Mas Fajar and Mbak Nani have perfected it, I am getting better at it: spotting Panama Disease on the fly.
While we are driving through the Javanese countryside, the two can detect a banana plant with the typical wilting symptoms. Spotting Panama Disease is not that easy. The symptoms can easily be confused with two other banana plagues: Black Sigatoka and Blood Disease.
Black Sigatoka or Black Leaf Strike is caused by the fungus Mycosphaerella fijiensis. On commercial plantations, Black Sigatoka is controlled by spraying fungicides from airplanes. Small growers cannot afford this expensive and highly toxic treatment.
The first symptoms are tiny, necrotic spots on the bottom surface of the leaves. These spots grow into thin brown streaks and eventually show up on the leaf surface as the characteristic, black streaks that look like flames on a tuned Mazda.
Blood Disease, on the other hand, is caused by a bacterium: Pseudomonas celebensis. Like Panama Disease it causes wilting of the leaves and discoloration of the pseudostem. But the symptoms differ in three aspects:
1) Leaves: Blood Disease causes the youngest leaves to wilt first. Panama Disease affects first the older leaves and, characteristically, the leave petioles remain bright green while the rest of the leave is wilted.
2) Pseudostem: Panama Disease leaves black trails in the outer part, while Blood Disease causes dark spots in the inner part of the pseudostem.
3) Fruit: The most distinct difference is that Blood Disease, in contrast to Panama Disease, also affects the fruits. No symptoms are visible from the outside. But inside the bananas have ugly, black spots.
Quite often, farmers point us to wilt bananas that are not affected by Panama Disease, but by Blood Disease. Also, in Kabupaten (District) Bondowoso in East Java.
If I could choose a town to live in, which is not by the sea – you know that I would always prefer the sea – I would choose Bondowoso. The setting of lush green rice, cassava, peanut and tobacco fields, speckled with banana and coffee plants against the background of the gorgeous Mount Bromo, radiates a peaceful atmosphere that makes your mind wander to new dimensions.
The friendly and cheerful staff of the local agricultural office informed us that Panama Disease used to be a huge problem a couple of years ago. Today it is not a problem anymore. Why? Maybe they switched cultivars or growing sites? They applied fertilizer or other growth promoting factors? The agricultural officer did not know. Good for the farmers, bad for us Panama Disease samplers!
Luckily, on our way to Limajang, while talking to Mas Farjar, Nani spotted Panama Disease of Pisang koplok out of the corner of her eye.