Building A Better Banana- page 2 | People & Places | Smithsonian
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Building A Better Banana

It is the world's No. 1 fruit, with millions of people dependent on it to stay alive. Now diseases threaten many varieties, prompting a search for new hybrids of the "smile of nature"

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Tomekpé and I are sitting in a screened-in dining hall near the town of Njombé in Cameroon’s Southwest Province, about 120 miles west of the capital city of Yaoundé. We have just finished a dinner of chicken and fried plantains, the starchy type of banana favored in west Africa and elsewhere. For dessert, we have ordered a few Cavendish bananas, which our waiter has brought on a plate. They are perfectly uniform in size, shape and shade of yellow. Tomekpé, a compact, slender man in his early 50s, picks one up. “The Cavendish banana is too beautiful to be true,” he says. He peels it and takes a bite. “It is beautiful, but to me this is an uninteresting banana. It has one, bland taste: sweet.” He takes another bite, then wrinkles his nose and puts the banana down. “There are such diverse qualities to be found in bananas—small, medium, large, yellow, red, creamy, tart, sweet, balanced. This is the first Cavendish I’ve had in three years. Because I have such diversity to choose from, why would I want this one?”

Director of the AfricanResearchCenter on Bananas and Plantains (CARBAP), Tomekpé oversees one of the world’s largest field collections of bananas. Unlike the germ plasm preserved in test tubes in Belgium, the plants in CARBAP’s collection are tree-size specimens. On six acres at the edge of Njombé, more than 400 varieties of bananas grow in beautifully regimented rows separated by wide strips of green turf. Black metal signs identify each variety by name: Tomola, Pelipita, Poupoulou, Red Yadé, Mbouroukou. Some fruit is long and skinny, like a witch’s fingers. Others are short and squat, and grow like clusters of green peppers. One type has dark green skin with white stripes. It’s known as the tiger plantain.

We stroll along the beds. “Here is a wild example of Musa acuminata,” Tomekpé says. It stands little more than headhigh and looks comparatively spindly. “This is one of thetwo wild ancestors that edible bananas are descended from.It originally grew, many thousands of years ago, in andaround Malaysia.” He produces a pocketknife and cuts off asingle green fruit. It is the size of an okra pod or a sweet pickle. Slicing it in half, lengthwise, he probes the immature,milky flesh with his knife and pries out several hard seeds that resemble peppercorns.

Over time, random mutations produced acuminata plants with seedless fruits. They were more edible than seed-filled fruits, so people tended to cultivate the female-sterile mutants, giving rise to domesticated subspecies. Pollen from these cultivated plants sometimes reached the flowers of their wild acuminata cousins. Matings produced hybrids that possessed all the fertility of mules.

Walking 30 feet to an adjacent bed, Tomekpé points to a very different-looking plant. Everything about it, including its fruit, is three or four times bigger than the wild M. acuminata. “This is a wild Musa balbisiana,” he says. “It is the other original parent species. As you can see, balbisiana is far more robust, and has many more seeds.” He cuts open a fruit, which nearly bursts with round, black buttons. “A single bunch of these can contain 20,000 seeds.” Beneath balbisiana’s towering canopy of leaves, the ground is covered with them, like pea-gravel. “Balbisiana originated in India. That is where, many thousands of years ago, acuminate crossed with balbisiana to create natural hybrids. And that is how we got the plantain. Nearly everything you see around you is a variety of plantain.”

Bananas do not grow on trees. The plants that produce them are enormous herbs with non-woody “trunks” called pseudostems, which consist of the compacted bases of the plant’s long, torpedo-shaped leaves. The banana plant is a photosynthetic fountain that spouts leaf whorls out of its top. After the whorls emerge, they unfurl, and the leaves droop downward like palm fronds. The last leaf uncurls to reveal the banana’s true stem—a green, fibrous extrusion with a softball-size magenta bud at the end. As the stem lengthens, the bud weighs it down. Petal-like bracts surrounding the pendulous bud gradually drop away to reveal clusters of blossoms. Oblong fruits develop at the base of each blossom. The flower-bearing tips of the fruits curve toward the sun as they mature, producing the crescent shape that Germans sometimes call “the smile of nature.”

Each layer of fruits in the ascending spiral is called a hand. Individual bananas are called fingers. A full stem, or bunch, of bananas can have as many as 20 hands and hundreds of fingers (a bunch of Cavendish bananas typically produces six or seven hands and 150 to 200 fingers). A banana’s growing cycle, from baby plant to harvest-ready fruit, is between 9 and 18 months. After bearing a single bunch of bananas, the mother stalk dies or is cut down, soon to be replaced by one or more “daughters,” which sprout as suckers from the same underground rhizome that produced the mother. The suckers, or sprouting corms, are genetic clones of the parent plant.

The banana may be the world’s oldest cultivated crop. Human beings in Southeast Asia began to select and cultivate wild Musa varieties as many as 10,000 years ago. It may have taken a few thousand years for those early agriculturists, acting in tandem with nature’s genetic dice, to produce sterile hybrids like the Cavendish and other sweet varieties still cultivated today. Incapable of reproducing sexually, these seedless wonders propagate vegetatively, by suckering. During the first or second millennium B.C., Arab traders carried banana suckers with them from Southeast Asia to the east coast of Africa, and Tomekpé says, “Swahili people exchanged planting material with Bantu people, who took the plantains into the central forest and westward across the continent.”

Spanish explorers carried bananas from Africa’s west coast to Latin America. A 16th-century Spanish historian, Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes, documented the plant’s arrival in the New World. “This special kind [of fruit],” Oviedo wrote, . . . “was brought from the Island of Gran Canaria in the year 1516 by the Reverend Father Friar Tomas de Berlanga . . . to this city of Santo Domingo, whence they spread to the other settlements of this island [of Hispaniola]. . . . And they have even been carried to the mainland, and in every part they have flourished.”

Bananas flourished in Africa for so long after they arrived from Southeast Asia that some parts of the African continent—the eastern region around what is now Uganda, and the western region bounded by the Congo basin—became secondary centers of genetic diversity. “Farmers in various parts of Cameroon have been cultivating plantains for a very long time,” says Ofundem Tataw, an ethnobotanist from Cameroon’s University of Buea. “They possess a great deal of traditional knowledge of working with the diversity here.” Tataw is squeezed with three other people in the back seat of a four-wheel-drive pickup truck. We lurch slowly along a road strewn with boulders of black volcanic basalt expelled from MountCameroon, at 13,435 feet the tallest in West Africa.

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