Blue Java bananas come to fruition at last

Five years ago I swapped a sucker of my Ducasse bananas for a Blue Java sucker. I promptly put it in the ground and waited, and was disappointed, and waited, and was frustrated as detailed here.

I kept on waiting, however, and my patience has finally been rewarded – but only just. A trunk grew to a decent height, flowered and formed a fair-sized bunch which wasn’t taken by possums. Fortunately, it was close enough to maturity before the trunk collapsed a couple of weeks ago that the fruit ripened afterwards. Continue reading “Blue Java bananas come to fruition at last”

Ducasse banana seed – an exceptionally rare find

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”

Langsat and other tropical fruits

fruit in bowl

Another visit to Cotters Market, another selection of tropical fruit … I have been here 25 years but I’m still enjoying discovering fruit that I knew nothing about as a child in country Victoria.

To be fair, Townsville locals don’t know all the fruit now available either, since local growers are constantly experimenting with new species, mostly from Asia. If you grew up here in the 60s you knew Carambola (aka “Five Fingers”), Soursop and Bush Lemon as well as the Bananas, Mango and Pineapple which were the only tropical fruit that I knew, but not the fascinating range we have now.

The Langsat (Lansium parasiticum aka Lansium domesticum), long cultivated in its original home in South-east Asia, is relatively new here. When I saw the fruit on the stall I thought they were some kind of Lychee, Longan or Rambutan but no, they are not related: the Langsat is a member of the Mahogany family. (I won’t say any more about its origins, distribution and cultivation because Wikipedia does it so well: just visit this page.)

A thin leathery skin encloses a five-segmented fruit; each segment may contain a seed but many don’t. The flesh is white and translucent, very like that of a Lychee but less bland in flavour. Langsat are refreshing in the same way that citrus are. I liked the flavour and will buy them again but they are not going to displace any established favourites in my fruit bowl, they will just extend the variety.

Speaking of variety, custard apples are in season now and are the main reason I went to the market on Sunday (yes, they are worth the trip). The Mangosteens and Rambutans looked good, too. While there I picked up some bananas, Goldfinger this time as a change from the Red Dacca, Monkey and Lady Finger we’ve been buying recently. One stall-holder has a variety she calls “Bong” and they are nice, too – very similar to the Monkey bananas but bigger. An online search for more information about them didn’t turn up anything very useful, however. I found its full Thai name, “Kluai Khai Bong”, and its Vietnamese name, “Chuoi bom”, but further searching led me into the over-familiar labyrinth of poorly-attributed names. If any hardy explorer wishes to pursue the elusive Bong further, I commend Banana Cultivar Names and Synonyms in Southeast Asia, a 28-page pdf available here. It correlates the names of each variety in the languages of the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam. Good luck!

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.

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.