As most of us know, all of our cultivated bananas are sterile clones and those little black dots in the middle of the fruit are immature seeds which will never develop. Getting a real seed out of a cultivated banana is a really rare event, as we realise immediately when we think about how many bananas we have eaten and how few seeds we have found.
I have been growing Ducasse (sugar) bananas in my back yard for twenty-odd years, occasionally with other varieties, and I hadn’t come across a mature seed in all those years until six weeks ago when I found one seed in each of two bananas from the same bunch. One seed crunched between my teeth but I managed to save the other – roundish, blackish and about 4mm long. Continue reading “Ducasse banana seed – an exceptionally rare find”
Five 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.
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.
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.
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.
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, Monkey, Blue 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.
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.
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.