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 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 fact sheet) 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

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’.

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 Backyard Bananas’ stall at Cotters Market. 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.