Of Ensete, Musa, and Musella, the three genera of bananas, I’ve grown just one. Above is Musa ‘Siam Ruby’ in more plentiful irrigation times in my garden around 2010 — just like the Dude’s rug, those big leaves really pull a garden together. Though I’ve only grown ornamental bananas, theoretically I could grow the edible kinds in my zone 10 frost-free garden, too, as my Vietnamese neighbor does, Mr. Le. We sampled one of his wonderfully plump, sweet, stubby bananas when it cropped in November, last month, definitely not a ‘Cavendish.’ Bananas are one of the most widely consumed fruits in the world and the No. 4 dietary staple after rice, wheat, and corn. If you’re cooking them, then they’re called plantains.
But unless you have a zone 10 neighbor growing bananas as a seasonally fresh, garden-to-table fruit, your daily breakfast-cereal-with-banana ritual is in jeopardy. Predictably, the monoculture of the ‘Cavendish’ banana, “which a nineteenth-century British explorer happened upon in a household garden in southern China,” (New Yorker “We Have No Bananas“) is producing the same fate as that which befell the previous top banana, ‘Gros Michel,’ last grown in the 1950s. Monocultures never end well; exhibit 1, Ireland’s Great Potato Famine. Vegetative clones have no means to adapt to diseases and pests — when disease kills one, it’s effectively killed them all. It’s just a matter of time. While the ‘Cavendish’ was never the most tasty banana around, it became the number one export banana due to its amenability to shipping and the use of ethylene gas to control ripening. (My dad told us blood-curdling stories of the epic banana spiders he encountered when unloading the fruit from cargo holds in LA Harbor, San Pedro, Calif, just a few miles away.) It’s taken over half a century, but the seedless, sterile, vegetatively propagated Musa acuminata ‘Cavendish,’ once impervious to the deadly fusarium wilt known as Panama Disease that wiped out ‘Gros Michel,’ is succumbing to a potent mutation, Tropical Race 4. TR4 has already infected banana plantations in Asia and Australia but has not yet made a beachhead in Central America, home to the OG neocolonial “banana republics” of the United Fruit Company But that day is inevitable. I don’t know about you, but this is bad news in our house. I doubt Marty would get out of bed if there weren’t bananas in the house.
I love the use of breezeway block on this Vietnamese house featured by Design Boom. But it’s the inside walls imprinted with banana leaves that started me thinking about our long-standing love affair with bananas and what we’ll do if/when the ‘Cavendish’ fails.
Bananas are understandably revered here — it’s thought that they have been cultivated in the Mekong Delta for over 10,000 years. Viet Nam exports around 1.4 million tons of bananas annually.
Even though it can grow to tree-like proportions, the banana is an herbaceous perennial, one of the largest. Mr. Le’s plant is easily 15 feet tall.
I wish I knew the variety of banana that Mr. Le grows next-door. It really has a much better flavor than the ‘Cavendish.’ Of the millions of tons of bananas produced every year, just 20 percent are exported. The rest are eaten locally. But the huge export market of the commercially produced ‘Cavendish’ variety is so interwoven into so many countries’ economies and such a big part of so many breakfast tables, that its demise is unthinkable. Unthinkable but, apparently, inevitable.
(See also: Bananas: Their History, Cultivation and Production); Garden Riots “The Banana Industry and Panama Disease, the Ongoing Devastation Caused by Fusarium Wilt, Tropical Race 4”)