Banana seeds

DrTom with his prized possession, a Ugandan banana plant that he grew from seed.
DrTom with his prized possession, a Ugandan banana plant that he grew from seed.
Sipi Falls, at lower end of Mt. Elgon National Park, Uganda.
Sipi Falls, at lower end of Mt. Elgon National Park, Uganda.

Trip to Uganda

In 2007 I returned from a trip to Uganda with a special botanical prize, or so I thought? I had gone there as part of an ecoagriculture project with colleagues Louise Buck and Jeff Milder. We were there to learn what we could about the challenges and possible solutions to raising food while protecting as much biodiversity as possible, working with the Benet people of the eastern part of that beautiful country. Jeff and I got the assignment of taking a hike in the Mt. Elgon National Park, the original homeland of the Benet before they were moved by government decree to an area nearby. We hired a guide and spent several wonderful hours walking a loop trail through the forest.

At the end of the walk, our guide showed us a small grove of wild banana plants growing at the edge of the forest, and he told us that this was the ancestral species from which domestic varieties were derived. I took that to mean that Uganda was the original location from which this important plant evolved and later spread throughout the world. So I did what any competent biologist would do--I collected a sample to take home. These plants bear fruit that is not edible; the banana is bitter and mealy, and it contains large black seeds. I took four of the seeds and put them in the pocket of my field pants.

The Disaster at Home

When I got home, I unpacked. Later that day, my wife did a load of laundry. She ran those field pants through the washer and then the dryer, not knowing anything about the precious cargo in the pocket. My life was ruined, or so I thought. I punished my wife by cancellng our trip to Tahiti. However, I planted the seeds anyway, and two of them germinated. One of them is still with us as you can see from the associated photo.

For two years, I have been telling everyone who would listen, the story of the ancestral banana plant from Uganda and how I have one growing right here in my house, based on seeds I collected on Mt. Elgon, the laundry episode, etc. About 15 minutes ago, I discovered that my cherished story is apparently wrong! According to Wikipedia, the banana plant is native to Southeast Asia, and it was probably first domesticated in Papua New Guinea about 7,000 years ago. It spread to Africa much later, which is considered an area of secondary diversity. I have perpetuated what has become an urban legend in my circle of friends, I obtained a degree of status that was not deserved, and I prevented my wife from going to the South Pacific for nothing.

Look before you leap

The lesson here is to go to Wikipedia before you open your mouth about anything. If you are not sure who the 16th President was, go to Wiki. If you can not remember which state elected Sarah Palin to be their governor, go to Wiki. If you forget your wife's birthday, go to Wiki. (I once got our anniversary and my wife's birthday mixed up. Don't ever do that!). Assume that you know almost nothing about anything, and check Wiki first thing in the morning when you get up, and last thing before you retire at night. Most people don't do this, so most of the information you hear from other people is wrong. Be the first to start getting everything right.

So from now on when visitors ask me about that banana plant growing in the corner of the dining room, I will have little of interest to say. In fact, because I can't stand to go through the entire saga with them, I will just say, "I bought it at Walmart".

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Comments 13 comments

Jim 6 years ago

Yep, don't try coming to NZ with seeds in your laundry, our sniffer dogs are the best at finding food smuggled in.

Ensete or false banana we were eating in Ethiopia 6 weeks ago. The edible part of their 'false' banana is the root tubers. Mashed up, dried out, made into huge cakes and sold in their markets. Apparently because of their resilience and deep rooting system very good for improving the soil.Not eaten anywhere else, but it's a plant that is being looked out to be grown elsewhere in Africa to provide variety, and flourishes where other crops don't.

I understand the fibre from the leaves can also be used for a tough supple, textile. Used in footwear uppers there. and the cartoon tree logo is the very same plant.

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Life at DrTom's 6 years ago from Ithaca, NY Author

Quillcards: yes, I actually thought of that when they germinated. Some plants have seeds that need some kind of scarification.

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Quillcards 6 years ago

Perhaps you had inadvertently discovered a necessary step in the germination cycle for the banana - 'wash cycle 3' perhaps?

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Life at DrTom's 6 years ago from Ithaca, NY Author

Jim, you are absolutely correct. And I, if anyone, should know better.

Jim 6 years ago

Great story.

But taking seeds across international borders is a no no.

I'm surprised anyone would encourage smuggling of plant material from one country to another. The risk of inadvertently introducing harmful virus or bacterial organisms is too high.

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Life at DrTom's 6 years ago from Ithaca, NY Author

Kyle: sounds like you know your banana plants. Yes, it does have waxy leaves. Any other characteristics that would nail the identification, without having flowers and fruits?

Kyle 6 years ago

You actually have a form of Ensete ventricosum. There are about 7 species of ensete, the majority being from Africa. It's a fairly common horticultural species in the UK, and the US, but it looks like you have a rather attractive waxy form of the species.

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Life at DrTom's 6 years ago from Ithaca, NY Author

MMK: hey thanks. You made my day. I still have the plant that is pictured above, after 4 years. Growing slowly, but it seems to be doing well.

MMK 6 years ago

You do not have to give up. A recent discovery of banana phytoliths in Uganda dating at least 5000 years ago, published on the web by Peter Robertshaw may prove you right. Being Ugandan, that explains why the matooke varieties found here have not been found elsewhere, not even SE Asia where they are supposed to have orinaged.

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elayne001 6 years ago from Rocky Mountains

Very interesting. My husband grows bananas but from shoots not seeds. Good on you. I enjoyed your explanation. Aloha!

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mquee 6 years ago from Columbia, SC

I never thought I would read an article on a banana plant in it's entirety, but you made it very interesting. Very good.

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Life at DrTom's 6 years ago from Ithaca, NY Author

Coolmon: I strted the seeds inside, and I only put the plant out on the deck during the summer.

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Coolmon2009 6 years ago from Texas, USA

Interesting article; just wondering how you got the seed to sprout; I didn't think your area of the country had the right kinda climate for tropical plant growth.

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