A British Duke and the Philippine Banana

In 2019, the Philippines came in second to Ecuador with the highest dollar value worth of bananas, $1.9 Billion. Since 2015, we've been one of the fastest-growing bananas exporters. You'll discover plenty of banana plantations in Mindanao particularly in the Davao area. 

The Philippines being a tropical country is the ideal place for bananas to grow and propagate. In every empty lot whether it's in the city or country-side, there would be a banana tree or two planted on it. Like the coconut tree, we maximize all that a banana tree can provide. We eat the fruit including the heart. We use the leaves as plates and food wrapping. Even the trunk is being used as an organic planter. 

The banana tree is actually classified as a herbaceous flowering plant.

It might surprise you to find out that it's not one of the local Philippine varieties that is the top banana but an imported one known as Cavendish. Sounds aristocratic? It should be because it was named after a British Duke.

Variants of the Cavendish banana are cheaper to produce, can be shipped more effectively because it lasts longer in storage, and not prone to diseases (almost).

To tell the truth, I'm not too fond of the Cavendish variety. I find it a little bland compared to Lakatan or Senorita bananas. 

Philippine Cavendish Banana

The first time I've learned about the Cavendish banana is from a story that I've read that was set in the 1960s. 

I grew up reading bestselling novels through Reader's Digest Condensed books. Those hardbound books that are usually bought by interior decorators from thrift bookstores for their aesthetic value rather than the stories printed on their pages. Once upon a time, Reader's Digest Condensed editions were in vouge with bookworms.

The 1960s editions contained numerous enduring stories. Their featured authors in this decade went on to have successful careers. A repeat featured writer was Richard Powell who had three novels condensed in the 1960s editions. One particular book that I read from him is a favorite of mine, "Don Quixote USA".

The book tells the adventure of a young American Peace Corps volunteer who was assigned to a fictional South American country, San Marco. His main goal is to promote banana cultivation as a sustainable means of livelihood. And the banana variety that he wanted to promote is the Dwarf Cavendish (Musa Acuminata). The main character got tangled with a South American dictator, a would-be Fidel Castro, a corrupt military officer, Russian communists, and a whole lot of hilarious escapades.

Some aspect of "Don Quixote USA" was incorporated by Woody Allen in his 1971 movie, "Bananas". 

The 20th Century introduced the concept of a 'Banana Republic'. The 'Banana Republic' is a political term that became popular in the early to the mid-20th century and used for a country that is dependent on one main export either a fruit or a mineral. In most Central American countries (e.g. Ecuador, Guatemala, Dominican Republic, etc.), banana-export still remains their top economic resource. 

Nowadays, when you do an internet search for the term, 'Banana Republic', you'll get the clothing store known for their khakis and safari-inspired clothes.

6th Duke of Devonshire, William Cavendish. Wikipedia photo.

Back to the British Duke whose family name inspired the most-exported banana variety. The 6th Duke of Devonshire, William George Spencer Cavendish had a passion for horticulture. He was born in 1792 to the 5th Duke of Devonshire (also named William) and his wife, Lady Georgiana Spencer (yes, they are related to Lady Diana Spencer who would be married to Charles Prince of Wales). 

The 5th Duke and Duchess Georgiana led colorful lives. They were literally 'the talk of the town'. Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes played their characters in the movie, "Duchess"

The 6th Duke was also known as 'the Bachelor Duke'. Some say that the reason he never married was because of the matrimonial problems of his parents. When his father died in 1811 and he became duke, he made vast improvements to the house and gardens of Chatsworth, the stately seat of the Dukes of Devonshire. 

He hired Joseph Paxton as head gardener in 1826. Paxton was instrumental in building the estate's conservatory. Soon, the hothouses were full of exotic seedlings or saplings, flowers, and plants from across the world. One of these was to become the Musa Cavendishii in 1835. It even won a medal at a show sponsored by the Royal Horticultural Society. 

Missionaries brought saplings and fruits of the Cavendish banana to Samoa, South Sea Islands, Pacific Islands, and Canary islands. This variety became mainstream in the 1950s because of the Panama disease that affected the Gros Michel which at that time was the top export banana. 

As per the official Chatsworth website, in the Display House when in season, one can still see a flowering and fruit-laden descendant of the original Musa acuminata (Dwarf Cavendish) that Paxton and the Duke planted.  

So that's how a British Duke is linked to the top-exporting banana variety of the Philippines.



The imminent death of the Cavendish banana and why it affects us all
Duncan Leatherdale
BBC News
January 24, 2016

Cavendish Variant 218 Becoming the Darling of Cavendish Growers
January 18, 2019
Zac B. Sarian

Banana Exports by Country
Daniel Workman
July 20, 2020

The Story of Food: An Illustrated History of Everything We Eat. 2018. Dorling Kindersley Limited. 

PBS Secrets of Chatsworth