My latest field trip to Taiwan was funded by the International Palms Society, the New York Botanical Garden, and the Taichung Science Museum to study the distribution of Arenga palms throughout Taiwan and Ryukyu Japan. Luckily the Arenga palms grow in very much the same locations as Musa itinerans var. formosana (Syn. Musa formosana), and so during this extensive trip during June and July I have been able to asses the population of the bananas in Taiwan.
I have, for many years been familiar with Musa itinerans var. formosana growing at high elevation in central and southern Taiwan. I am also familiar with Musa balbisiana growing around Kenting in the far south of Taiwan and also near Chiayi in west central Taiwan. I have seen Musa itinerans var. formosana in the north and east of Taiwan before, but never paid much attention to it. I was also aware that there was once a thriving banana cloth textile industry in the east of Taiwan mainly near Hualien and Ilan, but also all the way down the east coast of Taiwan.
Therefore, at the start of this trip I was expecting to see Musa balbisiana growing all along the east coast of Taiwan as a remnant of the banana cloth industry, as this is the banana used for cloth making in Japan. But there are no Musa balbisiana in the east of Taiwan, and Musa balbisiana was not used for banana cloth manufacture in the east of Taiwan. Musa balbisiana was probably used for textile making in the south of Taiwan and around Chiayi.
At high elevation the red markings on the pseudostem of Musa itinerans var. formosana are less obvious, the fact that highland plants usually hold a skirt of dead leaves may be obscuring it. Very dark red, almost black markings on the pseudostem are quite common sight in the highlands. The male bud is usually dark red. Fruits often seem to have less red colouration, this might be due to residue falling off of the conifer trees onto the more mature fruit turning them black. Nevertheless, high elevation plants do have red blotching on the pseudostem, and they do have reddish/purple coloured fruits, it is just much less obvious.
Musa itinerans var. formosana on the east of the mountains, growing at lower (200 – 800 m) elevation usually shows very obvious bright red blotches on the pseudostem. Fruits are much more visible, usually with very bright reddish colour. There tends to be much less red streaking on the male bud than is seen in the highlands.
The most noticeable point is the altitude at which the plants grow. On the west of the central mountains Musa itinerans var. formosana cannot be found growing less than 600 m elevation. However, to the east of the central mountains they start at 200 m elevation. This is probably a result of the eastern side of the mountains being cooler than the west, and receiving more rainfall than the west due to the coastal location. The Arenga palm also grows at lower elevation to the east and north of the mountains.
So if Musa balbisiana was not the banana used in Hualien and Ilan for the textile industry what banana did they use? There are still a few old women in Hualien who can make banana cloth, it seems the banana they are using is the triploid cultivated banana from cultivation. I wonder if this is because it has been forgotten what banana they used in the past, or if they have moved over to using the cultivated banana because it is better than Musa itinerans var. formosana.
It seems obvious to me that Musa itinerans var. formosana was most probably the original banana used for the Taiwan banana cloth industry, and is the reason it was exported to Lanyu Island. It is probably not the best banana to use, and the fibres are quite weak by comparison to Musa balbisiana, but Musa balbisiana is not found on the east of Taiwan.
Musa itinerans var. formosana cannot be found below 600 m elevation in the far south of Taiwan around Kenting so Musa balbisiana, which does not grow above 300 m elevation is a more suitable banana to grow there.
While I was in Japan I visited the Ryukyu banana cloth region of northern Okinawa. While I was there I questioned the ladies working there about the suitability of different species of banana for use in the banana cloth industry. I was told that Musa balbisiana var. liukiuensis was by far the best banana to use, as it produced the finest thread to make the best quality garments. They said that fabric made from the cultivated triploid banana was very coarse, and makes a heavy sack cloth. Musa textilis was good but not as good as Musa balbisiana var. liukiuensis. But none of the ladies knew about Musa itinerans var. formosana from Taiwan.