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Gros Michel Bananas

Gros Michel Bananas

A half a century ago, bananas were more delicious. They were creamier with a more delectable tropical fruit taste. When they ripened, they stayed ripe longer instead of swiftly turning to black slime. Since they lasted on the shelf when ripe it was possible to sell them ripe–as opposed to today’s bananas which must be purchased all green and hard and nasty. I realize that this description makes it sound like I have fallen prey to golden age syndrome—wherein a bygone time becomes a misremembered quasi-mythical standard against which today is unfavorably compared (a well-known problem for certain political parties and demographics)—yet I am not embellishing. The bananas of yore were better because they were different. If you recall the earlier banana post, you will remember that there are numerous strange and magnificent varieties of bananas in Southeast Asia—delicious miniature bananas, red bananas, purple bananas…all sorts of fruit unknown to us. For long ages, across many lives of men, farmers hybridized wild species of bananas and selectively bred the different strains into different varieties called cultivars. The most delicious and salable cultivar was “Gros Michel” (Fat Michael) which I described above. “Gros Michel” was so ideal for farming (and so tasty) that it became pretty much the only banana cultivated. Vast plantations around the world produced only “Gros Michel.” It grew on large 7 meter tall trees (21 feet) which produced abundantly.

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I even have a family story of how my paternal grandparents got together during World War II. He finally expressed his interest in her by giving her a banana—which were rare and precious during the war. Grandma was suitably impressed and made a somewhat ribald poetic metaphor concerning the banana’s shape–which left grandpa with no doubts about her feelings…which is to say I am considerably in debt to “Gros Michel”, despite the fact that I have never tasted one.

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So what happened to Gros Michel? Is there by chance a terrifying horror story which provides us with a useful moral lesson about our tastes, our habits, and the fragile nature of the foundations of civilization?

Well, as it happens there is such a story!

Banana Tree with Panama Disease

Banana Tree with Panama Disease

In the 1950s, a fungus Fusarium oxysporum attacked the Gros Michel bananas. It was known as “Panama Disease” and it wiped out entire plantations of fruit in Africa and South America. The blight spread with horrible speed through the great monoculture farms. All Gros Michel bananas were clones, so the contagion spread unchecked. There were years where there were almost no bananas in Europe, Africa, and the Americas: whole empires turned to ashes and rot. To save their livelihood banana growers burned their groves and moved to a new dwarf banana “the Cavendish” which was unsatisfying—but which resisted the terrible killing fungus. Gros Michel disappeared from the commercial world…although there are tantalizing rumors that it exists still in the ancestral homeland of bananas—Southeast Asia. It has even been said that Chinese billionaires import luxurious Gros Michel fruits and have lavish banana parties where they eat magnificent tasting bananas and laugh at the feeble little green bananas of the west.

dsc_1801banana_shopWhatever the truth of these tales, what is certain is that the banana growers outside of Asia immediately fell back into their bad habit of monoculture. The Cavendish is just as vulnerable to blight as its predecessor. Indeed many monoculture crops (crops like wheat, rice, and potatoes) are potentially vulnerable to unexpected disease because of the perils of overreliance on certain favorable strains. It is a somewhat sobering thought for people who eat!

Say what you like about Putin and the Russians, but these are the best balloons ever!

Say what you like about Putin and the Russians, but these are the best balloons ever!

The Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia have commenced! Now I love the Olympics in all their forms, but, sadly, I have no strengths at winter sports (unless you count hilariously falling down on icy surfaces as a strength—in which case I am the comic equal of any silent movie star).  Because of my lack of knowledge about sliding down icy mountains on sticks, I have been trying to find something to write about the Sochi games which does not involve winter sports.

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Fortunately the history of Sochi is quite interesting (albeit somewhat dark).  After being a contested territory during the Russo-Turkish War (1828–1829), the Crimean War of 1853–1856, and the long-lasting Russian Circassian War of 1817–1864, the Sochi area was somewhat…denuded of local population.  In 1866, the Tsar’s government pronounced a decree was promoting relocation and colonization of Russians to Sochi.  But what would these peasant farmers do for a living in the strange semi-tropical mountains by the Black Sea Coast?

Tea Plantations of Sochi

Tea Plantations of Sochi

The solution arrived in the early 1900s when a Ukrainian peasant farmer named Judas Antonovich Koshman introduced a new strain of tea to Sochi.  Tea was then the most popular (non-alcoholic) beverage in Russia, but its cost was prohibitively high.  A series of tea plantations had been planted in the Sochi area during the 1870s and 1880s but they had all failed because of the cold (or they produced bitter disappointing harvests).  Koshman’s tea, however, was different: the plants were more tolerant of the cold and they had a rich unique flavor which appealed to the Russian palate.  And thus the great tea plantations of the Black Sea came into being.  Throughout the tumult of World War I, the Soviet Revolution, Stalinism, World War II, the Cold War, and the painful birth of modern Russia, the tea has grown along the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains in scenes reminiscent of Assam.  Krasnodar tea is one of the world’s northernmost varieties of tea.  It is said to have a pleasant fragrance and an appealing tart flavor.  It also contains a very high level of caffeine so that Russian tea parties stay lively and awake around the Samovar!

Family Portrait (T. Myagkov)

Family Portrait (T. Myagkov)

Rainbow Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus deglupta) photo from Flickr by See Reeves

Only 15 species of Eucalyptus trees occur naturally outside of Australia and of these 15 only Eucalyptus deglupta made it to the northern hemisphere without human help.  Eucalyptus deglupta is native to the lowland rainforests of Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, and the Philippines. The tree grows rapidly to 75 meters in height (about 250 feet) which makes it one of the world’s giants.  Sometimes it becomes so large that it grows 3-4 meter tall buttresses to help it support itself.  Because of its rapid growth, large size, and medium-strength, slightly lustrous wood, these eucalyptus trees are grown commercially in huge monoculture plantations for pulping into paper.

 

Rainbow Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus deglupta) photo from Flickr (http://www.flickr.com/photos/amelia525/303048913/) by *amelia*

The most remarkable aspect of this huge useful tree is its remarkable bark color.  The tree sheds long strips of bark throughout the year which exposes greenish yellow inner bark.  The exposed stripes of green then change color to orange, purple, red, maroon, and dark green.  Since the tree is constantly shedding narrow strips of bark its trunk becomes dazzling vertically striped rainbow of lovely colors.  In wet tropical gardens around the world the Eucalyptus deglupta is grown as an ornamental highlight both because of its beautiful color and impressive size.

Close-up of Eucalyptus deglupta

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