How does your garden grow?
By Eric Danell,
Grandpa’s banana ‘Gros Michel’
or ‘Gluay hom thong’. Bottom: The Thai favourite ‘Gluay nam wa’.
As a child in Sweden we ate a banana candy which we never
thought tasted like a banana fruit. About 30 years later when I came to
Thailand I tried a real banana variety called ‘Gluay hom thong’ (‘the golden
fragrant banana’) and it sure tastes like childhood’s banana candy!
As it turns out, the international name of this banana variety is ‘Gros
Michel’ (Musa acuminata AAA). This variety was once the dominant export
banana to Europe and North America, grown in South America and Africa. In
the 19502s the Panama disease, a wilt caused by the fungus Fusarium
oxysporum, wiped out vast tracts of ‘Gros Michel’ plantations in South
America and Africa, but the cultivar survived in Thailand. If you wish to
taste bananas like grandpa experienced them, Thailand is the place!
After the banana catastrophe South American and African plantations switched
to the resistant Cavendish banana subgroup (another Musa acuminata AAA). The
clone ‘Dwarf Cavendish’, today’s food banana in the west, has a different
flavour, a different morphology (‘Gros Michel’ is slimmer) and unlike ‘Gros
Michel’ they do not turn fully yellow in tropical lowlands. If we compare
the plants, a ‘Gros Michel’ can reach seven meters, while a ‘Dwarf
Cavendish’ only the height of a man. A Malaysian variety within the
Cavendish subgroup sometimes found in Thailand is ‘Gluay hom kiao’.
What is the banana favourite in Thailand? Without hesitation it is ‘Gluay
nam wa’ (Musa acuminata x balbisiana ABB), which has an estimated 70% of the
Thai banana market. It is grown in almost every garden and it is the first
solid food of most Thai babies. All parts of this banana are useful (fruit,
flower, pith, leaf). The fruits are much shorter than the Cavendish bananas
and sweet and flavourful. The plants can grow more than twice the size of a
man and the light green leaves are not broader than the distance between the
elbow and your longest finger. Man-sized plants of the Cavendish ‘Gluay hom
kiao’ have dark green leaves which are much broader than the distance
between the elbow and your longest finger.
We grow these three banana varieties and many more here at Dokmai Garden in
Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. ‘Gluay nam wa’ is drought resistant and
will survive without much attention, although irrigation will make the
leaves greener and a generous addition of cow manure now and then is
welcome. Although said to be resistant to another fungus causing the
Sigatoka leaf spot disease (Mycosphaerella spp.), that is not entirely true
so do not leave dead banana leaves on the ground and do not water the green
Unlike both ‘Gros Michel’ (‘Gluay hom thong’) and ‘Dwarf Cavendish’ (‘Gluay
hom kom’ or ‘Gluay hom kiao’), ‘Gluay nam wa’ is the result of hybridization
between two banana species, both native to the Malayan peninsula (food
bananas are not native to Africa nor South America). The banana cultivar
‘Gluay nam wa’ is called ‘Pisang Awak’ in Malaysia and ‘Ducasse’ in
The Cavendish banana is so named after an early cultivator in England,
William George Spencer Cavendish (1790-1858), Duke of Devonshire and
President of the Royal Horticultural Society. He probably got the original
Cavendish banana from the Canary islands where they had been grown for
centuries since their introduction from Asia (Vietnam).
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