynthesis, which means more food for the plant — “and if you (also) provide water, they tend to grow,” he said.

Mullinix didn’t have exact data on the temperatures this summer, but many Delta gardeners have anecdotal evidence that this season was hotter than last.

“This year was hot, ” Rose Bozic said. Bozic, and her husband Stefan, have a 14 foot sunflower growing in the corner of their veggie garden.

It was 14 feet two inches tall when Stefan Bozic measured it in the middle of August, but he estimates that it’s even taller now.

Other sunflowers on the property were between five-and-a-half feet and eight feet tall — but those were planted in early July, while the towering flower was planted in April.

“Maybe that helps, when it’s so warm,” Rose Bozic said about the height of the flower.

Mullinix would argue that it does.

“If the average temperatures were much higher and we had a greater duration of those hot days, then yeah, you’re going to see plants behaving differently,” he said. “And plants that otherwise would not have grown well here, may in fact do okay.”

Although it’s exciting for home gardeners to get exotic plants flourishing in their backyards, it can be potentially difficult for farmers. This is especially true for Delta, which produces nine out of 10 B.C. tomatoes, and more than half the province’s potatoes and green beans.

“These plants are highly sensitive to temperature regimes during the growing season,” Mullinix said. “Just fractions of degrees will make a difference in whether they can perform well or not.”

The beginning of the growing season this year was wet and cold, meaning that most plants had a late start. Many crops are around a month late in their growing pattern, although the warm, sunny weather allowed them to “go gangbusters,” as Mullinix put it.

“We actually don’t know what crops will grow well where, anymore,” he said.

“As our climate shifts … crops and plants that were formerly well adapted here may not be in the future. And crop plants that weren’t particularly well adapted may in fact become adapted or suitable.”

This doesn’t mean Delta will see plantations of bananas any time soon — after all, it’s still a temperate zone. But it does mean that common knowledge about what plants thrive may not be so common anymore.

“People can expect that the plants that they’re accustomed to growing … probably will start experiencing different weather regimes, and those tried and true plants might not do as well,” Mullinix said.