Musa balbisiana var. liukiuensis

A not so newly naturalized wild banana in Taiwan


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.


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