The banana – a golden smile, a sliver of sunshine, a kind little kick to that sleepy afternoon brain. And a healthy one, too – packed with vitamins, minerals and fibre, not for nothing is the banana elevated to superfood status, fraternising with the likes of chia and quinoa. For most of us, the banana’s natural home is the shelf of our local fruit shop or supermarket, where the distinctive radiant curve always seems happy to see us. But the friendly banana originally hails from much further afield – from very large fields, in fact. For example, the fields of LaManna Premier Group’s own banana farming operations, located at the farthest northern edges of this immense country.
LPG’s Australian Banana Company and Innisfail Banana Farming Company in tropical north Queensland and Darwin Fruit Farms in the Northern Territory together span more than 420 hectares of banana growing plantation, with row upon neatly planted row of banana trees. Our teams of growers and farmers work tirelessly to tend to these plants as they embark on the epic journey from cultivation to yield. And it’s rarely an easy task – with extreme weather, disease, pests and even the plant’s own leaves all posing a threat to the budding fruit, you could go bananas growing bananas.
After all, bananas don’t just grow on trees – in fact, the banana plant is an enormous flowering herb. What appears to be the trunk of this evergreen non-woody plant is a mass of tightly furled new leaves, which grow up through the centre and push the edges of the older, outer leaves apart, unfurling them. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves – let’s start at the very beginning, with our 10-step guide to how those bananas on your fruit shop shelves are grown at LPG’s farms.
Step 1: Find a field – preferably a large one. Prepare the topsoil with fertiliser and mark out rows about six metres apart. To water your future plants, install a sprinkler or drip irrigation system connected to a bore well, lake or reservoir.
Step 2: Prepare your tissue cultures. The Cavendish banana – the dominant type of dessert banana grown for commercial consumption in Australia and globally – is unable to reproduce on its own, instead being propagated asexually in a process akin to cloning. To do this, tissue cultures are obtained by taking a shoot from a banana plant and separating it into four parts under a microscope, then separating those into four, and so on until from that single shoot you end up with thousands of specimens, each bearing a latent copy of the original banana plant in the form of its DNA.
Step 3: In the controlled, indoor environment of a shade house, grow your tissue cultures in individual pots until they reach about 20-30 cm in height.
Step 4: At this point your banana babies are ready to face the real world – but not too fast. Transfer the new plants to a shaded area of your farm, where they will become accustomed to the outdoor environment in a process called “hardening”.
Step 5: Plant the teenagers about 1.5 metres apart along the rows you prepared earlier. Irrigate and fertilise the growing plants and kill the weeds and grass around them to eliminate competition for nutrients.
Step 6: Just six to eight months later, your banana plants will have developed into pseudo-trunks and reached productive stage: they are now ready to start fruiting. Each plant usually produces one bell, known as a banana heart, which in turn produces a large hanging bunch with tiers of female flowers that develop into the banana fruit, growing in clusters near the top of the plant. Each tier is referred to as a hand – a metaphor that extends upwards to the emerging fingers of fruit. It takes three months from the emergence of the bell to the formation of a full and vibrantly green bunch of bananas, which only ripen to their distinctive yellow hue after being harvested, packed and transported to their final destination.
Step 7: Now, once again, we need to provide some protection from the outside world. “Bagging” involves placing a protective cover over each bunch of bananas, which otherwise hang exposed to insects and pests, airborne diseases and leafrub – marks caused by the plant’s own leaves rubbing against the fruit. “De-leafing” the plant also helps to minimise the latter, as well as reduce the risk of leaf disease and redirect the energy spent on growing leaves to growing fruit instead.
Step 8: As the main bunch develops up top, you will need to “bunch-prune” the plant by removing smaller hands of bananas that develop lower down. New shoots will also spring forth from the bottom of the plant – these must be “desuckered”, removing all but one, which will eventually grow to replace the current plant in the next cycle of its life.
Step 9: Once the fruit have reached adequate length and girth, they are ripe for the picking. An adult bunch of bananas can weigh as much as fifty kilos, so harvesting these hippos is no small feat. The method employed is called “humping” and involves resting the entire bunch over your shoulder on your back, then using a long, sharp implement called a cane knife to slice the stem free at the top such that the full weight of the bunch comes to rest on your spine. Needless to say, this is not to be tried at home.
Step 10: When you have harvested your banana bunch, the pseudo-trunk that produced it will have completed its lifecycle and will be ready to hand over the reins to the unpruned new shoot growing at its base, waiting to take its place. The plants can carry on in this fashion for an indefinite number of reincarnations, though they usually call it a day at about ten.
Thus continues the circle of banana life – shooting, flowering, fruiting and dying, only to rise like a phoenix from the ashes and do it all over again.