Abyssinian banana - Ensete ventricosum
Ensete ventricosum, commonly known as the Ethiopian banana, Abyssinian banana, false banana, enset or ensete, is an herbaceous species of flowering plant in the banana family Musaceae. The domesticated form of the plant is only cultivated in Ethiopia, where it provides the staple food for approximately 20 million people. The name Ensete ventricosum was first published in 1948 in the Kew Bulletin, 1947, p. 101. Its synonyms include Musa arnoldiana De Wild., Musa ventricosa Welw. and Musa ensete J.F.Gmel. In its wild form, it is native to the eastern edge of the Great African Plateau, extending northwards from South Africa through Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and to Ethiopia, and west to the Congo, being found in high rainfall forests on mountains, and along forested ravines and streams.
Ensete ventricosum is a large, fleshy-stemmed plant with a head of banana-like leaves. The plant grows between 6 and 12 m high. It is a monocotyledon and does not have a true, branched trunk, but an unbranched pseudostem formed by the imbricated (overlapping) bases of petioles (leaf stalks) left behind when old leaves die. The pseudostem broadens towards the base. The plant seldom forms suckers from the base. The simple, large leaves, up to 5 m long and nearly 0.9 m wide, are oblong to oval and have a thick, rose-pink midrib and numerous pinnately parallel nerves extending to the margin. They are spirally arranged at the tip of the bare trunk giving the plant a rounded crown.
This plant flowers and bears fruit once only in its lifetime and then dies. The flowers form a large, showy bunch or spike 2 to 3 m in length. The male flowers usually occur at the tip and the female or bisexual flowers lower down. The cream-coloured flowers have only one petal, but are surrounded by large, showy, maroon bracts. Flowering usually takes place in early summer (October and November) and the flower spike is on the tree for a year or so.
Insipid, banana-like fruits form about half way along the flower spike after flowering. They have a yellow skin with black spots and contain a row of pea-sized, hard, black seeds. Under normal conditions plants flower when they are about eight years old.
The genus name is derived from the Ethiopian name for banana. The specific epithet ventricosum means 'with a swelling' and refers to the swollen base of the pseudostem.
There are about 25 species in the genus, most of which occur in the Old World tropics from Africa to Asia and New Guinea. Only this one species occurs in South Africa.
In 1769, the celebrated Scottish traveller James Bruce first sent a description and quite accurate drawings of a plant common in the marshes around Gondar in Abyssinia, confidently pronounced it to be "no species of Musa" and wrote that its local name was "ensete". In 1853 the British Consul at Mussowah sent some seeds to Kew Gardens, mentioning that their native name was "ansett". Kew, quite understandably, did not make the connection, especially as they had never before seen such seeds. However, when the seeds had germinated and the plants had rapidly gained size, their relationship to the true banana became obvious.
Bruce also discussed the plant's place in the mythology of Egypt and pointed out that some Egyptian statue carvings depict the goddess Isis sitting among the leaves of what was thought to be a banana plant, a plant native to Southeast Asia and not known in Ancient Egypt.
Wild enset plants are produced from seeds, while most domesticated plants are propagated from suckers.
The plant is quick-growing and often cultivated as an ornamental plant. In frost-prone areas it requires winter protection under glass. It has gained the Royal Horticultural Society's Award of Garden Merit.
Enset (E. ventricosum) is Ethiopia's most important root crop, a traditional staple in the densely populated south and southwestern parts of Ethiopia. Its importance to the diet and economy of the Gurage and Sidama peoples was first recorded by Jeronimo Lobo. The root is the main edible portion as its fruit is insipid. Each plant takes four to five years to mature, at which time a single root will give 40 kg of food. Due to the long period of time from planting to harvest, plantings need to be staggered over time, to ensure that there is enset available for harvest in every season. Enset will tolerate drought better than most cereal crops.
The young and tender tissues in the centre or heart of the plant (the growing
point) are cooked and eaten, being tasty and nutritious and very like the core
of palms and cycads. In Ethiopia, more than 150 000 ha are cultivated for the
starchy staple food prepared from the pulverised trunk and inflorescence stalk.
Fermenting these pulverised parts results in a food called kocho. Bulla is made
from the liquid squeezed out of the mixture and sometimes eaten as a porridge,
while the remaining solids are suitable for consumption after a settling period
of some days. Mixed kocho and bulla can be kneaded into dough, then flattened
and baked over a fire. Kocho is in places regarded as a delicacy, suitable for
serving at feasts and ceremonies such as weddings, when wheat flour is added.
The fresh corm is cooked like potatoes before eating. Dry kocho and bulla are
energy-rich and produce from 1400 to 2000kJ per 100 g.
Aside from its horticultural value, this plant has many traditional uses. It belongs to the same family as the edible banana, but its fruit is not edible (or is only eaten in times of scarcity), but young inflorescences are palatable and are eaten when cooked. The pea-sized seeds are said to be the famine food in some other countries like Ethiopia. The pulp in the pseudostems and rootstock is also eaten. The seeds are also used as beads, and to make rosaries or rattles in East Africa. The leaves can be used for thatching and the stalk to make fibres for cordage and sacking. A brown dye is obtained from the stem.
The stem and leaves are used to treat liver and miscarriage problems. A decoction of pounded leaves is taken to stimulate labour or induce abortion. Hepatitis and other liver complaints are treated with ash and infusions from the fruit and leaves. A white powder obtained from the seeds is used to treat wounds.