Monthly Archives: November 2018

The Banana Industry and Panama Disease, the Ongoing Devastation Caused by Fusarium Wilt, Tropical Race 4

Developing fruits on a Cavendish banana, the remains of the female flowers still attached. Many banana cultivars are sterile and don’t require pollination. Their fruits contain very small and sterile seeds.

Our gardens connect us to the world through the plants that we grow.  Our choices have reverberations through the knowledge we gain, the demand we create through our purchases and even our decisions to grow and thus protect plants that are critically threatened or extinct in the wild.  Similarly, what we choose to eat impacts the wider earth shaping the landscape locally and across the planet.  Sometimes our choices create demand for exotic foods, other choices, demand for common foods…out of season, that must come from the opposite hemisphere.  All of these choices together can bring prosperity to others thousands of miles away and suffering to others while simultaneously creating a demand for more land and resources there to produce the bananas, grapes, beef, etc. we want, while putting wild species under threat, reducing the genetic diversity these same lands once effectively supported.  Other times, the consequences can flow more directly back at us, when the crisis we have added to there, comes back at us in the form of crop failures, price increases and the absence of these foods from our grocery stores, as does the increasing spread of disease currently threatening much of the world’s banana production.

I love bananas.  I probably eat more of them fresh than I do apples over a year, and, apparently, so do most Americans.  Statistics say we eat about 26lbs. of bananas a year per capitata here, none of which are grown in the US (Small amounts are grown in Hawaii and some local areas in the far south of the US, but those are consumed locally, not distributed elsewhere.)  If we think of the plants and the growing of them at all, many of us tend to assume that most bananas produce edible fruit, but they don’t…at least nothing we’re used to eating!  While gardening in the public sphere downtown I had many people ask me, as they looked at the occasional flowering on the Musa basjoo, one of the four bananas that had taken up semi-permanent residence in three of my large display beds, if they fruited and could be eaten…my usual response, yes, but you wouldn’t want to.  The temperate world’s experience of bananas is largely limited to the produce section at the grocery store.  Most of us would be surprised to learn that sweet bananas, which are typically eaten fresh, and cooking bananas known commonly as plantains, together, comprise the fourth most important food crop around the world, in terms of volume of production, after only Rice, Wheat and Corn…ahead of soybeans which go into tofu, soy sauce, which are consumed by much of the world and as a common component of livestock feed.  That’s an amazing statistic!  The banana is cultivated as food in 100 tropical and sub-tropical countries.  In some parts of the world the fiber from the pseudostems is harvested and used locally for making twine and sometimes a coarse cloth.  In Okinawa friends have told me that Musa basjoo was once a common source of fiber for a cloth.  Other bananas are utilized in other ways, the corm of the  African, Ensete ventricosum has traditionally been ‘processed’ by indigenous people as a ‘survival food’ for periods of drought when other sources have failed. Continue reading

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Sonchus palmensis: One of the Giant Tree Dandelions

Sonchus palmensis from the Annie’s Annuals catalog.

 

[I decided to break this out of a previous and larger piece and post it its own here, slightly edited.]

Jimi Blake’s slide of this plant reminded me of seeing this plant growing in the San Francisco Botanic Garden in Golden Gate Park.  It was a standout and prompted me to immediately start looking for it.  Annie’s Annuals carries it and I discovered that it was a zn 9b plant, cooling my ardor somewhat…still…..I returned a couple years later to the Botanic Garden, rekindled my interest and made a stop at Annie’s on our return trip to home, but it wasn’t available, so it went back to  my wish list.  Then Jimi’s presentation at the Seattle Study Weekend moved it up in the queue.

I am most familiar with the species of Sonchus that are weeds.  I have pulled more than my share of Annual and Prickly Sow Thistle, Sonchus oleraceus and S. asper, but like many genera Sonchus contains several plants of horticultural merit.  Most Sonchus are annual species, a few are perennial and fewer still are ‘woody’ species all of which occur on the Canary Islands alone, like Sonchus palmensis. Continue reading

Musa sikkimensis ‘Red Tiger’ (Bengal Tiger) and the Banana Story: Evolution and Cold Adaptation

Musa sikkimensis ‘Red Tiger’ taken three years ago…before this Tiger lost its stripes!

Musa sikkimensis ‘Red Tiger’ backlit. If I saw this plant in a nursery today, I’d be sorely tempted to buy it…again.

Another Jimi Blake plant.  I have history with this choice of Jimi’s…and the NW has a history with Bananas as well!

There’s an old hand colored postcard floating around the Washington Park office of bananas as part of an elaborate bedding out scheme around the ‘Chiming’ Fountain, near the Sacajawea statue.  If memory serves, it is Ensete ventricosum, which have a uniquely identifiable form.  Back in the day, Ensete v. seems to have been a thing.  It is a non-suckering species, unlike the spreading, mat forming Musa spp. and cultivars, and is commonly grown from seed.  It is interesting to me that they were available prior to the 1900’s and relatively common, probably up to 1929 and the stock market crash…at least for  the more horticulturally involved, as specimen in annual display beds.  Gardeners must have dug them out in the fall and hauled them to greenhouses to ‘protect’ them for use in the following year.  I did some research in the early ’00’s of catalogs and area nurseries to get an idea what was available in the 19 teens, and of a few Park’s planting plans of this period, influenced by the Olmsted’s and under the direction of Emanuel Mische…. Compared to typical planting plans of more recent years these were relatively adventurous, especially given that acquiring such plants was often a much bigger deal in the nineteens and twenties than it is today.  Back then if you weren’t wedded to a particular clone and you could find seed for it, exotic bananas were a possibility.  There was an excitement around the novel and exotic that had spilled over from Europe.  Local inventories also included a wide array of bulbs which could be more easily shipped than grown plants widening the range of choices.  They often times had choices that you would have to spend some time searching for even today.  With the economic collapse of ’29 it is no surprise that tastes and possibilities became much more conservative.  There were those who clung to the use of some of the old exotics, but you would have to look hard for them in public places and gardens. Botanical gardens became refuges for the forgotten and newly collected.   It took many years before enough of the gardening population reclaimed their sense of wonder and awe enough to create a new market for the plant’s of the world.  We experienced a similar contraction of the nursery industry in the Fall of 2008 when the real estate boom stalled and demand for plants collapsed causing the closure of many nurseries and a reduction in the selection available from local garden centers.  Locally gardeners have become increasingly interested in such plants and have continued to support the many small specialty nurseries that provide them Continue reading