There might be as many as 300 or as little as 50 banana cultivars in Indonesia. Nobody knows exactly. The reason for these gross estimates is the messy naming for bananas. Local names in one of the many Indonesian languages, different names for the same banana or the same name for different bananas have created a huge name mess.
After almost two month in the banana fields of Indonesia, I have tasted and seen at least 30 different bananas. Indonesia has it all: wild bananas, cultivated bananas, hybrid bananas, diploid bananas, triploid bananas. In Indonesian bananas are called Pisang. Internationally the genus is called Musa. That’s where the confusion begins.
Generally, wild bananas are diploid and not edible due to their large, hard seeds. There are some exceptions though. The young fruits of Musa/Pisang balbisiana, for example, are used as seasoning for Rujak (Indonesian fruit salad – one of my favorite dishes). The naming for wild bananas is pretty straightforward. It’s relatively easy to distinguish the roughly 25 wild bananas (15 Pisang acuminata, 3 Pisang balbisiana and 2-3 other ones).
The number of banana names increased tremendously with the cultivation of bananas. Most cultivated bananas – like the Cavendish – result from the hybrid formation of two wild bananas. These hybrids have lost their hard seeds; they are triploid and edible. (Although there are also diploid, edible bananas like the Senorita banana – Pisang mas kirana.) Different parents and further selection resulted in a huge variety of banana cultivars with different shapes, tastes and appearances. For some cultivars, the appearance of the banana changes due to environmental factors. Pisang klutuk has a thick, black pseudostem when grown at high altitudes and a slender, green pseudostem at lower altitudes. Understandably, people thought they are dealing with different banana cultivars and gave them two different names. The most extreme example is Pisang lampung, a small, thick and very sweet banana. This popular Indonesian banana is also known as: Pisang mahuli, Pisang muli, Pisang singapur, Pisang berlin and Pisang radis. Another example is Pisang ayam – the chicken (ayam means chicken) banana from the Aceh Province. Just one province further, in North Sumatra, it is known as Pisang barangan. In addition, many bananas have local names in one of the more than 700 languages spoken in Indonesia. Nowadays, there are 300 names for Indonesian bananas. When researchers, breeders and farmers exchange their ideas and experiences, they never know whether or not they are talking about the same banana. Time to straighten up the banana name mess.
Pak Agus at the Tropical Agricultural Research Institute in Solok (Balai Penelitian Tanaman Balitbu Tropika) is taking a stab at sorting the banana mess. He has collected more than 200 banana cultivars from all over Indonesia. His banana collection is neatly sorted into stone-bordered pots, each with a number-identifier painted on it. He will isolate the DNA of the bananas in his collection and determine the differences (so-called single nucleotide polymorphisms or SNPs) of a handful of genes to find out which cultivars are different and which ones are actually the same. Let’s see how many of the 300 bananas will remain.
Coming from the fungal field, I am used to messy naming. The complex sex life of fungi makes naming of fungal species notoriously difficult. To sort out the confusion, fungal geneticists came up with the initiative: “ One-fungus – One name”. My dear banana taxonomist friends: It is time for “One banana – one name!”