Hidden Fruits #5: the purple banana

Musa Acuminata at lse Kientzler Botanical Garden, Sarchi Norte, Costa Rica -, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

I recently found out one of my friends never heard of purple bananas. That is a pity, because according to me, these Musa acuminata taste much better and they are sold by nicer people than their well-known yellow counterparts, and according to Wikipedia, they contain more beta carotene and vitamin C as well. Unfortunately, they may be just as prone to the feared Panama-disease as their famous Cavendish-cousin, so you might find out one day, they’re all gone – death by infection.

 (text continues below the picture)
excerpt from 'Red Banana, picture taken in Tanzania', by Nevit Dilmen CC BY-SA 3.0
excerpt from ‘Red Banana, picture taken in Tanzania’, by Nevit Dilmen CC BY-SA 3.0

Drama banana

John McAree says the first bananas to appear on the market in Toronto, in the 1870’s and 1880’s, were also red bananas (or pink, or purple if you like). However, it seems bananas have a thing against being commercialized. Throughout their commercial history, bananas have been haunted by drama. Why? Because unlike ‘real’ fruits, bananas are technically more like herbs that do not necessarily stem from two different parents, but are usually planted as clones from one and the same. And like in any monoculture, the lack of genetic variability makes them vulnerable to invading predators, fungi, viruses and bacteria. Kill one, kill all.

First time they were hit by public tragedy was in the 1950’s, when the commercial production of the then-popular Gros Michel banana was roughly wiped out by the Panama disease. As the Gros Michel was the only type of banana eaten in the United States from the late 19th century until after World War II, the hunt was on for a type which was believed to be immune to the disease: the Cavendish, which is flooding modern supermarkets these days. Yet, researchers like Dr Gert Kema warn, now Cavendish is due to die of … the Panama disease, a.k.a. the Fusarium fungus, which managed to develop a new strain that is capable of killing the Cavendish too.

Banana wars, banana republics

Still, death by disease is not the only scarf on the banana (pseudo)stem. Their name has been associated with banana republics and the banana wars that followed after Latin American banana workers started a kind of a-priori civil rights movement to get paid for their work and educate their families. As they disobeyed US companies such as the United Fruit Company, the American military stepped in to protect their interest. They first intervened in 1846, to intensify their presence after the Watermelon War of 1856 and stay ’till the mid 1930’s, affecting countries including Panama, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Mexico, Haiti and Honduras (which writer O. Henry later dubbed “Banana republic”, starting a metaphor for politically unstable countries that depend on the exportation of a limited-resource product, like bananas).

(text continues below the picture)
US Marines in Haiti, June 1915, from Ants & Grasshoppers; http://ants-and-grasshoppers.blogspot.nl/2014/03/what-is-history-informative-quiz-on.html
US Marines in Haiti, June 1915, from Ants & Grasshoppers


Chose monkey over man

So, is the wild red banana the super-banana gonna save all? Many of its kind not so wild after all, as the musa acuminata was one of the first to be domesticated by humans for agriculture, in Southeast Asia around 10.000 years ago. But yes, it is a pioneer, that rapidly exploits disturbed areas like after a forest fire, and it in some ecosystems it is considered a ‘keystone species’ that paves the way for greater wildlife diversity – including fruit eating bats, birds, squirrels, tree shrews, civets, rats, mice, monkeys and apes that help spread their seeds. And no, they grow in a way that makes it very difficult for its male flowers to self-pollinate its female ones, and as said: being related to the Panama-prone Cavendish, it is likely to fall prey to the same fungi.

If we want to keep on eating bananas, Dr Kema suggests, we need to find a new banana that is resistant to the disease ánd genetically diverse. But what if it is not the banana, but us that need to change? Start paying local people to maintain their naturally bio-diverse forests and harvest them responsibly, rather than chopping down rain forests, creating large plantations and ’employing’ people at sub-minimum wages, intoxicating them with pesticides and invading their lands. Musa Acuminata is calling on us: for millenniums it’s been nurturing us, now it is time to nurture it.




Sources/Read more:

  • Wikipedia, October 31 2017, ‘Musa acuminata’
  • Wikipedia, October 31 2017, ‘Red banana’
  • BBC, ‘The imminent death of the Cavendish banana and why it affects us all’
  • Wikipedia, October 31 2017, ‘Banana Wars’
  • Astro Awani, May 22 2017, Bullets and bananas: The price farmers pay for your Cavendish bananas

Hidden Fruits #4: our Masuku!

masuku chilonga by deshThis is one of our latest assets: a fruiting Musuku, at full glory, at our new garden in Chilonga, Zambia. Otherwise known as the ‘Uapaca kirkiana’, ‘sugar plum’, ‘mazhanje’,  ‘chilundu’, ‘muhaka’, ‘kabofa’, ‘mazanje’, umhobohobo’, ‘mpotopoto’, ‘mahobohobo’ or simply ‘nsuku’, its thirty+ varieties are amongst the most popular wild fruits of Central, Eastern & Southern Africa. Not only do they provide a rich source of nutrition in places where food production can be generally poor, it’s also an appreciated source of fodder, honey, dye, cockroach repellent, wrapping materials, timber, charcoal and medicine.

Popular fruits

Whereas ‘musuku’ is the name of the tree, its fruits are called ‘masuku’. Eaten fresh, pounded into a drink or turned into a jam, butter, wine or syrup, they are one of the most popular fruits of the Miombo woodlands. Hundred grams of these fresh wild loquats gives you about a remarkable 11.8 mg of iron, joining forces with a extra-ordinary 16.8 mgs of vitamin C. Plus a 123 Kcalories, 0.3 grams of protein, 0.4 grams of fat, 2.1 grams of fibre, 17 mg of calcium, 39 mg of magnesium, 15 mg of phosphorus, 375 mg potassium and 10 mg of sodium. Yet, they are mostly liked for their juicy bite and sweet beautiful taste.


Plate depicting Uapaca kirkiana Müll.Arg. from “Trees of Central Africa” (1956)

The fruits grow on female trees of 5–13 meters with dark green, glossy leaves which are hardly ever attacked by pests, in areas with over 600 mm of rain per year. As they prefer well drained sand or soils low in organic matter, their presence indicates a poor agricultural soil. Yet, their presence will help improve the agriculture underneath as it helps preserve the soil it grows on.  It is useful in watershed management, provides good shade and forms a mutual association with the mycorrhizae that help other species develop well.

Many ways to feed a farmer

Besides providing fruits, the Musuku has other ways of providing food for people and animals: ashes from its wood are used for seasoning food, its flowers are valuable for honey production and its leaves are used as fodder for livestock, and are eaten by the bug ‘Encosternum delegoruri’, an important source of protein and money. If you want to eat the bug, and not have the bug eat (all of your) tree, you may want to harvest a few.

Apart from being eaten, its broad leaves are als used as wrappers for storage of processed food and are used as a cockroach repellent in homes. The roots are used to make a blue dye, and an infusion to treat indigestion and dysentery.  Perhaps unfortunately, the red wood of the masuku provides a good red fairly termite resistant timber as well as a good source for charcoal, too. To preserve this important tree from being chopped down, it’s worth realising it needs to develop about ten years before it gives its full harvest of fruits. By that time, sales of its fruits will far outweigh the short term financial gains from prematurely taking its woods.

‘I can come to no other conclusion than that Dr. Livingstone is out of his mind
and a most unsafe leader’, Sir John Kirk 1862

Sir John Kirk (1832-1922)

As usual, the tree has been known to local people long before it was named by Western recognised botanists. They derived  ‘Uapaca’ from the Malagasy name ‘voa-paca’ used for the Madagascar species; U. thouarsii, which was the 1st member of the genus to be scientifically described by Ballion. The specific epithet ‘kirkiana’ was given in honour of Sir John Kirk (1832-1922), explorer and naturalist, and companion to explorer David Livingstone, whom he did not highly recommend. ‘I can come to no other conclusion than that Dr. Livingstone is out of his mind and a most unsafe leader’, he wrote in 1862.


Sir John Kirk in 1908 (December 19, 1832 – January 15, 1922)

Kirk later became a British administrator in Zanzibar, where he was allegedly instrumental in ending the slave trade. Apart from the masuku, his name was also given to a lizard (the Agama kirkii), an amphibian (Kirk’s caecilian, Scolecomorphus kirkii) and a monkey – the Zanzibar red colobus, a.k.a. ‘Kirk’s red colobus’ (Procolobus kirkii). 


  • National Academies Press 2008, ‘Lost Crops of Africa: Volume III: Fruits’
  • Wikipedia, ‘Uapaca kirkiana’ and ‘John Kirk (explorer)’, October 1 2017
  • Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations 2013, ‘Nutrient composition of selected indigenous fruits from sub-Saharan Africa’
  • Forests, Trees and Livelihoods, Moombe  & Co. 2014, ‘Consumer preferences for Uapaca kirkiana fruits in Zambia’
  • World of AgroForestry, Uapaca kirkiana
  • ICRAF 2008, ‘Pest Management in Miombo Fruit Trees’

Photo: Masuku fruiting in our Chilonga garden, September 2017, by Desh Chisukulu

Hidden Fruits #2: the Neem tree

True, the neem tree is not always primarily used as a fruit tree, yet it holds a lot of treasures. The Indians have long regarded it as a holy wonder tree, as they know it to be a source of health for villages whose inhabitants know how to use it. As one of the world’s most researched trees, many of the things local people have known for thousands of years, are currently being verified by modern day scientists. Besides its use as a source of food, pest control, repellent and fodder, it is said to cure over a hundred diseases.

use in reforestation, urban forestry & agro-forestry
The neem grows so well, it is often considered a weed. As it grows on dry wastelands, producing a large amount of shade, roots and biomass, it is a tree that can help fight desertification and erosion. It is a fast growing evergreen, though in severe drought it may shed its leaves. Hence, the neem is recommended for reforestation of semi-arid regions in India and tropics of the sub-Saharan region, Asia and Central America. Its ability to withstand air and water pollution as well as heat, makes it useful for urban forestry. And as it also helps to restore and maintain soil fertility, it can be suitable for agro-forestry as well.

neem ancient use Copyright ©2011 Maia and Moore; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.

Moghul painting illustrating a man burning neem leaves near a river where biting insects would be present ©2011 Maia and Moore; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.


effective mosquito-repellent?
Various studies have been done to test the efficiency of using neem as a mosquito- repellent, but the outcomes seem to vary. The US National Library of Medicine
National Institutes of Health have compared neem to other natural repellents, and concluded burning the leaves can give a 76% protection for 2 hours, whereas using 1% neem oil volatilized in a kerosene lamp would give 94,2% protection from the Anopheles mosquitos that spread diseases like malaria and 80% protection from Culex species that carry infections such as West Nile virus, Japanese encephalitis, filariasis and avian malaria.

 Neem repellent plant efficacy according to literature review, Majal 2011:
Azadirachta indica
Sri Lanka
Brazil Bolívia
Guinea Bissau
Tanzania (…)
direct burning (leaves)
76.0% protection from mosquitoes for 2 hours
field study in Guinea Bissau
periodic thermal expulsion (leaves)
24.5% protection from An. gambiae s.s
semi-field study in Kenya
1% neem oil volatilized in a kerosene lamp
94.2% protection from Anophelesspp.
80% protection from Culex spp.
field study in India
2% neem oil applied topically
56.75% protection from mosquitoes for 4 hours
field study in Bolivia

Those who want a 100% protection against the feared Aedes aegypti mosquito (carrier of diseases like dengue fever, chikungunya, Zika fever, Mayaro and yellow fever) might be better off looking for extracts of the lemon bush (Lippia Javanica), lemon eucalyptus or citronella grass.


  • Malar J. 2011, Plant-based insect repellents: a review of their efficacy, development and testing, doi: 10.1186/1475-2875-10-S1-S11
  • http://www.neemfoundation.org/about-neem/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Azadirachta_indica & various others

Picture: ‘Neem tree under shade at evening’ by Vershita yadav (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Hidden Fruits #1: the African Medlar

One of the trees which grow where others give up, is the African Medlar. Growing in dry, eroded, infertile sites in eastern, central and southern Africa, their fruits provide a food source for humans and animals alike, whereas leaves and roots are used for medicine and fodder. Though they are traditionally grown in wild areas, they have proven to do very well in domesticated back yards as well. You can grow them either from their seeds or cuttings. As they will not take that much place, developing into a scrub or small tree, they should fit many places, be they fallow plots or well nursed kitchen gardens.



Habit of a Wild medlar near Pretoria, South Africa, source: Wikipedia


magical & medical powers of the Mfulukutu

It is said that according to the Chewa, the Mfulukutu – Vanguaeria infausta – can be used to treat eye complaints, whilst others claim the leaves are useful against toothache & swellings and its roots can relief chest and menstrual complaints.

Yet according to others it possess evil powers. Therefor, you should not use its wood for making fire, nor should you let cattle near it, as it would cause your animals to bear only male offspring. Proven or not, curses as such may actually help the African Medlar to continue to bear fruits in harsh dry conditions, where many other scrubs and trees may easily have withered away. Would its wood be burned or eaten, the plains might be left empty, for the wind to take the soil.


backyard food store

Unlike many other fruits, the fruits of this wild Medlar do not fall off once ripe, but can stay on the tree, remaining edible for about six months – making it a handy backyard food store for times when other food resources are scarce. In addition, it is relatively easy to dry the fruits and store them for much longer.

As the ratio of fruit to seed size varies significantly by the amount of water and care it receives, and the fruits have to be handpicked, backyard seems to be good places to keep them anyway. Compared to African Meldars found in the wild, Maghembe found, cultivated species produced about 10x larger fruits, making it a good tree to keep near the house.