Musa itinerans var. formosana and Musa balbisiana

Musa itinerans var. formosana 1800 m elevation Shitou, Central Taiwan

Musa itinerans var. formosana 1800 m elevation
Shitou, Central Taiwan

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 1800 m elevation Shitou, Central Taiwan

Musa itinerans var. formosana 1800 m elevation Shitou, Central Taiwan

Musa itinerans var. formosana 200 m elevation Ilan, East Taiwan

Musa itinerans var. formosana 200 m elevation Ilan, East Taiwan

Musa itinerans var. formosana 700 m elevation Shitou, Central Taiwan

Musa itinerans var. formosana 700 m elevation Shitou, Central Taiwan

Musa itinerans var. formosana 1700 m elevation Shitou, Central Taiwan

Musa itinerans var. formosana 1700 m elevation Shitou, Central Taiwan

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.

Musa itinerans var. formosana fruits, Ilan, East Taiwan

Musa itinerans var. formosana fruits, Ilan, East Taiwan

Musa itinerans var. formosana a rare totally yellow bud we found at Shitou, Central Taiwan

Musa itinerans var. formosana a rare totally yellow bud
we found at Shitou, Central Taiwan

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.

Musa balbisiana 300 m elevation Kenting, South Taiwan

Musa balbisiana 300 m elevation
Kenting, South Taiwan

Musa balbisiana 300 m elevation Chiayi, central Taiwan

Musa balbisiana 300 m elevation
Chiayi, central Taiwan

Musa balbisiana Kenting showing imbricate male bud

Musa balbisiana Kenting
showing imbricate male bud

Musa balbisiana Kenting After storm damage the male bud becomes much more difficult to identify

Musa balbisiana Kenting
After storm damage the male bud
becomes much more difficult to identify

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.

Musa balbisiana var. liukiuensis Okinawa Japan

Musa balbisiana var. liukiuensis
Okinawa Japan

Musa balbisiana var. liukiuensis Okinawa Japan

Musa balbisiana var. liukiuensis
Okinawa Japan

Musa balbisiana var. liukiuensis Okinawa Japan

Musa balbisiana var. liukiuensis
Okinawa Japan

Musa balbisiana var. liukiuensis Okinawa Japan

Musa balbisiana var. liukiuensis
Okinawa Japan

More Info:
Musa itinerans var. formosana
Musa balbisiana var. liukiuensis
Musa balbisiana

Musa balbisiana var. liukiuensis

A not so newly naturalized wild banana in Taiwan

Introduction

A paper from the Journal of Taiwan Agricultural Research, written by Hui Lung et al., titled “Musa balbisiana L. A. Colla, a newly naturalized wild banana in Taiwan“. Volume: 56 Issue: 3 Pages: 215-223 Published: 2007, has only now been brought to my attention. This paper has answered a question that I’ve been puzzling over for more than 10 years. However, it didn’t quite answer all aspects of why this banana species, in the far south of Taiwan puzzled me, and this led me to investigate further. The results of my findings I publish here.

Musa insularimontana Copyright © Phil Markey

Musa insularimontana
Copyright © Phil Markey

I’ve been studying the Taiwan native bananas, off and on for 17 years now. My main subject has been the palms of Taiwan, and I’ve studied the two native species of banana from this region out of pure curiosity during this time. One species of banana from Taiwan Musa insularimontana is one of the rarest of all bananas. Endemic to a tiny volcanic island 76 Km off the south-eastern coast of the Taiwan mainland called Lanyu Island. This island is geographically isolated from the Taiwan mainland by a deep oceanic trench, and is in-fact part of the Batan archipelago of the Philippines. The flora is that of the Philippines and not of the Taiwan mainland. The other banana, is also endemic to Taiwan. This is Musa formosana, and is a high elevation species found in mountainous regions throughout the Taiwan mainland at altitudes of 50 m to 1,800 m in the north and about 1,000 m to 1,800 m in the south. In central Taiwan it starts at around 300 m elevation. This species dislikes the hotter, drier environment in the south of Taiwan, and is therefore restricted at altitude.

Musa formosana Copyright © Phil Markey

Musa formosana
Copyright © Phil Markey

However, there is a third banana species in the far south of Taiwan found from sea-level to approximately 800 m elevation. A species considerably different to M. formosana, but due to the fact that there are no other native species in Taiwan other than the two I have just mentioned, I have, over the last 10 years endeavoured to call this the ‘southern form of M. formosana’. This species has finally been identified by this paper by Hui Lung et al., as Musa balbisiana, and it’s characteristics now appear blatantly obvious to me. What is not conveyed by this paper is the duration this species has been on the island. The paper describes it as being a recent naturalisation. It is this assumption that I have difficulty with, because this is a very common and widespread species in the south and also occurs in wilderness areas, often at huge distances away from human habitation. It has been my assumption over all these years that this could only be a wild species in the south of Taiwan. The species can also be found in other, more northerly locations (albeit much less frequently) namely Chiayi to the west of the mountains and Hualien to the east of them, and even in the far north near Taipei and Taoyuen. In my mind this species had to have been naturalised in Taiwan for at least 100 years. But how could this species have got here so long ago? What subspecies of Musa balbisiana is it? And from where did it come from, and why?

Musa balbisiana var. liukiuensis Copyright © Phil Markey

Musa balbisiana var. liukiuensis
Copyright © Phil Markey

I started my investigation by looking at the commercial uses of Musa balbisiana. There is a naturally, sterile, triploid hybrid of Musa balbisiana in China and other places called Musa paradisiaca, derived from Musa acuminata Colla and M. balbisiana Colla. But our banana in Taiwan produces seeds prolifically and is not this plant. Musa balbisiana is thought to have originated in India, but it is also regarded as native of the Philippines. Could our banana have come from the Philippines? But we’ve already established that it couldn’t have crossed the deep oceanic trench between the two countries by itself. Other than an ornamental species, Musa balbisiana’s only other use is fibre production for yarn-making. Musa textilis or abaca is an important fibre banana from the Philippines and the source of Manila hemp, still used today for such diverse uses as marine cordage and tea bags. Musa balbisiana is also occasionally used in the Philippines for this purpose. But the place renowned for it’s use of Musa balbisiana for fibre production is the Ryukyu Islands of Japan, and which are the closest foreign islands to Taiwan. Things are now starting to make sense.

The Japanese occupied Taiwan in the period between 1895 and 1945 during which Taiwan was a Japanese colony. The Japanese followed a simple, fundamental developmental strategy: “industrialise Japan, agriculturalise Taiwan.” Under this strategy, Taiwan only developed itself agriculturally in order to produce food and other agricultural products for Japan.

“The Japanese rulers encouraged the cultivation of bananas, which they found to be sweet and delicious. The plantation area increased from 540 hectares in 1909 to 21,850 hectares in 1936. Total production of bananas reached 2,185,890 metric hundredweight in 1937, an increase from 63,216 metric hundredweight in 1909. Thus, Taiwan became known as the Banana Kingdom’. Banana exports to Japan began in 1903. (Chung 1997).”

Japanese production of bananas in Taiwan (Taiwan sotokufu 1938, opposite p. 27)

I can find no information regarding banana fibre production in Taiwan. But I can neither find any information regarding banana fibre production in Japan. The possible reason for this is that the banana fibre producing area is in-fact the Ryukyu Islands and not Japan proper. The Ryukyu Islands were not part of Japan until 1895 when they were bundled with Taiwan and ceded to Japan. Therefore, the Japanese probably had no reason to move production from this well established region to Taiwan. From this we therefore assume that before 1895 Taiwan and Ryukyu had close ties and quite possibly fibre production was already well established in Taiwan well before this time.

The name given to the fibre banana of Ryukyu is Musa balbisiana var. liukiuensis (Matsum.) Häkkinen, Adansonia, III, 30: 91 (2008), formally Musa liukiuensis. The reason this name has only just recently been applied to this species is an interesting story in itself, and I shall explain this here now, as this has relevance to our story.

This story begins in 1887 – 1889 when Charles Maries, a foreman at the Exeter nursery of James Veitch & Sons, collected a banana plant from either Hokkaido or Honshu during a three-year collecting trip to Japan. James Veitch & Sons was the 1863 London offshoot of the great Veitch nursery company founded in Devon in 1808 (Robert Veitch & Sons), and who are responsible for introducing so many well know species into cultivation. The banana plant he introduced was not named by the company for some unknown reason. But this plant is now well known to all of us as Musa basjoo. The species has remained in cultivation to this day. Because of the lack of seed and the fact that it has been vegetatively propagated for so long there has been little variation in the M. basjoo offered for sale in Europe. Most plants represent the Veitch clone, more or less unaltered since its introduction. Cheesman’s description of M. basjoo was based on plant material that came, not from Japan, but from Devon (Cheesman 1948c). Robert Veitch & Sons are the probable source of the material from Devon sent to Cheesman in Trinidad in the late 1930’s or early 1940’s. Musa basjoo was first named by von Siebold in his Synopsis Plantarum Oeconomicarum universi regni Japonici of 1830. Siebold’s text reads:

“It was introduced from the islands of Ryukyu, and can scarcely withstand the bitterness of the winter. From its leaves is made linen, especially on the islands of Ryukyu and certain islands in the province of Satzuma. It is without doubt linen, of a kind which is called Japanese by the inhabitants of the Philippines”

Before its incorporation into Japan as the Ryukyu Islands, the Kingdom of Ryukyu, centred on the island of Okinawa, engaged in a flourishing entrepot trade with China, Korea, Japan and south-east Asia and one of the items of trade was banana cloth. The Kyushu-based von Siebold wrote of the plant being introduced from the Ryukyu to Japan. The cloth, basho-fu (banana-cloth), was produced from the banana plant, basho, or more specifically the thread banana, ito-basho. Today, basho-fu is a luxury cloth made only in the village of Kijoka, on Okinawa. Von Siebold clearly thought his plant (Musa basjoo) was the ito-basho used as a source of fibre in the Ryukyu Islands and named it accordingly. There is no evidence that von Siebold travelled to the Ryukyu Islands, which were not then even part of Japan. So von Siebold almost certainly did not see the ito-basho in its supposed native place. It is likely that von Siebold did see the banana he named Musa basjoo growing as an ornamental in gardens on Kyushu and Honshu and noted that it was called basho by the locals. From his interest in ethnography von Siebold knew that basho was cultivated in the Ryukyu Islands as a source of fibre. It is most likely that he simply assumed that the two basho were one and the same plant.

The specific epithet basjoo is derived directly from the Japanese basho. Basho, literally ‘Banana’ is derived from the Chinese ‘ba jiao’. Although always reported as being a native of Japan and Korea, Musa basjoo was actually originally imported into these places from China, and there are no native banana species in Japan whatsoever.

Ever since its introduction in the West Musa basjoo has been known as the Japanese or Japanese Fibre Banana. It has been regarded as native to the Ryukyu Islands of southern Japan, and noted as producing fibre. None of these facts are true and the Japanese have known this for years.

The true identity of the Japanese Fibre Banana (Musa balbisiana var. liukiuensis) became known only during the aftermath of Japan’s defeat in WWII when the Ryukyu Islands came under the control of the United States Civil Administration of the Ryukyu Islands (USCAR). USCAR brought Egbert H. Walker, a staff member of the Department of Botany, Smithsonian Institution to Okinawa. He was in charge of the Serviceman’s Collecting Program (SCP) in which US forces members were encouraged to collect and submit botanical and other specimens. In his Flora of Okinawa, Walker made no mention of M. basjoo, but did include the ito-basho, then Known as Musa liukiuensis. Walker commented:

“Seeds from plants of Musa liukiuensis in Oku village in northern Okinawa were grown in Kingston, Jamaica by the Banana Breeding Scheme of the Banana Board. The seed, seedlings and flowers were reported in 1973 to be identical with those of Musa balbisiana Colla.”

The identity of the ito-basho, the true Japanese Fibre Banana, is thus firmly established as Musa balbisiana L. A. Colla. And I conclude Musa balbisiana var. liukiuensis (Matsum.) Häkkinen, Adansonia, III, 30: 91 (2008) from the Ryukyu Islands is almost certainly the true identity of Musa balbisiana distributed in Taiwan.

References.

Taiwan Agricultural Research – Musa balbisiana L. A. Colla, a newly naturalized wild banana in Taiwan. Hui Lung et al.

The truth about Musa basjoo – D R Constantine