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How does your garden grow?  
By Eric Danell, Dokmai Garden


Wild banana trees

There are hundreds of banana cultivars, and many more names because one clone may have one or several different names in each country, these would die out if not for human cultivation.
But what about the many tall and slim wild forest bananas you see along winding mountain roads in the Chiang Mai province here in northern Thailand? The locals usually give them the collective name ‘Gluay pa’ meaning ‘forest banana’, i.e. fertile bananas with small fruits packed with hard seeds. Although not at all as delicious as the refined selected cultivars we normally grow, biting into a forest banana helps you understand Stone Age man’s conditions and the ancestors of our superb cultivars. It is possible that Stone Age man used the seedy wild bananas for cooking only.
There are only 37 wild true banana species of the genus Musa in the world. Although this seems like a very small plant group, banana systematics is quite complicated and it is likely the coming few years will expand our knowledge. The true bananas (Musa) are native to Japan, China, Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Australia and the Pacific islands. The two ancestors of our food bananas, ‘Noble banana’ (Musa acuminata) and ‘Humble banana’ (Musa balbisiana), are native to the rain forests and jungles of Southeast Asia including Thailand.
According to books, there are only eight indigenous Thai banana species (Musa spp) if we omit the exotics and the cultivated bananas. I include M. balbisiana as a native although Smitinand considers it exotic. If we consider Maxwell and Elliott (Vegetation and vascular flora of Doi Suthep-Pui national park, northern Thailand, 2001) there are only four species of wild bananas on Doi Pui-Doi Suthep mountain in Chiang Mai: M. acuminata, M. balbisiana, M. itinerans and M. sikkimensis (this last species is not listed by Smitinand 2001). The authors discuss that M. balbisiana might be a relic from cultivation. Although being full of seeds many M. balbisiana varieties have been cultivated as fodder, such as Musa balbisiana ‘Gluay tani dam’ (=’Thai black’).
Musa itinerans is a dominating banana species in the evergreen valley of Mae Kanin Tai inside the Opkhan national park, just south of Chiang Mai (400 m above sea level). Its pseudostems are almost black with many dead leaves, growing to at least three times the size of a tall man. It seems restricted to the banks of meandering streams.
The scientific name for the banana genus, Musa, was coined by the Swedish biologist Linnaeus. It is a Latinized form of ‘Mauz’, the Arab word for banana used in Avicenna’s (Ibn Sina) encyclopedia of medicine from the year 1025 (‘Canon Medicinae’ in its Latin translation). The Arabs believe a banana was the forbidden tree (‘of knowledge’ according to Christianity) in Paradise, and so Linnaeus coined the scientific names Musa paradisiaca and Musa sapientum (‘sapientum’= wise) for what he believed were two different banana species. These names are no longer used because they referred to hybrids (a mix of species). www.dokmai

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Wild banana trees