More bananas

banana clump
The banana clump before clean-up – obviously healthy but choked with dead leaves and whole plants

An environmental group I volunteer with has its office in an old (1920s) house whose backyard has always had mango trees (every North Queensland gardener from 1900 until at least 1950 started his garden by saying, “Let’s plant the mango tree here“) and a patch of bananas.

They were left alone when the rest of the garden was put into low-maintenance mode (lawn in sunny areas, mulch under the trees) and three weeks ago, prompted by the sight of a bunch ready to pick, I spent half an hour beginning to clean them up, returning home with a small bunch of bananas and a moral obligation to go back and finish the clean-up. When I went back ten days later to do that I found another bunch ripe enough to cut down and brought half of it home, leaving the other half for Centre staff and volunteers.

green bananas
A bunch on the plant. The flower bell is tiny and at the end of a very long stem.

They are good bananas, too, although I’m not yet sure which variety they are. They are neither the (nearly universal) Cavendish nor Ducasse but may be what we call Lady Fingers, although the fruit are even shorter and fatter than most Lady Fingers I have seen. The stems are very tall – many are 4m or more – and the leaves are long (2m) and broad. Whatever they are, I will dig out a couple of suckers once the wet season gets under way and plant them in my own garden.

The texture of the fruit is more like the Cavendish than the very smooth, firm Ducasse and when you bake them the difference becomes even greater. I have a recipe for a Banana Slice which comprises a layer of sliced bananas between two layers of an oats-flour-sugar-butter-eggs dough. When it comes out of the oven, slices of Ducasse are cooked and have changed colour but are still intact and firm, while slices of Cavendish, Lady Finger or the current variety have cooked down and blended right into the cake mixture.

The same difference is apparent when you try to fry them: Ducasse stays firm and may even become rubbery, while the others soften.

bunch of green bananas
A close-up of the bunch and the flower bell

I came across a banana wiki and its associated image bank while trying to identify my new bananas. They didn’t help in that enquiry but may be useful to others interested in bananas so here they are: Promusa and Musarama.

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.