|Ensete ventricosum, by Walter Hood Fitch (1861)|
Ensete ventricosum, commonly known as the Ethiopian banana, Abyssinian banana, false banana, enset or ensete, is an herbaceous species of flowering plant in the banana family Musaceae. The name Ensete ventricosum was first published in 1948 in the Kew Bulletin, 1947, p. 101. Its synonyms include Musa arnoldiana De Wild., Musa ventricosa Welw. and Musa ensete J.F.Gmel. It is native to the eastern edge of the Great African Plateau, extending northwards from South Africa through Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania to Ethiopia, and west to the Congo, being found in high rainfall forests on mountains, and along forested ravines and streams.
Like bananas, Ensete ventricosum is a large non-woody plant — a gigantic monocarpic evergreen perennial herb (not a tree) — up to 6 m (20 ft) tall. It has a stout pseudostem of tightly overlapping leaf bases, and large banana-like leaf blades of up to 5 m (16 ft) tall by 1 m (3 ft 3 in) wide, with a salmon-pink midrib. The flowers, which only occur once from the centre of the plant at the end of that plant's life, are in massive pendant thyrses covered by large pink bracts. The fruits are inedible (insipid, flavorless) and have hard, black, rounded seeds. After flowering, the plant dies.
Use as a foodcrop
"Enset provides more amount of foodstuff per unit area than most cereals. It is estimated that 40 to 60 enset plants occupying 250-375 sq. meters can provide enough food for a family of 5 to 6 people." – Country Information Brief, FAO June 1995.
Enset (E. ventricosum) is Ethiopia's most important root crop, a traditional staple in the densely populated south and southwestern parts of Ethiopia. Its importance to the diet and economy of the Gurage and Sidama peoples was first recorded by Jerónimo Lobo. The root is the main edible portion as its fruit is insipid. Each plant takes four to five years to mature, at which time a single root will give 40 kg of food. Due to the long period of time from planting to harvest, plantings need to be staggered over time, to ensure that there is enset available for harvest in every season. Enset will tolerate drought better than most cereal crops.
Wild enset plants are produced from seeds, while most domesticated plants are propagated from suckers. Up to 400 suckers can be produced from just one mother plant. In 1994 3,000 km² of enset were grown in Ethiopia, with a harvest estimated to be almost 10 tonnes per hectare. Enset is often intercropped with sorghum, although the practice amongst the Gedeo is to intercrop it with coffee. It is a major crop, although often supplemented with cereal crops.
However its value as a famine food has fallen due to a number of causes, as detailed in the April 2003 issue of the UN-OCHA Ethiopia unit's Focus on Ethiopia:
Apart from an Enset plant disease epidemic in 1984–85 which wiped out large parts of the plantations and created the green famine, in the past 10 years major factors were recurrent drought and food shortage together with acute land shortage that forced farmers more and more into consumption of immature plants. Hence farmers were overexploiting their Enset reserves thereby causing gradual losses and disappearance of the false banana as an important household food security reserve. Even though not all the plant losses can be attributed to drought and land shortage and hence early consumption of immature crops, estimations go as far as more than 60% of the false banana crop stands have been lost in some areas in SNNPR during the last 10 years. This basically means that a great many people who used to close the food gap with false banana consumption are not able to do so any more, and lacking a viable alternative, have become food insecure and highly vulnerable to climatic and economic disruptions of their agricultural system.
The young and tender tissues in the centre or heart of the plant (the growing point) are cooked and eaten, being tasty and nutritious and very like the core of palms and cycads. In Ethiopia, more than 150 000 ha are cultivated for the starchy staple food prepared from the pulverised trunk and inflorescence stalk. Fermenting these pulverised parts results in a food called kocho. Bulla is made from the liquid squeezed out of the mixture and sometimes eaten as a porridge, while the remaining solids are suitable for consumption after a settling period of some days. Mixed kocho and bulla can be kneaded into dough, then flattened and baked over a fire. Kocho is in places regarded as a delicacy, suitable for serving at feasts and ceremonies such as weddings, when wheat flour is added. The fresh corm is cooked like potatoes before eating. Dry kocho and bulla are energy-rich and produce from 1400 to 2000kJ per 100 g.
The plant is quick-growing and often cultivated as an ornamental plant. In frost-prone areas it requires winter protection under glass. It has gained the Royal Horticultural Society's Award of Garden Merit.
A good quality fibre, suitable for ropes, twine, baskets, and general weaving, is obtained from the leaves. Dried leaf-sheaths are used as packing material, serving the same function as Western foam plastic and polystyrene. The entire plant but the roots is used to feed livestock. Fresh leaves are a common fodder for cattle during the dry season, and a lot of farmers feed their animals with residues of enset harvest or processing.
In 1769 the celebrated Scottish traveller James Bruce first sent a description and quite accurate drawings of a plant common in the marshes around Gondar in Abyssinia, confidently pronounced it to be "no species of Musa" and wrote that its local name was "ensete". In 1853 the British Consul at Mussowah sent some seeds to Kew Gardens, mentioning that their native name was ansett. Kew, quite understandably, did not make the connection, especially as they had never before seen such seeds. However, when the seeds had germinated and the plants had rapidly gained size, their relationship to the true banana became obvious.
Bruce also discussed the plant's place in the mythology of Egypt and pointed out that some Egyptian statue carvings depict the goddess Isis sitting among the leaves of what was thought to be a banana plant, a plant native to Southeast Asia and not known in Ancient Egypt.
Known variants and hybrids
- Ensete ventricosum 'Atropurpureum'
- Ensete ventricosum 'Green Stripe'
- Red false banana (Ensete ventricosum 'Maurelii', syn. Musa maurelii)
- Ensete ventricosum 'Montbeliardii'
- Ensete ventricosum 'Tandarra Red' (syn. Musa 'Tandarra Red')
- Ensete ventricosum 'Red Stripe' (syn. Musa 'Red Stripe')
- Ensete ventricosum 'Rubra' (syn. Musa ensete 'Rubra')
Specimen in Jardin botanique exotique de Menton, Alpes-Maritimes, France
Plant on Mount Tsetserra, Mozambique
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- Richard Pankhurst, Economic History of Ethiopia (Addis Ababa: Haile Selassie I University, 1968), p. 194. Pankhurst uses the taxononym Musa ensete.
- Jerónimo Lobo, The Itinerário of Jerónimo Lobo, translated by Donald M. Lockhart (London: Hakluyt Society, 1984), pp. 245f
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- Heuzé V., Thiollet H., Tran G., Hassoun P., Lebas F., 2016. Enset (Ensete ventricosum) leaves. Feedipedia, a programme by INRA, CIRAD, AFZ and FAO. https://www.feedipedia.org/node/21254
- Curtis's Botanical Magazine vol. 87 (1861)
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