Back to the Roots Part II – the Roots of the Cavendish Banana in England

The origin of the banana in England? Really?  England?!

Admittedly, England is not the most obvious country of origin for a banana plant!  Yet, every banana you have ever bought in a supermarket directly descends from a single banana plant in England – the original Cavendish banana.

It all began in Chatsworth, where the head gardener of the 6th Duke of Devonshire – Joseph Paxton – got hold of a banana specimen from Mauritius in 1830. He started growing the banana plants in the glasshouse at the Duke’s Chatsworth House in Northern England. In the hands of the talented Paxton, the banana plants set flowers and the Duke served the exotic banana fruits as a rare treat to his guests. Paxton named the plants after the family name of his employer – William George Spencer Cavendish – Musa cavendishii.

A few years later, the Duke gave banana specimen to missionaries who brought them to the Canary Islands and the South Sea. South Sea missionary John Williams launched the banana industry in Samoa with the Cavendish specimen. Williams did not survive – he and a fellow missionary were killed and eaten by cannibals – but the Cavendish plants were soon planted throughout the South Sea.

From here, Cavendish bananas were discovered as the savers of the banana industry in the late 1950ties, when Panama Disease devastated the banana plantations in South and Middle American banana that produced the then most-exported Gros Michel (or Big Mike) banana, because they were able to grow on Panama Disease – infested soils.

The Cavendish fruit is more fragile than the robust Gros Michel and the whole export supply chain needed to be tailored to its needs.  The banana industry introduced cooled transport and ripening sites at the destinations and within short time the Cavendish became THE export banana. Today, all export bananas and 47% of all the bananas grown worldwide are Cavendish bananas.

Unfortunately, there is a new race of Panama Disease, which infects the Cavendish. This race – called Tropical Race 4 – first occurred in Taiwan in the mid 1990ties and is spreading rapidly through the world. It has already reached such distant places as Jordan and Mozambique.

I was recently awarded a Marie Curie Fellowship of the European Union to tackle Panama Disease of bananas. For the next years, I will be working at one of the world-leading institutes for plant- microbe interactions – The Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich, UK – to engineer a solution for Panama Disease. Together with the 2Blades Foundation – a US-based charitable organization – I aim to get my scientific innovations into the hands of commercial and subsistence farmers as quick as possible.

In case you wonder what happened to the original Cavendish bananas at Chatsworth:  The ancestors of the bananas still produce 30-100 bananas a year – to be eaten by the Cavendish family and their guests.

Next to the sad looking banana plant in the Plantation Gardens at Norwich.

Next to the sad looking banana plant in the Plantation Gardens at Norwich.

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At a meeting about Emerging Fungal Diseases of the Royal Society in London.

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