Buy a banana and it will almost certainly be descended from one plant grown at an English stately home. But now we face losing one of the world’s most-loved fruits.
Sitting in picture-perfect Peak District grounds, Chatsworth House seems an unlikely birthplace for today’s global banana industry.
But practically every banana consumed in the western world is directly descended from a plant grown in the Derbyshire estate’s hothouse 180 years ago.
This is the story of how the Cavendish became the world’s most important fruit – and why it and bananas as we know them could soon cease to exist.
The birth of the Cavendish banana
Bananas have been grown at Chatsworth since 1830 when head gardener Joseph Paxton got his hands on a specimen imported from Mauritius.
He had apparently been inspired after seeing a banana plant depicted on Chinese wallpaper in one of the home’s 175 rooms, but today’s head gardener Steve Porter is sceptical about the story.
“Certainly the timings fit”, he said, “but I think it’s much more likely that Paxton was always on the lookout for new and exotic plants and was well connected enough to know when the banana plants arrived in England.”
Paxton filled a pit with “plenty of water, rich loam soil and well-rotted dung” with the temperature maintained between 18C and 30C (65F and 85F) to grow the fruit he called Musa Cavendishii after his employers (Cavendish being the family name of the Dukes and Duchesses of Devonshire).
“At that time for a family in England to be able to grow their own bananas to feed their guests was very exciting,” said Mr Porter, adding: “It still is for us today.”
In November 1835 Paxton’s plant finally flowered and by the following May it was loaded with more than 100 bananas, one of which won a medal at that year’s Horticultural Society show.
A few years later the duke supplied two cases of plants to a missionary named John Williams to take to Samoa.
Only one survived the journey but it launched the banana industry in Samoa and other South Sea islands (Williams himself was killed by natives).
Missionaries also took the Cavendish banana to the Pacific and the Canary Islands.
So the Cavendish spread, but it is only in relatively recent years that it has become the exporter’s banana of choice, its rise in popularity caused by the very thing that is now killing it off – the Panama disease.
Bananas on the brink