As a child in Sweden we ate a banana candy which we never thought tasted like a banana fruit. About 30 years later when I came to Thailand I tried a real banana variety called ‘Gluay hom thong’ (‘the golden fragrant banana’) and it sure tastes like childhood’s banana candy!
As it turns out, the international name of this banana variety is ‘Gros Michel’ (Musa acuminata AAA). This variety was once the dominant export banana to Europe and North America, grown in South America and Africa. In the 1950’s the Panama disease, a wilt caused by the fungus Fusarium oxysporum, wiped out vast tracts of ‘Gros Michel’ plantations in South America and Africa, but the cultivar survived in Thailand. If you wish to taste bananas like grandpa experienced them, Thailand is the place!
After the banana catastrophe South American and African plantations switched to the resistant Cavendish banana subgroup (another Musa acuminata AAA). The clone ‘Dwarf Cavendish’, today’s food banana in the west, has a different flavour, a different morphology (‘Gros Michel’ is slimmer) and unlike ‘Gros Michel’ they do not turn fully yellow in tropical lowlands. If we compare the plants, a ‘Gros Michel’ can reach seven meters, while a ‘Dwarf Cavendish’ only the height of a man. A Malaysian variety within the Cavendish subgroup sometimes found in Thailand is ‘Gluay hom kiao’.
What is the banana favourite in Thailand? Without hesitation it is ‘Gluay nam wa’ (Musa acuminata x balbisiana ABB), which has an estimated 70% of the Thai banana market. It is grown in almost every garden and it is the first solid food of most Thai babies. All parts of this banana are useful (fruit, flower, pith, leaf). The fruits are much shorter than the Cavendish bananas and sweet and flavourful. The plants can grow more than twice the size of a man and the light green leaves are not broader than the distance between the elbow and your longest finger. Man-sized plants of the Cavendish ‘Gluay hom kiao’ have dark green leaves which are much broader than the distance between the elbow and your longest finger.
We grow these three banana varieties and many more here at Dokmai Garden in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. ‘Gluay nam wa’ is drought resistant and will survive without much attention, although irrigation will make the leaves greener and a generous addition of cow manure now and then is welcome. Although said to be resistant to another fungus causing the Sigatoka leaf spot disease (Mycosphaerella spp.), that is not entirely true so do not leave dead banana leaves on the ground and do not water the green leaves.
Unlike both ‘Gros Michel’ (‘Gluay hom thong’) and ‘Dwarf Cavendish’ (‘Gluay hom kom’ or ‘Gluay hom kiao’), ‘Gluay nam wa’ is the result of hybridization between two banana species, both native to the Malayan peninsula (food bananas are not native to Africa nor South America). The banana cultivar ‘Gluay nam wa’ is called ‘Pisang Awak’ in Malaysia and ‘Ducasse’ in Australia.
The Cavendish banana is so named after an early cultivator in England, William George Spencer Cavendish (1790-1858), Duke of Devonshire and President of the Royal Horticultural Society. He probably got the original Cavendish banana from the Canary islands where they had been grown for centuries since their introduction from Asia (Vietnam).
Top: Grandpa’s banana ‘Gros Michel’ or ‘Gluay hom thong’. Bottom: The Thai favourite ‘Gluay nam wa’.
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Text & Photo: Eric Danell