Caribbean Bananas – A Brief History and Prayer For The Future
Bananas are omnipresent in the Caribbean. They’re as ingrained in our cuisine and the very fabric of West Indian culture as any fruit under the sun. It’s a little hard to believe, then, that bananas are not endemic to the region. It’s true, though. All of the bananas that we love today descend from two different kinds of wild fruit native to Southeast Asia. The first, Musa Acuminta, originates in Malaysia. The second, Musa Balbisiana, is from India. They somehow cross-fertilized thousands of years ago, eventually mutating into the beloved banana of today. There exists more than 100 different types of bananas. Caribbean bananas produced for export and local grocery sales are of the Cavendish variety pictured above unripened, of course. This, though, was not always so.
When Big Mike Was Top Banana
Spanish missionaries initially brought bananas to the Americas during the early 1500’s. From that time until the 1950’s, the Gros Michel was top banana in the region and across the globe. This made sense as the Gros Michel is hearty and tough. (So strong, in fact, that its nickname is “Big Mike!”) As such, getting them to market didn’t require much packaging, special storage, or handling.
Cavendish bananas, though, are much the opposite. From a mass production standpoint, you might even call them fragile.
So, how and why did the decidedly more delicate Cavendish become king of Caribbean bananas?
Plant Pandemic Hits Caribbean Bananas
A massive outbreak of a plant disease known as Panama disease (Fusarium wilt) in the 1950’s effectively wiped out the Gros Michel. Everyone has an achilles heel; a personal Kryptonite. For the Gross Michel, the particularly aggressive wilting disease somehow named for Panama was it.
Cavendish bananas have largely thrived in the tropics ever since. It’s said, though, that a new strain of Panama disease is threatening even the Cavendish these days.
Caribbean food would just not be the same without bananas. Science certainly has its hands full now, but here’s hoping there’s enough time to also solve this other novel threat…