Blue Java bananas

bananas
Five varieties of bananas: from left, two pairs of Monkey bananas and a triplet of Ducasse from Cotters Market, one over-ripe Cavendish with one ripe Red Dacca above it and three of my own under-ripe Ducasse below it, and finally two unripe Blue Java

Another visit to Cotters Market, another variety of bananas – but purely by coincidence this time.

One of my readers got in touch a couple of months ago, responding to my offer of Ducasse suckers and offering some of his own Blue Java in return. In the end he decided that he already had Ducasse but last weekend we met anyway and I came home with a few of his Blue Java bananas, just picked, and a good-sized sucker – thanks, Carl!

The Monkey bananas, Red Dacca and ripe Ducasse (aka Sugar bananas) came from Cotters Market on the same morning and I seized the opportunity to show the sizes of each variety in relation to the others. Lady Finger are almost exactly the same size as Ducasse.

Blue Java and Ducasse bananas
Three groups of Blue Java bananas – just ripe, a little over-ripe and green – with a few of my Ducasse again

Blue Java are not very blue and they have no obvious link with Java but there are no problems with their identity in that there is only one common name for them and it isn’t used for other varieties; Wikipedia covers all the basic facts very well. The “blue” in their name is due to the fact that foliage and unripe fruit have a blue-green-grey tinge, especially as compared to the bright grass-green of most bananas.

The skin is thick and the fruit inside is soft and creamy when ripe, with white flesh and (unusually) seeds which are large enough to notice. The flavour has been compared to vanilla ice-cream and to pineapple. Carl says he likes Blue Java best at the turning-black stage in the middle of his photo but I preferred them at the just-fully-ripe stage at the left of the photo. They make another nice addition to my growing list of varieties and I look forward to having a bunch of my own sometime next year, scrub turkeys and weather permitting.

Lady Finger Bananas

Continuing my slow-motion exploration of banana varieties …

Lady Finger bananas
Lady Finger bananas

It’s easy to see why there is so much confusion between these Lady Finger and the Sugar Bananas (Ducasse): they are almost the same size. The biggest difference, before peeling them, is that the Ducasse are more smoothly rounded in cross-section whereas the Lady Finger are almost angular.

As soon as they are peeled, it is clear that Lady Finger bananas are much closer to the common Cavendish than to Ducasse, with a similarly thick skin and dry texture as compared to the much thinner, more delicate skin and smooth, almost slippery, mouth feel of the Ducasse.

Other blog posts in this loose series describe and picture Ducasse aka Sugar, Red Dacca, and Monkey aka Egg. I don’t think I could tell the difference between Cavendish and Lady Finger on taste or texture but the other three are more distinctive. All five are good to eat, and it’s nice to have a choice.

A word of warning: ‘Lady Finger’ is the only common name for this variety in Australia and this is the only variety we call ‘Lady Finger’ except for occasional confusion with the Ducasse, but other countries apply the name to other varieties, e.g. here Wikipedia is talking about what we call a ‘Monkey banana’.

More kinds of bananas

small bananas with a teaspoon and coffee mug
Monkey bananas with a teaspoon and coffee mug

We have visited Cotters’ Market a few times in the last month and have been enjoying ‘monkey bananas’, always on sale there but rarely in shops, in consequence. As you can see from the photo, they look much like miniature Cavendish bananas (they are shorter and much slimmer than our sugar bananas, featured here with the same teaspoon and coffee mug). They don’t last so well, going from green to black in only three or four days, but they are good to eat while fresh, sweet and slightly acid with a smooth texture – although one is rarely enough.

Names of banana varieties are often problematic but I think I have this one worked out: its official name is Musa acuminata (AA Group) ‘Lady Finger’ and is a ‘Monkey Banana’ here but a ‘Lady Finger’ or ‘Sucrier’ elsewhere, a ‘Golden Banana’ (pisang mas) in Malaysia and an ‘Egg Banana’ in Thailand and Cambodia (kluai khai or chek pong moan respectively) (Sources: wikipedia ‘Lady Finger Banana‘ and this big list from Melbourne University, plus forums)

I don’t know whether I will ever grown them, since it appears that only a few varieties may be sold as plants and the monkey banana is not on the list. On the other hand, I now have a young Pisang Ceylan plant, a thoughtful Christmas gift bought from the Blue Sky stall at Cotters’. It is growing well in a pot and ready to be planted out once the wet season has come and gone and the new plant won’t be washed away before it establishes itself. Its first fruit may arrive in time for next Christmas.

More bananas

When I was writing about our home-grown bananas six months ago I wanted to include a photo of the most impressive bunch of bananas I have ever seen, but I could not find it. This week I cut down the first bunch of our own bananas since round about then, which reminded of my omission. Here is the photo at last:

monster bunch of tiny bananas
An enormous bunch of small bananas in the gardens of the Cambodian royal palace, Phnom Penh.

As you can see, the plant – obviously very well fed, but nearly dead by the time I saw it – kept on producing bananas until the flower touched the ground. It is a small variety to begin with but the fruit got smaller still as the bunch got longer; the lowest are only about the size of my little finger and, I would think, completely inedible. Still, it is an amazing achievement for such a small plant.

I have tried to learn more about banana varieties but have not had much success, mainly because their classification and naming is such a mess. In brief, there are about 1000 varieties, most of them known to be hybrids of two wild species but some (the Fe’i varieties) of uncertain origin; and many of the varieties have different names in the different countries they are grown in. The Wikipedia Banana article is the best online resource I have found. A monograph by Daniells, Illustrated Guide to the Identification of Banana Varieties in the South Pacific, published by The Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) is good but the only version of it that I can find (the pdf here) lacks the photographs listed in the index.

I doubt that more knowledge will make much difference to me in practical terms, anyway, since I know what variety I already have and will simply plant whatever other varieties I can obtain locally.

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, enjoy the fun discussion at chowhound.chow.com.