The Hunt for the Giant Banana

Join the search in New Guinea for the great giant wild banana, Musa ingens, known as the largest herbaceous plant in the world!

| Summer 2014

Most people in the world today are familiar with the banana; the ubiquitous fruit is found in markets from Siberia to Santiago. And even though the banana is one of the most popular fruits on the planet, very few people know that the banana, as we know it, is actually the result of a love affair — a romantic story between man and plant. Bananas are seedless, and they only produce tight suckers close to the stem. That means they don't move around by themselves, so practically every banana on the planet growing where it is, got there by the hand of man — that is the love affair!

The bananas that we know — seedless, plump, and sweet — are the topic of a future work of mine. Today I wish to introduce another scion of the banana story: the story of wild bananas, those wonderful and fascinating cousins of our seedless bananas.

The Wild Bunch

Bananas belong to the genus Musa, and there are approximately 120 wild species growing throughout Southern Asia, Indonesia, and New Guinea. These wild relatives of our “seedless” bananas are amazing in their forms, habits, and even inflorescences. Although the fruits of these wild species are edible, they are filled with seeds that are shaped like buckshot or peppercorns and are unfortunately called “monkey bananas” because they are too much work to eat while spitting out the seeds — hence better left for the monkeys!

This fascinating group of wild bananas interests me because these species hold great promise for future domestication. In my travels hunting down wild bananas, I have discovered that indigenous people rely on them for food. On the island of Borneo, some 14 species of wild Bananas are found; most of them are harvested for their edible flower buds or even relished for their fruits. In 2009, I spent 3 months documenting the wild bananas of Borneo and was fascinated to learn that new species are regularly being discovered.

In Borneo, one large group of indigenous people, the Iban, use banana buds as a vegetable. This is not a practice limited to the Iban, but it was quite common there and impressed me. The Iban also utilize the soft inner stems as food, and they eat many of the fruits. Some of the species, like the hairy-fruited Musa hirta, is eaten as a green vegetable either cooked or raw. I remember in one village in the jungles of Sarawak (Southern Malaysian Borneo) the locals explained to my daughter Alicia and me, how the young fruits were salted and eaten just as we would eat a cucumber ... raw!

Wild Bananas in Borneo are making a strange comeback that may endanger their “purity.” As forests are being cut down, these huge herbaceous plants are popping up everywhere. With more and more plants growing along the roadsides, the formerly isolated populations of rare subspecies are mingling genetically with each other, and in the near future the pure sub-species may be a thing of the past.

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