The Hunt for the Giant Banana

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Alicia Simcox and a local Papuasian hold fruiting stems of 'Musa peekelii' in the Cyclops Mountain Range of west Papua. 'Musa peekelii' is a native wild banana species found on the Island of Papua New Guinea.
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A beautiful wild banana found around Limbang in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo. The pink flower buds are cooked and eaten as a vegetable by the Iban people.
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Male Flower bud, leaf and cut-open fruits showing seeds of the very rare 'Musa bauensis', only known from eroded calcareous hills near Bau, Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo.
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The greenish short fruits of the dwarf wild banana ‘Musa monticola’ from the base of Mount Kinabalu in Sabah, and the gorgeous purple striped fruits of ‘Musa campestris limbangensis’.
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Joe holds the fruits of ‘Musa ingens’ in West Papua, New Guinea.
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Joe shows the stalk of the giant ‘Musa ingens’ in West Papua, New Guinea. This is the largest herbaceous (non-woody) plant in the world. The stem is over 45 feet tall.

Most people in the world today are familiar with the banana; the ubiquitous fruit is found in markets from Siberia to Santiago. And even though the banana is one of the most popular fruits on the planet, very few people know that the banana, as we know it, is actually the result of a love affair — a romantic story between man and plant. Bananas are seedless, and they only produce tight suckers close to the stem. That means they don’t move around by themselves, so practically every banana on the planet growing where it is, got there by the hand of man — that is the love affair!

The bananas that we know — seedless, plump, and sweet — are the topic of a future work of mine. Today I wish to introduce another scion of the banana story: the story of wild bananas, those wonderful and fascinating cousins of our seedless bananas.

The Wild Bunch

Bananas belong to the genus Musa, and there are approximately 120 wild species growing throughout Southern Asia, Indonesia, and New Guinea. These wild relatives of our “seedless” bananas are amazing in their forms, habits, and even inflorescences. Although the fruits of these wild species are edible, they are filled with seeds that are shaped like buckshot or peppercorns and are unfortunately called “monkey bananas” because they are too much work to eat while spitting out the seeds — hence better left for the monkeys!

This fascinating group of wild bananas interests me because these species hold great promise for future domestication. In my travels hunting down wild bananas, I have discovered that indigenous people rely on them for food. On the island of Borneo, some 14 species of wild Bananas are found; most of them are harvested for their edible flower buds or even relished for their fruits. In 2009, I spent 3 months documenting the wild bananas of Borneo and was fascinated to learn that new species are regularly being discovered.

In Borneo, one large group of indigenous people, the Iban, use banana buds as a vegetable. This is not a practice limited to the Iban, but it was quite common there and impressed me. The Iban also utilize the soft inner stems as food, and they eat many of the fruits. Some of the species, like the hairy-fruited Musa hirta, is eaten as a green vegetable either cooked or raw. I remember in one village in the jungles of Sarawak (Southern Malaysian Borneo) the locals explained to my daughter Alicia and me, how the young fruits were salted and eaten just as we would eat a cucumber … raw!

Wild Bananas in Borneo are making a strange comeback that may endanger their “purity.” As forests are being cut down, these huge herbaceous plants are popping up everywhere. With more and more plants growing along the roadsides, the formerly isolated populations of rare subspecies are mingling genetically with each other, and in the near future the pure sub-species may be a thing of the past.

Giant Bananas

Some 2,000-plus miles away from the jungles of Borneo, our plane flew over the almost endless steaming jungles of West Papua. On this magnificent island of New Guinea, nature was still king.

We had come to West Papua to track down the largest non-woody plant in the world, a great giant wild banana: Musa ingens. This giant plant grows up to 45 feet tall, and without the aid of a woody stem it is extremely vulnerable to being toppled by wind. Thus Musa ingens is limited in its growth range to isolated deep jungle canyons.

We flew over dense rainforests for more than 2 hours, finally landing at a remote dirt strip in the middle of nowhere. When my daughter Alicia, colleague John Cutts, and I emerged from the small plane, more than 100 villagers had arrived to greet us and assist us on our mission.

We were here to find this incredible plant and collect seeds. John Cutts, a missionary who grew up in New Guinea, was to be our translator and guide. We quickly prepared our equipment and started what was to be a 25-mile hike into almost virgin rainforest.

The first evening we stopped with our group of porters and slept under a protruding rock in the forest. The next day, single file we finished the hike at a small village inhabited by about 20 people. We were now getting deep into the wild.

John asked about the “Big Banana.” The men knew where it grew — a 3-mile hike further into the forest! John stayed on in the village to tend to some of his church business and Alicia and I repacked our gear and headed off into the forest.

After some time, and lots of gesticulating (we did not speak their language nor did they speak ours), our guides entered a deep ravine and pointed upwards. There it was! Musa ingens, the largest herbaceous plant in the world! The plant was so amazing that Alicia and I just sat down in awe.

The world is so full of beautiful natural surprises; the wonders of nature never cease to amaze me. This incredible biodiversity offers a great future for man. It is my dream that these wild bananas will one day inspire new domestications, and people in the future will enjoy even more of the banana world!

Joseph Simcox is known as “The Botanical Explorer.” He has travelled to more than 100 countries studying and eating the world’s food plants. His objective is to share his knowledge about food plant resources so that we all may live more connected to nature and have healthier lives.

Mother Earth Gardener
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