Wild bananas

banana plant in rainforest
Banana plant growing wild in the bush near Murray Falls

Anyone who has spent much time in our lowland tropical rainforest will have seen stray banana plants and clumps growing, apparently, wild. But our cultivated bananas don’t reproduce from seed do they? So what’s going on? These questions have nagged me for a few years, especially since I took an active interest in trying non-standard varieties.

It’s true that our all our cultivated bananas – including Ducasse, Lady Finger, Red, MonkeyBlue Java and the all-too-common Cavendish – are grown from root stock, and it seems that getting a viable seed from any of them is almost impossible even with human assistance:

… although banana plants are clones, very occasionally they can be persuaded to produce seeds through a painstaking process of hand pollination. Only one fruit in three hundred will produce a seed, and of these seeds only one in three will have the correct chromosomal configuration to allow germination. The seeds are laboriously extracted by straining tons of mashed fruit through fine meshes …

That comes from this article, The Unfortunate Sex Life of the Banana (highly recommended – it’s both entertaining and informative) and after reading it I abandoned  any thought that cultivated bananas grow from seed in the rainforest. It’s still possible that they occasionally grow wild when a plantation has been washed out by floods and a ball of roots lodges somewhere downstream and starts growing, but that must be rare and can’t account at all for plants growing high in the hills. So our wild bananas genuinely are wild, and can’t even have crossed with the cultivated ones.

top of banana plant
Wild banana plant near Bingil Bay, with a small bunch of unripe fruit (click for larger image, as usual)

I had been told of wild bananas – “so full of seeds you wouldn’t eat them” – years ago but didn’t really follow them up. Then, last weekend, I saw and photographed them in the rainforest near Sanctuary Resort above Bingil Bay (just north of Mission Beach), and was introduced by a fellow guest to a magnificent book, Cooper’s Fruits of the Australian Tropical Rainforest which depicts and describes our native species.

There are two, Musa banksii and Musa jackeyi, and clicking on those links will take you to CSIRO fact sheets about them. In short, Musa jackeyi is rare, even in coastal north Queensland; its stumpy reddish fruit are borne on a vertical stem. Musa banksii has a bigger range, from Cape York to just south of Townsville, and is more common across that range. The plant and its fruit are more like our cultivated bananas, but the fruit turn upwards from their stem, not down. Both species tend to grow in disturbed areas of rainforest, e.g. where a big tree has fallen and exposed earth to the sky, and both are eaten by feral pigs.

bunch of upturned green bananas
Musa banksii near Murray Falls with a large bunch of fruit, June 2012

Sometime I will find a bunch of wild bananas ripe enough to try eating one, but my expectations are not high: Cooper’s picture of the fruit (on the CSIRO page) doesn’t look promising.

The last piece of the puzzle is the relationship between wild bananas and the fruit on our table. Its outline is simple enough: our wild bananas are just two of some 70 species worldwide, and all of our cultivated varieties are sterile hybrids of other “wild” species, mostly from SE Asia; some have human histories going  back thousands of years. The details are very complicated indeed and I will merely recommend wikipedia’s article on the genus Musa as a starting point before beating a strategic retreat.

12 thoughts on “Wild bananas”

  1. Very interesting.
    I didn’t know that we had our own native wild species of banana.
    I have a collection of 7 varieties of cultivated bananas and have read about them a bit.

      1. Actually I could have 9 varieties soon.
        Namely:
        Dwarf Cavendish, Lady Finger, (suckers from friend)
        Pisang ceylan, Senorita, Goldfinger, Dwarf Ducasse, Dwarf Red Dacca (tissue culture from Qld DPI, just $3 each !)
        Blue Java, Bluggoe plantlets (tissue culture from Blue Sky bananas to arrive soon)
        The last two varieties are from the ABB genetic group,
        and B type (Musa babisiana) original home range was from a colder area than A type (Musa acuminata).
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Musa_balbisiana#mediaviewer/File:Banana_ancestors_(Musa_acuminata_and_Musa_balbisiana)_original_range.png
        (All the other varieties I listed have more A than B).
        So I am hopeful they will do well down here in Sydney.

        1. I grow cavendish variety ( i think ).
          – i am in Raby in Sydney.
          – i am looking for dwarf cavendish variety.
          – where can I purchase them from.

        2. Hi Jeff,

          I am a hobbyist grower are you interested in selling any suckers ?

          I am near gosford on the central coast.

          Richard

  2. Good article here Malcolm thanks. I noticed M Banksii growing at Syd Botanic Gardens and started googling for more info.

    Nice collection you have there Jeff too btw. I am also having a go at growing various varieties in Sydney – Dwarf Red Dacca and Pisang Ceylan together with Kolikuttu and Ash (Alu Kesel) which I obtained from a person from the local Sri Lankan community.

    I am curious to hear how you go. My plants are yet to set fruit.

  3. Hi Malcolm,
    Really enjoyed your article about wild bananas. I have recently been interested in heirloom plants and their origins. I was wondering if you might know where I might be able to buy the seeds of either banksii or jackeyi?
    Kind regards
    Daniel

    1. Hi, Daniel,
      Glad you liked the article. I’ve seen banksii growing wild – a couple of times per year, which is fairly often considering that I don’t get into their habitat more than half a dozen times per year – but I’ve never seen jackeyi. My impression is that it’s quite rare even in its normal range, and that its normal range is largely uninhabited. 
      There’s no commercial market at all for either species, so you would be looking at scientific or hobbyist sources. My first thought was the Cairns Botanical Gardens: if they don’t have (or aren’t allowed to share) seeds, they may still put you on to someone else. 
      My second thought, which may be better, was the Society for Growing Australian Plants – http://www.sgapcairns.org.au or http://www.sgapqld.org.au (There are two websites. The second site, under the banner “Native Plants Queensland” is the newer, going by http://www.npq.org.au/aboutus/sgap-history )
      There also may be someone in a NQ Permaculture group who has taken an interest in wild bananas. 
      Good luck! – and let me know how you get on.
      Malcolm

  4. Yuruga nursery once sold one of the native ones, but not for many, many years much to my disappointment. Had my hands on a native one but it ended up not surviving its second winter in Sydney.

    Would love to get my hands on both native bananas too.

  5. In the Philippines, there is a banana that when it is ripe the skin is light green and the banana tastes wonderful. The local people say if you eat too many of them it will send you to the outhouse. They are great to eat. However, I live in Sydney and I don’t know I don’t know what genus they are or where to get a plantlet. Perhaps they wouldn’t grow in Sydney?

    1. I tried bananas that matched your description when I was in Bali early this year – perhaps the same variety? – but I don’t know the name either. However, all cultivated bananas are so closely related that these should grow just as well in Sydney as other varieties do, if you can track them down. Try asking the nurseries – or asking around the migrant community.

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