Bananas: my part in their downfall

Yes!  We have bananas!

Two and a half years after planting my first “cool banana”, it looks like we have a crop on the way. With luck and a tail wind, we might get a few home grown smoothies before the upcoming banana apocalypse.

In fact, our fruitful plant isn’t the first one I acquired – a tiny carefully selected, soil-free, tissue-cultured plantlet sent by mail-order from Queensland.  It’s one of a job-lot grubbed up and bundled into the back of the car when my sister decided to give her backyard jungle in Newcastle a makeover.  This particular tree seems to have the right kind of humid micro-environment, protected from the wind by the tamarillo tree and surrounded in a companionable way by monstera deliciosa, ginger and tumeric plants.   It gets some winter sunlight, and some gifts of love from the chickens in the form of dung-encrusted sugar cane mulch.

For all my attempts to recreate a tropical ambience, I haven’t gone quite as far as using my bananas as a living shower screen.  This idea seems strangely popular in permaculture circles, due I think, to the banana’s love of phosphorous, frequent watering and good drainage.  I’m no stranger to nakedness in the outdoors thanks to many happy  hours in childhood spent camping on nude beaches (in retrospect I witnessed surprisingly few cooking-related injuries).   But I’m not really sure how practical backyard ablutions are in suburbia, even in the sub-tropics.  There seems to some wishful thinking about unfettered encounters between man and nature (or, more specifically if disturbingly, woman and banana) going on here.

While I’m on the theme of soft-focus fantasies of interspecies coexistence, I have to confess to one of mine – that our backyard is a little island of biodiversity.   This is the kind of thing plant-hoarders tell themselves as they croon and mumble over on-line nursery catalogues.  But thanks to my impatience to start growing the world’s largest herb, three long years ago, I didn’t order any of the more intriguing possibilitiesBluggoe or Blue Java or Goldfinger – but just common or garden dwarf Cavendish – the world’s most widely grown variety.

It wasn’t always so.  In the early twentieth century, the dominant variety was the Gros Michel – by all accounts sweeter and more flavoursome than the Cavendish (if less productive).  Your grandparents were right – everything did taste better in the good old days.

But in the middle part of the twentieth century Panama Disease, a fusarium fungus, wiped out most of the commercial plantations of Gros Michel in Central and South America.  Panama disease is a doozy – transmissible through infected soil, water or equipment and impossible to eliminate or treat.  Once the ground in an area is infected it stays that way for decades.  Over the years, the big banana producers kept moving from country to country to keep the banana plantations going but eventually, thanks in part to multinationals and agricultural monocultures, the disease had spanned the globe.

So in the 1950s, the world switched over to a less tasty variety of banana – Cavendish – more resistant to Panama disease, or at least its early twentieth century incarnation, Tropical Race 1.

It’s not just Panama Disease.  There’s Black Sigatoka, as well, and Bunchy Top, the latter hard to take seriously since it sounds more like a Loony Tunes character than than a devastating agricultural blight.  Bananas are particularly susceptible to disease because we’ve bred them to be sterile: seedless mutants that replicate through their genetically identical “daughters” and “granddaughters”.  Commercial bananas have three sets of chromosones – they’re triploids, just like our old friends, the herpes-ridden Pacific Oysters of Broken Bay.

Genetic mutations can happen without sex but it’s a painfully slow process. And retrofitting disease-resistance without recourse to selective breeding is equally tricky, unless you want to go GMO. An article in Conservation Magazine described an attempt to do it the old fashioned way:

Every day for a year, workers laboriously hand-pollinated thirty thousand banana plants with pollen from wild fertile Asian bananas. The resulting fruit, some 440 tons, had to be peeled and sieved in search of any seeds. “I’ll let you guess how many seeds they collected,” says Emile [Frison, head of International Plant Genetic Resources Institute in Rome]. “About fifteen. And of those, only four or five germinated.

Those of us who enjoy a banana with breakfast should really be fearful of an attack on the clones.

And sure enough, Tropical Race 4 Panama disease, unstoppable killer of Cavendishes and pretty much every single variety of bananas and plantains, appeared in Asia and the Northern Territory in Australia for the first time in the 1990s.  And in March this year, it turned up  in Tully in far north Queensland, the place that around half Australia’s bananas call home.

The fact that TR4 attacks so many varieties of banana makes it a threat not just to first world breakfasts but to hungry people across the globe, for whom plantains, in particular, are often a staple.  After a couple of decades in a holding pattern, TR4 has in the last year cropped up for the first time in the Middle East and in Africa, which is worrying – if you have any mental space left for additional worry about the general direction the world is going.

Given the kick-arse nature of Tropical Race 4, perhaps my unimaginative choice of varieties and ad-hoc acquisition of plants isn’t such a big deal.  Newcastle may one day be a commercial banana growing area – in fact, this would seem an entirely appropriate fate for the world’s largest coal export port.  In the meantime, moving these suckers around isn’t a criminal offense like it would be in Queensland, where your backyard banana should spring from a test-tube and come with a permit from the Department of Primary Industries.

I may be the handmaiden of monopoly capitalism, monocultural agriculture and globetrotting disease, but despite all that I think I’ll chill and allow myself to enjoy however many bland tasting Cavendish bananas escape the indiscriminate attentions of the possums, the fruit bats and the grasshoppers.

How to murder your monster shrubbery

The short answer is “slowly and with feeling”.  But let’s not rush into anything.

I’m pretty sure there’s some kind of by-law in Hornsby Shire against putting your kids to bed with a recitation of “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock”.  Something along the lines of the “Unsafe and age-inappropriate use of modernist poetry act of 1987”.  But when your eight year old requests read T.S.Eliot, what can you do?

 

I don’t think I’m exaggerating when if I say that T.S. seemed to be a teeny bit negative about ageing.  One can only speculate on how different this poem (and indeed his whole oeuvre) would be if Prufrock had focussed less on getting lucky with the sirens of the sea and more on pruning.

Because, let’s face it, gardening is an oldie’s game.  When, yet again, the annual spud harvest fits in a single soup bowl; when your carrots are absurdly abbreviated; when another fruitless year passes for the ungrateful kiwifruit vine, the middle aged gardener shrugs her shoulders and thinks “next year”.  The seasons tumbling past faster and faster just means a shorter delay before you have another go at germinating those ruby brusselsprouts.

Our Fraser Island creeper finally did its gaudy thing – flaunting great big, hot-pink clusters of flowers in the oddest place, not up where the growing fronds reach  towards the light but way, way down in the gloom underneath the rampant Sweetie kiwifruit vine.  It flowers on old wood.  What a fine turn of phrase!

The Tecomanthi hillii not alone in dragging its feet.  Here’s a wall of shame – some other plants that have taken their sweet time to do anything exciting at all.  At least the “Bower of Beauty” has finally decided to flower on our side of the fence, rather than, like it did last year, offering a display exclusively to he neighbours.

It seems fitting, then we’ve taken what might be politely described as a contemplative approach to the execution of the massive weeds that tower over our back garden.

Our broad-leafed privet rivals the great redwoods of North America.  We have a Japanese honeysuckle vine as gnarled and vigorous as a strangler fig, which scrambles through a hibiscus “bush” as tall as a two story building. If only the mystical growth potion that the erstwhile owners  poured on these doughty invasive plants would seep down the hill into my peaky looking zucchini plants.

I like to think incremental approach to weed-murder has some ecological justification.  Some weeds in some places – lantana, for instance – form a critical habitat, particularly for the smaller birds that have been disappearing from cities.  If you clear it without replacing it, the LBBs vanish too.

So over the last couple of years, as well as installing a spiky tangle of hakeas, callistomens, sorbs, grasses and vines in an out of the way corner of the yard, I’ve  been tracking down native fruit-bearing plants to replace the  tainted bounty of the privet and honeysuckle berries.  Purely in the interest of hungry birdlife, you understand.  Nothing to do with fetishistic plant-hoarding.

Daleys up in Maleny and The Good Karma Farmer in Newcastle are my bushtucker dealers.  In my experience, you can tell if it’s bushtucker because the critters get it before you.  Following this logic, I’ve put in lillypillies, native gardenia and Davidson’s plum, koda for the Lewin’s honey eaters and the brown cuckoo doves and blueberry ash for the wonga pigeons.  I’m fairly confident the birds won’t turn their noses up at the mulberries, the persimmons, my grapes, my persimmons and my cherries either, damn their eyes.

I’m still working on substitutes for the honeysuckle and the fine looking but weedy red trumpet vine we inherited from our house’s old occupants.   Along with the hibiscus, they’re a favourite of our regulars, the little wattlebirds, and the gorgeous eastern spinebill, an all too occasional visitor.

I’m slowly sliding the wonga wonga vines, the Bower of Beauty, the dusky coral peas and the guinea vines amongst the potato vines and the honeysuckle.  Lulling the evil invaders into a false sense of security before I strike… there will be time…

“There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.”

You see, Prufrock definitely has the makings of a gardener.  You may well murder and create after your hundred indecisions, visions and revisions, but don’t forget that cuppa tea*.

*Health and safety warning: this is a gardening blog, not a work of literary criticism.  No responsibility is taken for any adverse horticultural outcomes of incorrect readings of the Western literary canon.

Gymnastic bees, virgin fruit and the birds that ate spring

It’s the vernal equinox and out in the garden, the spring flowers are blooming.

It pleases me no end me to think that these little figlets are made up of hundreds of the most secretive of flowers, snuggled inside a hollow-ended stem.

As you can imagine, pollinating figs is an extreme sport.  It’s undertaken by the fig-wasp, which spends much of its 48 hours of life on a suicide mission for fig fertility.  The male wasps hatch, blind and wingless, gnaw their way to one of the as-yet-unborn females, mate with them (eww), chew them an escape tunnel (still not redeeming yourselves, guys) and then die without ever having experienced life outside their flowery prison.  The females emerge and flee, spreading pollen as they go, only to find and squeeze into a second syncope (the fig “fruit” to you and me) through a hole so tiny she rips her wings off in the process.  If she’s lucky she gets to lay her fertilised eggs amongst the miniscule flowers inside and promptly, you guessed it, dies.

It’s really quite a disturbing life-cycle.  It’s with some relief that I can say that my three fig trees – a White Adriatic, a White Genoa and a Brown Turkey – are, like most cultivated figs, sterile mutants.  That sounds bad, but it’s a walk in the park compared to the Gothic splatterfest of the caprifig’s lifecycle.

Figs are one of the very first plants to be cultivated by humans: they have been propagated by us since the Neolithic era, over eleven thousand years ago.  And the outcome of our long association with ficus carica is virgin birth.  Yep, that’s the meaning of parthenocarpy – the way that common cultivated figs produce fruit from female flowers unsullied by any male influence. Since their fruits are sterile, they rely on us to do the hard work of allowing them to reproduce. Bloody skivers.

Actually, humans are quite fond of producing such feckless fruits.  Bananas are a good example.  They’re sterile, thanks to their three sets of chromosones – just like those fast growing “triploid” Pacific Oysters I wrote about in my last post, reproducing thanks to genetically identical “daughters” and “granddaughters” that spring from the plant’s base.  Fig wasps and caprifigs have co-evolved – maybe in some weird cultural way, modern humans with their taste for large, fast growing and seedless fruit and our virgin orchards have done the same.

One way or another, people, myself included, seem to get a perverse kind of pleasure in frustrating plants’ attempts to have babies.

My broccoli, encircled by landcress that deals death to invading insects and safe inside the kids’ superannuated, net-enshrouded trampoline frame – has done really well this year.  Now the weather is warming up, however, it’s taking a real effort to thwart the reproductive desires of my brassicas.  Those tasty flower buds really really want to go the full distance and burst into bloom and it’s taking a serious commitment to broccoli-eating to cut them off at the pass.

I tried, but it’s too late for that for the rocket, the mizuna and the tatsoi – these spring flowers are in bloom, like it or not.

I’m happier about these vernal blooms: magnificently monochrome broad beans in all their line-print glory.

I was a bit worried about my broadies this year, incarcerated as they are beneath the chook dome, my first line of defence against the brush turkeys.  Would the pollinators be able to make it through the 1 cm square lattice of the dome’s aviary wire?  As I noodled around in the garden the other day I had my answer. A European bee hovered indecisively, making careful mental calculations or perhaps looking for a door handle.  Eventually, it seem to sigh and alighted briefly on a wire, adopting what can only be described as a pike position and plunging through for a perfect 10 entry.

It’s a bit early to say, but I think I can see a few tiny bean pods forming so I’m hoping that while I’ve been otherwise occupied we’ve been visited by other elite insect athletes up for the gymnastic challenge.

The local birds seem to be almost as ambivalent about the signs of spring as I am about my brassicas going to seed. The bowerbirds are doing their valiant best to rip all the buds off the liquidambar and the little wattlebirds have been paying excessive attention to the flowers on the chinese lantern.  They’re either defending them from insect attack or eating them – I’m not quite sure which.

I don’t think these red wattlebirds would be capable of doing any damage to the heavy duty flower of a gymea lily, even mob handed.  These monster blossoms are bird pollinated – the red colour scheme is a dead giveaway apparently.  I guess this is the honey eater equivalent of an all-you-can-eat buffet.  Since you can roast and eat the roots and the young flower spikes it could even be supersized bush tucker for us humans too.

Enjoy the equinox: may all your spring flowers be excellent eating!

Streets paved with oranges

Standard oranges as street trees in Sorrento in midwinter

Standard oranges as street trees

Growing up on the Murray River in South Australia, I know a bit about oranges.

Each morning, the schoolbus drove past row upon row of grapevines and fruit trees, taking us (reluctantly) to class with kids from Berri, the next town along, with its juice packing plant, cannery and stinky wine makers. We played “baby jesus” under the mandarins and grapefruits on my auntie and uncle’s citrus block.  And of course, I’ve surveyed the great, flat sweep of the mallee from the viewing platform of that mighty SA landmark, The Big Orange.

But growing up, I never witnessed fruit trees quite like the ones on the Amalfi coast.

The Italians could teach lawn-loving Anglo Australians something about growing food. In fact – thinking about the fertile backyards of the first generation migrants that lived in my grandfather’s neighbourhood in Adelaide, backyards crammed full of loquats, olives, tomatoes and apricots – they already have.

Freemont mandarins

My vibrant and delicious little Freemont mandarin. What is it doing in a garden when it should be promenading in the street?

Even from the train, we could see that every scraggy patch of dirt between the tower blocks on the southern fringes of Naples had its well tended veggies and caged fruit trees.  Fennel, broccoli and artichokes found a place between holiday villas and upmarket boutiques on the vertiginous slopes of gobsmackingly gorgeous Positano.

And the mid-winter streets of Sorrento were lined with laden oranges, glowing under the streetlights as the well-heeled townsfolk celebrated the Epiphany – La Befana – in their passegiata finery.

What a grand notion!  Fruitful city streets; boulevards and avenues of lemons or pears or mangos!  Why doesn’t every city and town look like this?  Okay, it might take gun-toting fruit police patrols to keep the street trees looking good for the tourists.  Will I lose any shred of PC respectability if I say… it might just be worth it?*

*Obviously, I don’t mean this.  Nor, just to clarify, do I support Switzerland’s strategy of recruiting, via conscription, geranium police, a cadre whose mission is to guarantee a consistently high standard of floral displays on balconies throughout the summer months.  In case you were wondering.