The Plantain Tree

By Rudo. N

Lingala: Makemba

Scientific Name: Musa Paradisiaca

Growing up in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was an amazing experience because the country has so much to offer. From the tropical climate, the great vegetation to dense forests that made you feel as though you wandering in a magical wonderland. Apart from that, this country is best known for its vast variety of fruits and vegetables, one of my favorites being the Plantain fruit. Experts believe that the DRC is home to one of the highest diversity of Plantains in Africa. After moving back to Zimbabwe, we managed to plant these trees in our back yard, these are easy to plant and bear delicious fruit.

What are Plantains?

The plantain tree can be described as a gigantic herb that springs from an underground stem and their fruit is classified as berries. Most varieties are 3-10 meters tall and have a conical false “trunk” formed by sheaths of long overlapping leaves. This false stem is called a pseudostem. The tree produces an edible fruit that is related to the banana. Both are members of the Musa genus, they are botanically large herbs and their fruit is classified as berries. Although they look quite similar, they must not be confused. Bananas are grown for their sugary fruit while growing plantains are cultivated for their firmer, starchy fruit.  The plantain fruit is green to brown-yellow and it is borne in branches. Due to its high starch content, it cannot be eaten raw, it is usually cooked green in savoury dishes or fried when ripe for a sweeter dish.

Flowers are produced from the pseudostem and develop into a cluster of hanging fruit. In commercial growing plantain plantations, once the fruit is harvested, the plant is cut down soon to be replaced by pups(suckers or offshoots) that sprout up from the mother plant. If this is not for commercial use, there is no need to cut down the plant.

Each leaf emerges from the center of the pseudostem as a rolled cylinder and unfolds into an elongated lamina blade and forms an outcrop canopy at the top of the tree. Plantain leaves have several uses; in the Congo and several other countries, they are used as plates to serve food. When preparing fish, they are used as a wrapping to keep in the flavour.

Origins

Plantains have been cultivated for thousands of years and their origin and their origin seems to be on the Malaysian peninsula, New Guinea and Southeast Asia. Plantains are a hybrid of two species of banana, Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana.


Tips on Growing Plantain Trees

  • Choose an environment with well-drained soil to support regular watering without waterlogging.
  • The planting site should be well protected from the wind.
  • Choose a sunny, warm area of your garden and dig a hole that is as deep as the root ball.
  • Plant the plantain at the same depth it was growing in the pot.
  • Keep the plantain 120-180cm from other plants to give it plenty of room for canopy spread.
  • Add 10-15cm of mulch around the tree, keeping it 6 inches away from the pseudostem. Spread this mulch out in a circle 120-180cm wide around the tree to help the soil retain water by lowering evaporation and protect the plant’s roots.

Fruiting

  • Plantains are usually ready for harvest anywhere from 14 to 20 months depending on the climate and other factors, ours have been bearing fruit as they are over 20 months.
  • Flowering usually happens within 10-15 months, while an additional 4-8 months is needed for fruit it develops and ripen.
  • To harvest, simply cut off the entire bunch from the top of the stalk. Use a sharp blade to do this, such as a machete.

Remember the golden rule of growing healthy plantain trees is to never let them dry out. They love moist soil, not soggy, and need careful watching during hot, dry weather.

Images provided by Rudo N.

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