Saturday, August 22, 2009

Banana seeds

(DrTom's banana plant grown from Ugandan seed.)

In 2007 I returned from a trip to Uganda with a special botanical prize, or so I thought? I had gone there as part of an ecoagriculture project with colleagues Louise Buck and Jeff Milder. We were there to learn what we could about the challenges and possible solutions to raising food while protecting as much biodiversity as possible, working with the Benet people of the eastern part of that beautiful country. Jeff and I got the assignment of taking a hike in the Mt. Elgon National Park, the original homeland of the Benet before they were moved by government decree to an area nearby.

We hired a guide and spent several wonderful hours walking a loop trail through the forest.  At the end of the walk, our guide showed us a small grove of wild banana plants growing at the edge of the forest, and he told us that this was the ancestral species from which domestic varieties were derived. I took that to mean that Uganda was the original location from which this important plant evolved and later spread throughout the world.

So I did what any competent biologist would do--I collected a sample to take home. These plants bear fruit that is not edible; the banana is bitter and mealy, and it contains large black seeds. I took four of the seeds and put them in the pocket of my field pants. When I got home, I unpacked. Later that day, my wife did a load of laundry. She ran those field pants through the washer and then the dryer, not knowing anything about the precious cargo in the pocket. My life was ruined, or so I thought. I punished my wife by cancelling our trip to Tahiti. However, I planted the seeds anyway, and two of them germinated. One of them is still with us as you can see from the associated photo.

For two years, I have been telling everyone who would listen, the story of the ancestral banana plant from Uganda and how I have one growing right here in my house, based on seeds I collected on Mt. Elgon, the laundry episode, etc. About 15 minutes ago, I discovered that my cherished story is apparently wrong! According to Wikipedia, the banana plant is native to Southeast Asia, and it was probably first domesticated in Papua New Guinea about 7,000 years ago. It spread to Africa much later, which is considered an area of secondary diversity. I have perpetuated what has become an urban legend in my circle of friends, I obtained a degree of status that was not deserved, and I prevented my wife from going to the South Pacific for nothing.

The lesson here is to go to Wikipedia before you open your mouth about anything. If you are not sure who the 16th President was, go to Wiki. If you can not remember which state elected Sarah Palin to be their governor, go to Wiki. If you forget your wife's birthday, go to Wiki. (I once got our anniversary and my wife's birthday mixed up. Don't ever do that!). Assume that you know almost nothing about anything, and check Wiki first thing in the morning when you get up, and last thing before you retire at night. Most people don't do this, so most of the information you hear from other people is wrong. Be the first to start getting everything right.

So from now on when visitors ask me about that banana plant growing in the corner of the dining room, I will have little of interest to say. In fact, because I can't stand to go through the entire saga with them, I will just say, "I bought it at Walmart".