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Ensete lasiocarpa (golden lotus banana)

The golden lotus banana is a small but stunning member of the banana family.

Ensete lasiocarpa inflorescence spreading its showy yellow bracts to expose the flowers in their axils

Ensete lasiocarpa inflorescence spreading its showy yellow bracts to expose the flowers in their axils (Photo: Wolfgang Stuppy)

Species information

Common name: 

golden lotus banana, Chinese dwarf banana, Chinese yellow banana

Conservation status: 

Not yet assessed by the IUCN.

Habitat: 

Mixed conifer-oak forest at 1,500 to 2,500 m above sea level.

Key Uses: 

Sacred plant, food, textiles.

Known hazards: 

None.

Taxonomy

Subclass: 
Superorder: 
Lilianae
Order: 
Zingiberales
Family: 
Musaceae
Genus: Ensete

About this species

With its inflorescence resembling a lotus flower in bud and lasting up to 250 days, the golden lotus banana has become a sacred plant of Buddhist monks in the tropical region of Yunnan.

Previously known as Musa lasiocarpa, it has recently been transferred to the genus Ensete based on an analysis of DNA sequence evidence published in the journal Taxon by Ai-Zhong Liu, W. John Kress & De-Zhu Li in February 2010. This conclusion has now been questioned in a 2010 publication by Li et al. who suggest that Musella lasiocarpa may indeed be the correct name. Further studies are needed to provide clarity on the relationships within the banana family (Musaceae).

Synonym: 

Musella lasiocarpa

Genus: 
Ensete

Discover more

Geography and distribution

The golden lotus banana is restricted to south-western China (southern Guizhou, central and western Yunnan), and occurs between 1,500 and 2,500 m above sea level. This species is found growing semi-wild (or semi-cultivated) in mixed conifer-oak forest, where it is locally common.

Description

Ensete lasiocarpa is a perennial plant with horizontal rhizomes (underground stems). A single plant gives rise to a cluster of ‘stems’, which are 30-80 cm tall and 12-30 cm thick. These 'stems' are actually, as in all other bananas, 'pseudostems' made up of tightly packed leaf sheaths. The yellow flowers are about 1.5 to 3 cm long and produced in conspicuous inflorescences which are borne directly at the apex (tip) of each pseudostem. The flowers are unisexual and female flowers are found at the base of the inflorescence whereas male flowers are produced closer to the apex.

Among the members of the banana family (Musaceae), this is the easiest species to recognise, thanks to its short (only up to 1 m tall), stout pseudostem, compact rosette-like inflorescences with yellow to orange bracts and small (3 x 2.5 cm), yellowish, hairy fruits. Its flowers are pollinated by insects, such as bumblebees (Bombus eximius and B. montivolans), honeybees (Apis cerana and A. florae) and wasps (Vespa mandarinia).

Threats and conservation

A bee visiting a 'hand' of flowers in the axil of a bract of Ensete lasiocarpa (Photo: Wolfgang Stuppy)

As a result of intense agriculture, the natural habitat of Ensete lasiocarpa has become highly fragmented. In fact, truly wild populations are unknown, which is why the species may have to be classified as 'Extinct in the Wild'. The remaining populations are considered to be 'semi-wild' ones. These populations are maintained only through cultivation, thanks to the cultural and economic significance of this species to local people.

In order to preserve the still existing genetic diversity of the species in China, ex-situ conservation measures would be helpful, especially breeding programmes that analyse and recombine the existing genetic variation so as to avoid inbreeding.

Uses

In its native China, the golden lotus banana has been used by local people for centuries. Besides being revered as a sacred plant by Buddhists, it is also used as a vegetable, a resource plant for honey production, pig fodder, weaving material, wine making and for erosion control.

After soaking in water for several hours, the inner parts of the pseudostem can be eaten as a vegetable. Both the pseudostem and the rhizome are rich in starch and are sometimes fermented to make wine.

A paste prepared from the fresh flowers and bracts is applied externally to the skin to stop bleeding and prevent inflammation.

A tea prepared from the young inflorescences is used to treat enteritis, constipation and gynaecological disorders. The sap is taken as an antidote against monkshood (Aconitum spp.) poisoning and to alleviate drunkenness.

The leaves, especially their midribs, contain soft and durable fibres, which is why, when dried, they are used to make ropes, belts and chairs.

Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage

Kew's Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plant life world wide, focusing on plants under threat and those of most use in the future. Seeds are dried, packaged and stored at a sub-zero temperature in our seed bank vault.

Description of seeds: Seeds large, 6-8 mm in diameter, dark brown to black, with a large scar (hilum).
Seed storage behaviour: Probably orthodox (the seeds of this plant survive being dried without significantly reducing their viability, and are therefore amenable to long-term frozen storage such as at the MSB).

Cultivation

Grown for its unique and exotic appearance, the golden lotus banana tolerates drier and colder habitats than other members of the banana family. At home in China, the yellow lotus banana blooms all year round, with most flowers occurring from February to August. It survives regular frosts with no ill effect. In the UK it can be grown in zone 9 (hardy to a minimum temperature of -6.8 °C), but lower temperatures might be tolerated if winter protection is provided. The plants are easy to grow in well-drained soil and thrive on high-nitrogen fertiliser, but they are susceptible to spider mite attacks. In Europe, well-fertilised plants kept in heated glasshouses can grow up to 2 m tall.

Ensete lasiocarpa can be propagated easily through splitting of the rhizomes, whereas commercially available seed is mostly difficult to germinate (either because the seeds are non-viable or dormant).

Despite claims of hardiness, attempts to grow this species outdoors at Kew have not been successful, and hence it is now only grown under glass. Kew staff have propagated it from offsets, although it is hard to produce an attractive specimen using this method. Biological control is used at Kew to minimise damage from pests such as mealy bug and red spider mite, which have been found to attack golden lotus banana.

Where to see this at Kew

The golden lotus banana can be seen in the Temperate House where it is still labelled 'Musa lasiocarpa' (only recently has it been transferred to the genus Ensete).

References and credits

Li, L., Häkkinen, M., Yuan, Y-M., Hao, G. & Ge, X-J. (2010). Molecular phylogeny and systematics of the banana family (Musaceae) inferred from multiple nuclear and chloroplast DNA fragments, with a special reference to the genus Musa. Mol. Phylogenet. Evol. 57: 1-10.

Liu, A-Z., Kress, W.J., Wang, H. & Li, D.-Z. (2010). Phylogenetic analyses of the banana family (Musaceae) based on nuclear ribosomal (ITS) and chloroplast (trnL-F) evidence. Taxon 59: 20-28.

Liu, A-Z., Kress, W.J., Wang, H. & Li, D.-Z. (2002). Insect pollination of Musella lasiocarpa (Musaceae), a monotypic genus endemic to Yunnan, China. Plant Systematics and Evolution. 235: 135-146.

Liu, A.-Z., Kress, W.J. & Long, C.-L. (2003). The Ethnobotany of Musella lasiocarpa (Musaceae), an Endemic Plant of Southwest China. Economic Botany. 57(2): 289-281.

Wu, D. & Kress, W.J. (2000). Musaceae. 314–318. in Wu, Z-Y. & Raven, P.H. (editors). Flora of China, Vol. 24. Beijing Science Press. St. Louis and Missouri Botanical Garden Press.

Xue C.-Y., Wang, H. & Li, D.-Z. (2007). Female gametophyte and seed development in Musella lasiocarpa, a monotypic genus endemic to Southwestern China. Canadian Journal of Botany. 85(10): 964-975.

Kew Science Editor: Wolfgang Stuppy
Kew contributors: David Cooke (HPE)
Copyediting: Emma Tredwell

While every effort has been taken to ensure that the information contained in these pages is reliable and complete, the notes on hazards, edibility and suchlike included here are recorded information and do not constitute recommendations. No responsibility will be taken for readers’ own actions.

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