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.

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.