by Veronica S. Schweitzer
Yes, the Latin word for the banana is Musa. Coincidence? The banana belongs to the plants of the ancients and has been given God-like powers in many diverse cultures. These "old-world" plants are thought to have originated in India and played an important role in ancient Egypt and Assyria as early as 1100 BC.
For the early Hawaiians, the banana tree was the embodiment of the God Kanaloa who came from Tahiti and was himself a banana planter and it is said that the folk of Mu, the aboriginal, mythological race that inhabited the islands long before the Polynesians arrived, already were avid banana munchers.
When the first Polynesians migrated to the islands in their slender canoes, they took with them 3 or 4 species. After all, they also had to take their other produce. Richard Ha, owner of Keaau Banana Plantation and Mauna Kea Bananas , imagines, "If I had to paddle a canoe, I would have brought only species with huge and heavy bunches."
The Hawaiians created at least 50 different varieties out of these original plants. But they never used them as a staple food source. Bananas were too sacred. They were a delicacy, and a welcome alternative in times of scarcity. The banana was often used as symbol for man in the many religious ceremonies. Often a stalk substituted for a human sacrifice, and the favorite ceremonial banana was the lele, with its double meaning, because lele also means "to fly away." Thus, in any ritual were a suggestion of flying transpired, the lele featured. Love, for example, could fly to a desired heart.
Under punishment with death, women couldn't touch the sacred fruit till the abolition of the taboo in 1819.
The early Hawaiian banana belongs to the general category musa paradisiaca. Many of its local varieties are seldom seen on the market, including the dark-blue ice cream bananas, the wild tall Brazilian (falsely named "apple"), and the different cooking bananas. The sweet dessert bananas we are used to, are recent imports. Examples are the Chinese Cavendish, the popular Williams, and the dwarf Brazilian banana, which tastes like a tart green apple, and is rapidly taking over the markets in its brief ten years of Hawaiian existence.
Hawaii leads the United States in banana production, growing well over 13 million pounds of the creamy fruit yearly. The two plantations owned by Richard Ha, on the East Coast of Hawaii in Keeau and Pepeekeo, form the largest plantation in the state, providing over 60% of the Big Island's total production.
"We grow almost all varieties," Ha says, "including cooking bananas."
And here's a last and deepest banana muse: The banana tree might be all we need to learn about life, from birth to death. All Hawaiian proverbs surely say so! In modern English those words of wisdom sweeten down to this:
The banana being a herb, its trunk is soft and tender at the core, yet strong and yielding against the Hawaiian winds. Patient and enduring, the banana produces one majestic flower loaded with a complete food. New shoots emerge at its sides. After the fruit reaches maturity, the parent, reassured, simply dies. Could we only live this way.... Too heavy a thought when you reach for a banana again?
photo credit: Kirk Aeder
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