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The false banana: a wonder plant

At Kew Science Festival at Wakehurst, our scientists will be dissecting this wonder plant and explaining its significance at the Science Cafe.
20 July 2018
Blog team: 

What is enset?

Enset is a plant in the banana family that grows in the wild in eastern, central, and southern Africa.

It has been cultivated for tens of thousands of years, exclusively in Ethiopia, becoming a staple crop for 20 million people. It is so ubiquitous within the country that it has over 200 common names – many of these reflecting its many uses and varieties.

As well as providing food, parts of the plant are used in making rope, medicine, shelter, as feed for animals and even items of clothing like skirts.

It’s also important ecologically – its roots hold together the soil and prevent erosion. It grows well with added animal manure, making it perfect for livestock farmers. Farmers often grow it alongside other crops too, providing an ideal microclimate for coffee, another Ethiopian native.

You would be forgiven for mistaking enset for the plant that grows the bananas we eat due to its striking resemblance, earning it the title ‘false banana’.

Enset has been called the 'banana on steroids' because of this resemblance, and its huge yield, allowing it to feed millions of people. 

Image showing enset crops growing in Ethiopia

The tree against hunger

Enset is incredibly space-efficient, feeding more people per square metre of crop than most cereals, which currently provide half of Africa’s food.

This makes it a key crop to focus on as the need to maximise the outputs of agricultural land in Africa grows ever more urgent. Enset can be made into three main foods – kocho, bulla and amicho.

The pulp of the roots and leaf sheaths is fermented underground for four to six months to make kocho, which is used in dough to make bread, and is slightly sour-tasting. Bulla is harvested from fully matured plants and is used in soups and porridges; it can even be used to make pancakes. Amicho is the boiled root and is similar to the familiar potato.

Enset is so wonderfully multi-purpose, it has earned the name 'the tree against hunger'. It has been shown that enset forms the foundation of many households' food security.

Another feature that makes enset special is its resilience – it can withstand drought, heavy rain and flooding much better than other crops. In the context of an ever-uncertain global climate, enset is a plant with huge potential.

However, somewhat surprisingly given its importance as a food crop, we know very little about the biology of enset. Kew’s scientists are embarking on projects to discover its secrets, from fruiting to fungi, as well as the mechanisms behind its impressive resilience. 

Image showing Children in an enset field near Hawassa, holding an enset corm

Learn more at the Science festival

James Borrell, a Research Fellow in Tropical Crop Ecology, will be among the team dissecting this fleshy plant and talking about its important attributes at the Science Café.

James will be addressing the issue of distribution mapping – that is, where else can we grow this climate-smart crop in the future? Learn about what scientists are doing to address food security issues around the world, and how we can predict the future climate.

We will also be bringing the ecology of this amazing crop to life – in the future it will be important to gather the seeds of key plants and help them survive.

This is a particularly puzzling task for enset, as farmers take cuttings before the plants flower as a means of propagation. This means nobody is quite certain how enset is pollinated. Do you think bats have anything to do with it?

Last but certainly not least, why not come and try some enset for yourself? James will show you how enset is often fermented in Ethiopia for six months to keep it edible. He will have some kocho, a chewy, fermented starch bread for you to taste.

Finally, he will also show you bulla - one of the best quality foods made from the enset plant, which can be prepared as pancakes, porridge or dumplings.