WESTLAKE, Ohio — At Westlake Porter Public Library, you can find a lot more than just books — movies, video games, tools for makers like 3-D printers, and right now, 21 living banana trees.
The Westlake Library has been going B-A-N-A-N-A-S every winter for the last few years because they have agreed to foster the trees for Westlake residents J. Kevin Meivogel and Donna Reuter for about five months each year so the trees will survive the cold temperatures.
“It was an exciting opportunity,” said library director Andrew Mangels. Several years ago, he asked a friend of his to do some woodworking in the kid’s activity room at the library, and the friend brought Meivogel in to help.
“And he said, ‘Oh, you know, he's got these banana trees. And in the winter, he's got to store them someplace that has high ceilings and good lighting. He wondered if he could store in the library over the winter,’” Mangels said. “And I thought about that, 'Wow, how cool would that be?’ What other library in Ohio, or this climate, has banana trees or tropical plants in their library all winter long? And it seemed like a really good idea.”
Mangels connected with Meivogel, and a fruitful partnership was born. For the past four years, Meivogel has been digging up the tropical plants in the late fall, putting them in large pots, and bringing them to the library to stay warm for the winter.
“They can’t freeze,” Meivogel said. “These are pretty much all full of water. So if it gets below freezing for longer than a day or two, then it is going to freeze and they're going to die.”
Meivogel comes into the library about once a month to water them, and the library’s high ceilings and large windows let in plenty of sunlight for plants, some of which are over 10 feet tall. They've been placed all around the library, including the kids area, by information desks, in conference rooms and on the library's second floor.
“It's just a unique thing,” Mangels said. “It brightens up the library. It's a fantastic, fantastic partnership.”
Mangels said the trees have been genuinely “appeeling” to library patrons.
“I think people enjoy it,” he said. “They walk in, sometimes you see people kind of like, ‘What's that doing here?’ But mostly, I think people just look at them and think, ‘Well, that's kind of nifty.’”
Library staff even hung colored lights on the trees this past winter to celebrate the holidays.
“I think people just enjoy them, and plant life just makes people happier, right?” Mangels said.
Unfortunately, there’s little chance of bringing home a bunch of bananas with your books. Bananas don’t grow on the trees in the winter months, but from time-to-time, a tree will sprout some tiny bananas that develop into large purple bulbs, but they won’t reach maturity.
Meivogel said that even in the summer, the bananas that do grow are much smaller than average, and they’re not great to eat.
What led to a Northeast Ohioan turning his property into a banana republic?
“Well, my daughter got me one for Father's Day one year,” Meivogel said. “Planted it, and kind of liked it, so we just kept going with it.”
Meivogel now lives in Westlake, but he began his tropical suburban plantation when he lived in Fairview Park. It has since expanded to include foxtail palms, canna plants, elephant ear plants and all kinds of tropical trees.
“I guess it's something I like to do,” he said. “My grandfather came over from Holland, so he was big into nursery and it's just something I picked up. It's not hard. It's two days in the spring to plant them, two days in the fall to dig them up and just a little bit of water during the summer.”
Meivogel said he’s had as many as 50 or 60 tropical plants in his yard at one time, which previously posed an unexpected hazard.
“When I lived in Fairview, we had a lot of car accidents around the house because people would be driving by, looking at them and they wouldn't pay attention and just run to somebody. I mean, numerous people,” he said.
While his new home in Westlake doesn’t have that problem, he says people still stop by often while he’s tending to his plants.
It is a unique addition to the library, as well, and Mangels said he’s not aware of any other libraries in Ohio or even the country that have branched out into banana tree fostering.
“What the banana trees represent to me is that Westlake Porter Public Library is the kind of place where you're going to find something you might not find anywhere else,” he said. “That we are creative, we're innovative, we like to do new things. We like to create an experience that when people come here, it's enjoyable and they find something new, and they have a good time. They have fun, in addition to all the learning and skills that they might pick up. It's a place where people like to come, and I think the banana trees speak to our ability to be creative and have a good time.”
There's still plenty of time to check out the bananas before they split — Meivogel said he usually brings them back home in April.