The Fruit that Changed the World

Banana the fruit that changed the world - cover imageFive years ago I wrote a post celebrating our backyard bananas and lamenting the vulnerability of the commercial crop. Several more posts since then have touched on the dangerous lack of genetic diversity of the endlessly-cloned Cavendish (especially Wild bananas) and a book I picked up in our Balinese guesthouse recently refocused my attention on the issue.

Banana: the Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World by Dan Koeppel (2007) does for our favourite fruit what Longitude and Krakatoa do for navigation and our favourite volcano Continue reading “The Fruit that Changed the World”

Tropical fruit in season in Townsville

We’re coming to the end of our Wet season (not that it was very wet!) and the local fruit supply reflects the change.

  • Mangoes have finished (sad face). I haven’t seen anyone selling them off the back of a ute for a couple of weeks, and I think the fruit we got in the last few weeks before that was from somewhere down south, not that the sellers said so. (The season starts in the NT in October and harvesting progresses south, reaching Townsville around Christmas.)
  • Custard apples are back in season (happy face). They were on sale at Cotters Market two weeks ago, and should be available for the next six months.
  • I picked the second of two Monstera fruit on my creeper a couple of days ago (happy face), after missing the ripening of the first (sad face) a fortnight ago.
  • My Ducasse bananas are flourishing (happy face). I have just picked a small bunch, two more bunches are fully formed but some months off ripening, and two more plants have just flowered.

Blue Java bananas

The Ducasse (aka ‘sugar banana’) patch we acquired with this house has been so productive that over the last few years I have been trying to grow other varieties, although with very limited success. The Blue Java sucker mentioned in this post two and a half years ago failed to thrive – mostly, I think, because it didn’t have enough roots to support the foliage. It lived, however, and eventually pushed up a sucker of its own.

A few weeks ago it looked as though the original plant was dying without having produced a bunch but I propped it up to give it the best possible chance and a few days ago I saw that it had, after all, flowered. The flower wasn’t very big and nor were the immature bananas of its first hand but I was pleased with even that degree of success. The flower bell is much slimmer than a similarly-developed flower of Ducasse or Lady Finger, and smokier in colour.

banana flower
Blue Java flower with (mostly obscured) new fruit

Sadly, a possum noticed the flower, too, and ate both fruit and bell some time in the last couple of nights. It’s very disappointing. Somewhat surprising, too, since I don’t recall that happening – ever – to a Ducasse: the possums are always around but they leave our bananas alone until the fruit are fully formed and getting close to full size.

I still look forward to some Blue Java fruit in the coming year as a reward for my patience but now I have to put all my faith in the sucker. It’s strong, healthy and taller than I am, which is a good start. With a bit of luck – and not too many scrub turkeys, possums or cyclones – I might have them before Christmas.

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.

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’.

Red bananas

red bananas on cutting board
Red bananas, almost ripe

Another trip to Cotters’ Market, another banana variety – red bananas, this time, not monkey bananas, and just a hand to try, not another young plant to grow next to my sugar bananas. These red bananas are eating bananas, not cooking bananas. I had never been quite sure; I thought they might have been plantains, which are used quite differently and deserve a post to themselves some day.

They turned out to be very similar in texture and flavour to the monkey bananas, with very soft, smooth, sweet and slightly aromatic flesh. They seem to be sharing the monkey bananas’ tendency to go from under-ripe to over-ripe very quickly, but perhaps I should have started eating them earlier. They are about the same size as our sugar bananas, i.e. a bit shorter and straighter than the regular (I didn’t quite say ‘boring’) Cavendish.

The excellent Wikipedia article on them tells us that their official name is Musa acuminata (AAA Group) ‘Red Dacca’ and lists twenty or thirty ‘common’ names for them from every continent except Antarctica; I don’t think I need to reproduce them all here.