May 15, 2020

Banana Diversity

Everybody knows what to do with a banana, right? Just peel it and eat it. You could make a smoothie with it. Or how about some banana bread?

But did you know that there are hundreds of banana varieties, and they really do taste different? Some of them are better for cooking. Others have a very intense flavor. Some are creamier. True story: about fifteen years ago, when I brought my Mom one of my home-grown bananas, she insisted it was not a banana, because it didn't taste like one. Sadly, like my Mom, most of us only know the Cavendish variety that is sold at the supermarket. But, if you grow your own bananas, you can be the proud eater of more flavorful varieties.

There are a few additional reasons to grow your own bananas. From a taste perspective, you can let the bananas ripen on the stalk, which results in a sweeter flavor than those picked green and shipped around the world. From a visual perspective, the long, broad leaves of bananas add a tropical flair to your garden. From a cooking perspective - tamales! You can use young banana leaves to wrap home-made tamales. And very importantly, from a biodiversity perspective, if you grow a rare variety of banana, you are adding to the medley of banana genetics in your area. Cavendish bananas make up 99% of world banana exports, and Cavendish plantations are under looming threat from a relatively new strain of Panama Disease as well as Black Sigatoka and others. Growing a variety of varieties can spread risk across many different species, each with their own resistance to certain diseases.

A variety we no longer grow. 
It had a nice thick skin, peeled easily,
but we didn't like the texture
We grow several banana varieties, including Mysore, Manzano, Praying Hands, and Dwarf Namwah. They look, taste, and behave differently. Many people say that Manzano bananas have an apple-like flavor. I prefer to wait for Manzano bananas to start turning black before eating them, as they get creamier and sweeter. The Praying Hands variety isn't so sweet, but they are better for cooking, and they certainly have their own look. The fruits grow in a fused fashion, so that each hand (grouping) look like hands grasping together as if praying. Our Mysore bananas are very thin-skinned, but oh-so-sweet and - for lack of better terminology - tropical tasting. They tend to produce large bunches and must be propped up or they will fall over. Actually most of our bananas tend to fall over, but we have learned to enjoy the sight of metal poles raised high in the air. Dwarf Namwah bananas have hints of many flavors all rolled into one. To be honest, I have trouble remembering all the different varieties, and I don't even have that many to keep track of. I do live in hope that one day I might get to taste a red banana.

So, what do you need to do to ensure a good crop? Many banana varieties grow most readily in USDA plant hardiness zones 9 - 11, which translates to most of Florida, most of California, Hawaii, and parts of Texas. Although banana experts say that bananas like dark, fertile, slightly acidic soils, I don't have any of that. I have alkaline soil, use very little fertilizer, and pile on lots and lots of wood chips.
These tenacious banana babies popped
up after I covered a discarded
stalk with wood chips
The plants seem happy enough; although their happiness level would increase greatly with more rain. They like steady warmth - not too hot and not too cold. Most varieties will die back, if there is a hard freeze. Most of all, they like steady moisture, both in the ground and in the air. They are susceptible to root rot, so you don't want any standing water.

If you are going after fruit, here are some guidelines. Plant them in a sunny spot. You can get cold-tolerant varieties and you can winterize your bananas, but you probably won't get edible fruit if the baseline temperature and moisture conditions are not met. Bananas are more likely to fruit, if you remove all unwanted suckers, just keeping the best one. Sometimes you can get away with two. The best suckers are the ones with the small, spear shaped leaves, typically closer to the mama plant. Once you cut down the mature fruit, the plant can be cut down. Then the sucker that you let survive will be well-situated to grow and start the cycle again.

To summarize, make sure there is enough moisture; get your weather machinery in order to keep away any hard freezes; and only let one sucker grow. It really is that easy. And let me know where you source your weather machine.

There is one caveat concerning growing bananas. I can state that bananas are very easy to grow, because my bananas have not been the target of the deadly Tropical race 4 fungus that has been decimating Cavendish cultivars worldwide. Even in the absence of bananas, the spores of this fungus can hang out in the soil for decades. There's also a bacterial disease, Xanthomonas wilt, that is laying waste to East African bananas. As soon as these pathogens arrive in your area, all bets are off. Now is the time to grow and enjoy non-Cavendish bananas. May they live long and prosper, and perhaps provide some resistance as banana diseases proliferate.

For my friends in colder regions: Don't despair. I live in the humid subtropics with no hard freezes, where bananas grow quite well. So I have rather enjoyed growing a diversity of uncommon bananas for which I have a high expectation of success. What grows well where you live? Whatever that might be, consider looking into the lesser known cultivars and cultivating those. There is great satisfaction in doing so, and you may help increase that plant's genetic diversity. A hundred years ago, millions of seed-saving farmers kept a boatload of plant varieties alive. Not so today. For instance, of all the cabbage and pea varieties documented growing in the United States in the nineteenth century, 95% no longer exist. If you live in a colder climate and you like cabbage or peas, you could try growing some heirloom varieties. Variety is the spice of life - and can be tasty too. Feel free to take part.

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