Hello and welcome to the first entry of my bananaroots-blog!
Perhaps, you are wondering why this blog is called bananaroots. (One of my colleagues suggested I should call it „I fucking love bananas“.) There are two reasons:
The first one is metaphorical: The banana plant originates from South East Asia – its “roots” are in Indonesia.
The second reason is literal: Through the roots, pathogens such as the devastating Panama disease can enter the plant. Panama disease is the reason why I am travelling all the way to Indonesia.
1.) The „roots“ of the banana plant – its origin around Indonesia.
Let me go back to the “roots” of the banana plant.
Wild bananas originate from Southeast Asia – in a region stretching from India to Papua Neuguinea including the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. It is here that people tried for the first time to grow bananas as a source of food around 7000 years ago; 2500 years before the first sweet apples occurred in the Caucasus and 4500 years before tomatoes were first cultivated in Mexico. That makes the banana one of the earliest cultivated plants.
Why would you grow wild bananas?
Why these early farmers chose to grow wild bananas remains a mystery. Wild bananas contain large, rock-hard, inedible seeds – each one the size of a pea – and very little fruit flesh. Luckily, through thousands of years of breeding, these seeds diminished and only little black specks remain in the cultivated bananas that we know and love.
What is so special about the Indonesian bananas?
The variety of both wild and cultivated bananas in Indonesia is impressive. Exact numbers are hard to obtain, because a lot of different names are used for both local cultivars and wild bananas. Around 70 wild and more than 100 cultivated banana cultivars exist on the 18.307 islands of Indonesia. In the jungle, many more wild banana species might still wait to be discovered.
2.) The roots of the banana serve as an entry point for Panama disease
The main reason for my journey to Indonesia is Panama disease.
Panama disease is caused by the fungus Fusarium (the full name is Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. cubense). This fungus lives in the soil and infects the roots of bananas. It then colonizes the plants by growing upwards within the water-conducting system of the plant. Eventually, the leaves of the banana start wilting and the plant dies.
Why is it called Panama disease?
Panama disease first occurred on a banana plantation in Panama – hence the name – in the 1950s. Within a few years, the fungus spread to neighboring countries and wiped out almost all the banana plantations in Central and South America. Virtually, in the last minute, a resistant banana cultivar was found – the Cavendish. You all know the Cavendish banana! It is the main commercial banana, the „typical“ banana that you find in any supermarket all over the world.
Why do I search for it in Indonesia?
The “roots” of a new strain of Panama disease, like the roots of the banana plant, are in Indonesia. In the mid 1990s, this strain of Panama disease was discovered when farmers started growing Cavendish bananas in Indonesia and Malaysia. Within months their fields were completely wilted. This new strain is called TR4 (tropical race 4) and it is rapidly destroying banana plantations in Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, China and Australia. It has even reached distant countries such as Mozambique and Jordan. The fear is big that it will reach the main export banana plantations in Central and South America. That would be the end for the bananas that we eat every day.
Check out this page, if you want to know more: http://panamadisease.org.
If you have any other question, please leave a comment or write me a message.