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