Bananas: From Local Food to Global Research

In the second Garden Broadcast at Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam, the designer Johanna Seelemann talked about the Banana Passport for a single fruit, a joint project with Björn Steinar Blumenstein (more here). While the banana has become an everyday food item, the fruit undergoes a complicated global journey from the tree to the supermarket shelves, and the passport illustrates this process mostly hidden from our perception.

Before, when I spoke about plants between Asia and Europe in the colonial context of the 17th and 18th centuries, moderator Tamar Shafrir had asked me about plants that underwent a transformation when transplanted from one garden into another one, from one socio-cultural context into another. The banana would be just that: Part of the kitchen gardens in the Moluccas, as observed by Rumphius in the Ambonese Herbal, but a rare species in a hothouse in the Netherlands.

When Rumphius and his workshop were assembling the manuscript of the Ambonese Herbal in the late 17th century, he placed five chapters on the domesticated banana plant in Book VIII that is focused on plants used for food and medicine. He remarked that the banana was so widespread and had so many sub-species different in size and taste that it is difficult to describe all of them, as it would be with apples and pears in Europe (chapter 1). The plants were cultivated in the mountain gardens of the Ambonese as well as around the houses, and banana mush was the first solid food given to babies (chapter 3).

In the 1730s, the Anglo-Dutch merchant and banker George Clifford made Carl Linnaeus the custodian of the plants in his collection at de Hartekamp estate in Heemstede. Linnaeus, turned botanist after the completion of his doctorate in medicine, worked together with the gardener Dietrich Nietzel on the best conditions for a banana plant in the hothouse. After a specific plant was able to flower and to fruit, it became the subject of a biography – in 1736 Linnaeus published a small book about the Musa Cliffortiana with two copperplate engravings, one of the potted plant and another detailed one of the flowers and fruits. The book is available in a digitized version on the website of the Linnean Collections, and the second image is available in the Picture Library of The Royal Society. Also, the book has been reprinted in 2007 with a translation from the Latin into English by Stephen Freer and an introduction by Staffan Müller-Wille.

A letter from The Linnean Correspondence shows that the Musa Cliffortiana not only lived on because of its transformation into print, but also as a growing organism. On 28 April 1746, the botanist Johann Philipp Breyne in Danzig wrote to Carl Linnaeus about his own Musa as “granddaughter” of the plant in de Hartekamp. The Letter L0679 has been summarized in English and reads as follows:

Most important, however, is the Musa, which has enriched him with flowers and fruits. In 1740 he received a young Musa from George Clifford, their common patron, together with an elegant Camphorifera tree. Breyne thinks his Musa is a granddaughter of the Musa Linnaeus celebrated in 1736, i.e. in the Musa Cliffortiana. It was flourishing in a small hothouse for a couple of years, but with no flowers and fruits. In September last year all of a sudden, it became eighteen feet high. It has a very robust stem with many flowers and fruits thanks to the newly built hothouse. Sixty tasty fruits ripened successively from the end of January until the end of March. This was the first time the Musa had flowers and fruits in these northern parts. Of course it attracted a lot of curious spectators.

Today, in the global North, the banana might be a houseplant still admired for the shape and color of its leaves, and the fruit is ubiquitous on breakfast tables. But some of the garden spaces in the South have turned into plantations and monocultures, with the cloned “Cavendish”, as Johanna mentioned, threatened by a fungus around the world.