Self-sufficiency: bananas

Banana suckers growing around mature trunks
Banana suckers growing around mature trunks (click for larger image)

When we came to this house twenty years ago we came to a somewhat neglected but well established garden. The house was already more than forty years old, a product of the post-war building boom that necessarily accompanied the post-war baby boom, and its first owners had planted a mango tree in the back corner of the yard as everyone did in Townsville in those days. We also found a macadamia tree, grapefruit and lemon trees and (getting to the point of this post) a clump of bananas.

The bananas have flourished with minimal care and have given us more fruit than all the rest put together.

Each plant begins as a sucker from the base of an older one and takes 6 – 12 months to produce a bunch of fruit. Each plant only produces one flower and one bunch, and the remains of the plant simply become mulch and compost after the fruit is cut. Grass clippings are spread amongst the plants as well, but that’s all the feeding they have needed. They do need a lot of water to thrive and they really enjoy the wet season.

Banana bunch and flower
A developing bunch of sugar bananas showing immature fruit above the still-growing flower

The flying foxes normally alert us by visiting when the bunch is ripe enough to pick (and sometimes get a percentage of it if we don’t pay attention) and I go out with a knife on a long pole. I trim the leaves, then cut the trunk at head height to bring the bunch within reach, cut the bunch off and bring it indoors to finish ripening. That usually takes a few days and we then have anything from 20 to 200 bananas which need to be eaten within a week or so. Friends, relations, neighbours and colleagues have learned to expect free bananas from us when we pick a big bunch. That’s okay – the fruit was free to us anyway, and often returns in the form of paw-paws, pomelos or tomatoes from recipients’ gardens.

Bananas are peculiar amongst widely-grown crops in their lack of genetic diversity. Almost all the commercial production is of just one hybrid variety, the Cavendish, and all the plants – worldwide – are clones, meaning that any disease which affects one plant can affect all of them just as seriously, with potentially catastrophic effects on global production (see the excellent Wikipedia article for more on this).

Also, of course, it means that to most people a banana is a banana is a banana in a way that is simply not true of apples, tomatoes, potatoes, etc. As one writer put it, “The diversity of bananas is similar to citrus. Consumers would be aghast if only oranges were available, when they knew about lemons, limes, mandarins, pummelo and grapefruit.”

Ripe sugar bananas on a tray
Ripe Sugar Bananas with morning coffee … mmm

For both reasons we were happy to find that ours are not Cavendish. Eventually we worked out that they are not Lady Fingers either (it always seemed improbable, because ours are much stumpier than Cavendish and surely ladies’ fingers should be slim?), but Sugar Bananas, more formally ‘Ducasse‘. They were apparently introduced to northern Australia from Thailand in the 1880s.

They are a little more acid than Cavendish and the texture is smoother, almost slippery. They are wonderful fresh, and keep well in the fridge (although the blackening of the skin is a bit off-putting) but we haven’t found them to be good in cooking because they go leathery.

We always have more suckers than we need and I’m happy to give them to anyone willing to drop by and pick them up. Just contact me first.

Someday I might write again about other varieties of bananas. Until then, check out australiantropicalfruits.org and the fun discussion at chowhound.chow.com.

20 thoughts on “Self-sufficiency: bananas”

  1. Hi and thank you for the great info. I’m not sure if sugar bananas would work, but my wife found a great idea for an ice cream substitute. After freezing banana pieces, we put them through our Vitamix and they were delicious!

    It may be worth trying.

    Regards,
    Frank and Eva Lopez

    1. Thanks, folks.
      We will have to try that. In the same spirit, we already slice excess mangoes and freeze them in takeaway food containers to extend the season. We usually thaw them and serve with ice-cream or on muesli, etc – flavour is great but texture is more like stewed fruit.
      Sorry for the late reply, btw. I have been away for a couple of weeks, travelling in SE Asia (and eating lots of the little ‘egg’ bananas).
      Malcolm

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  4. Hi! thank you for info on sugar bananas. I have a couple of varieties of bananas planted in my backyard here in Cairnlea Victoria. Australia and both are thriving very well. I wanted to try planting that sugar banana in my backyard. Can you pls. help where I could get the plant here in Victoria.

    Sincerely,
    Deo

    1. Hi, Deo,
      Melbourne is a long way South of the main banana growing regions (I will have to write a whole new post about “Extreme Bananas” to match my “Extreme Mangroves“!) so you may have trouble getting plants. I’m not sure if quarantine regulations would stop NSW or Queensland nurseries sending plants to you but they could be your best chance. Blue Sky Bananas http://www.backyardbananas.com.au is the only one I know by name but I’m sure there are others.
      Good luck!

  5. Hi Malcolm

    I would like to try and grow a dwarf ducasse in Brisbane but unable to find a plant. Any suggestions on who is growing them around Brisbane? Enjoyed reading your info!

    1. Hi, Brian, and thanks for the kind words. I don’t have many Brisbane contacts, I’m afraid, so all I can suggest is that you ask your local nurserymen, look online for specialist suppliers or track down your nearest Permaculture group. The last of these could be the most rewarding in the longer term, since you may meet a lot of like-minded people.
      Good luck!

  6. They are not more acid than Cavendish they are actually much sweeter (that’s why they are called sugar), they just need to be ripened longer until partly black.
    That sugar banana in the photo doesn’t look ripe to me. Sugar bananas require more darkening on the skin than a Cavendish and the skin thins and they become softer to touch. There are many health (and taste) benefits to eating riper bananas. The ingredients that boost immune systems, and the mineral content increases and the starches convert to fructose making them easier to digest, in the darker riper fruit. We grow both varieties and struggle to make people understand that different varieties need longer ripening times.

    1. Hi, Celeste,
      Thanks for your comments.
      You’re right about the ripeness. When we cut a bunch down we can never resist starting them as soon as they reach this stage and we’re still eating them (if the bunch lasts that long!) when they’re spotty blackish-brown objects that look like they should have been binned long ago (and a Cavendish that colour would have been).
      If I were writing the post now, I might have captioned the photo “Sugar bananas ripe enough to eat …” but I would still be reluctant to post a photo of a really ripe one because so many people would react negatively to it.

    1. As far as I know, all banana varieties have similar requirements for water (lots), food (lots) and sun. Ours don’t get much sun early in the morning or late in the afternoon because of big trees nearby and they do okay – although they might do even better in full sun.

  7. Thanks for all the comments to date on Sugar bananas. I am old enough to remember growing these at Sarina in the early fifties. They were a staple lunch for a large family of schoolkids. While I have lived in Victoria for the last fifty years the Sugar has been tough enough to accompany me through some horrendous climatic conditions. While they endured the worst of winter weather they would invariably lose most of their leaves but bounce back into life late spring. All the while they produce an abundance of suckers but no fruit.
    This year we are reaping the rewards for perseverence. Two trees – in different locations, are busy producing bunches. We are not counting our chickens at this stage as the glorious weather of the last four months surely cannot continue much longer. Then again climate change may produce odd outcomes.
    Someone mentioned about cutting the bunches and having them fully ripen inside. At what stage is this action feasible?

    1. Congratulations on getting fruit in Victoria! (Although yes, climate change may be contributing and that’s nothing to celebrate.)
      Over the years we’ve had trees collapse (cyclones, flooding, weak plants, tree-loppers working above them – you name it) with fruit at all stages of under-development and we always bring the bunch indoors in the hope that it will ripen, since the worst that can happen is that we leave it on the bench for a few weeks and then throw it out.
      In your position, I would leave them on the tree until the tree begins to die off, then cut them down. If the fruit are still scrawny, they probably won’t ripen but there’s no harm in giving them a chance. If they are nicely rounded, they probably will ripen, and putting them in a bag with ripe fruit will speed up the process.

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