Geography and distribution
Close up of Ensete ventricosum leaf showing the purple midrib (Photo: Forest & Kim Starr)
Native to tropical East Africa, from Ethiopia to Angola, the Ethiopian banana (like the majority of species in the Musaceae, or banana family) is a plant of moist and open habitats, rather than closed woody communities. It is usually found along swamp margins, on river banks and in open, moist mountain forests at altitudes ranging from 1,400 to 3,100 m above sea level. It is also widely cultivated in south and south-western Ethiopia.
Ensete ventricosum is a perennial plant that grows 6-12 m high. As with other members of the genus and the 'true' bananas (Musa spp.), its unbranched 'stems' are actually pseudostems made up of tightly-overlapping leaf sheaths, left behind when the leaf blade has died. The pseudostem is 1.5-5 m tall and widens at the base, giving rise to the specific name ventricosum (Latin for swollen or inflated on one side). Both the leaf midrib and the pseudostem are often variably stained purple or purplish-brown. As in other bananas, the main pseudostem dies after flowering and fruiting. However, unlike other bananas, the Ethiopian banana rarely produces suckers unless the plants are intentionally induced to do so for vegetative propagation.
Ensete ventricosum in the Enchanting Gardens of Kula, Maui (Photo: Forest & Kim Starr)
Depending on the clone (or cultivar) and environmental conditions, flowering occurs after about four to eight years. The flowers are produced in conspicuous 2-3 m long inflorescences which are borne directly at the apex of each pseudostem. The 4-8.5 cm long, white to cream-coloured flowers are bisexual or male, and occasionally also female. Bisexual and (if present) female flowers are found at the base of the inflorescence, whereas male flowers are produced closer to the apex. The floral display is supported by large maroon-purple bracts subtending large groups ('hands') of flowers.
The yellow or orange-coloured fruits are 8-15 cm long and up to 4-5 cm in diameter, usually with a persistent style and floral remains. There are usually 15-25 very hard, black seeds per fruit, although numbers vary from 0-40. The seeds are embedded in an edible but tasteless orange pulp and vary in size (1.2-2.3 x 1.2-1.8 x 0.9-1.6 cm). They vary in shape from nearly spherical to flattened and irregular, and from deeply striate (grooved) to almost smooth. Monkeys and birds are the most likely dispersers of the seeds.
Conservation assessments carried out by Kew
Ensete ventricosum is being monitored as part of the Sampled Red List Index Project, which aims to produce conservation assessments for a representative sample of the world’s plant species. This information will then be used to monitor trends in extinction risk and help focus conservation efforts where they are most needed.
Ensete ventricosum seeds (Photo: Wolfgang Stuppy)
Although also found in other East African countries, the Ethiopian banana is only grown as a crop in Ethiopia, where it has been eaten for thousands of years. In south and south-western Ethiopia, Ensete ventricosum is the most important staple food crop. In this region, 11-15 million people rely on the starch contained in the leaf sheaths and pseudostems for their survival. After chopping and grating, the pulp of the pseudostems is used as a flour to prepare 'kocho' bread, porridge or soup. The underground stem (rhizome) is also boiled and eaten like potatoes, or chopped up and left to ferment. The starchy endosperm of the hard seeds is also consumed, and the base of the flower stalk is cooked and eaten as a vegetable.
In addition to being an important food plant, the Ethiopian banana is also used as livestock feed. The leaves provide thatch, umbrellas, mats and wrapping materials, as banana leaves do elsewhere in the tropics, and the leaf stalks yield fibres for cordage and sacking. The only part of the plant that is not used is the root. In East Africa the large black seeds are used as beads and threaded to create necklaces and rosaries.
Abyssinian Ensete in a garden in Tenerife, painting by Marianne North
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: Very hard, black, variable in size (1.2-2.3 x 1.2-1.8 x 0.9-1.6 cm) and shape from nearly spherical to flattened and irregular, surface deeply striate (grooved) to almost smooth.
Number of seed collections stored in the Millennium Seed Bank: One collection of 1,145 seeds.
Seed storage behaviour: Orthodox (the seeds of this plant survive drying without significant reduction in their viability, and are therefore amenable to long-term frozen storage such as at the MSB)
Ethiopian banana at Kew
Ensete ventricosum ‘Maurellii’ can be seen growing in the Temperate House. Other specimens of E. ventricosum are held in the behind-the-scenes Tropical Nursery, the garden of Cambridge Cottage and the Orange Room at Wakehurst.
Pressed and dried specimens of E. ventricosum are held in the Herbarium, one of the behind-the-scenes areas of Kew. The details, including images, of some of these can be seen online in the Herbarium Catalogue.
The Economic Botany Collection contains samples of the seeds, fibre and an alcohol distiller made from parts of the Abyssinian banana.