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The Cavendish Banana
The Great Conservatory at ChatsworthNext time you buy some bananas, look for the cardboard box they were packed in. You will almost certainly be buying the Cavendish variety of bananas, probably descended from a single plant grown at Chatsworth 170 years ago.

The Chinese or Cavendish dwarf banana is the basis of nearly all the sub-tropical banana trades. Bananas started life perhaps 10,000 years ago somewhere in south-east Asia - the word "banan" is Arabic for "finger". It may have been the world's first domesticated plant and its British debut was in 1633 in the shop of a herbalist in the City of London.

Only the wealthy could afford to cultivate this rare treat. Just before Christmas in 1834, William Spencer Cavendish, the 6th Duke of Devonshire, wrote to the Chaplain at Alton Towers: "My Dear Sir, A thousand thanks for the Banana, it arrived quite safe and I am delighted to have an opportunity of seeing that most beautiful and curious Fruit. It is the admiration of everybody and has been feasted upon at dinner today according to the directions."

By the following year the Duke's gardener, Joseph Paxton was successfully growing bananas at Chatsworth. Tradition has it that Paxton had been fascinated by a banana plant depicted on Chinese wallpaper at Chatsworth. He correctly concluded that the banana must be native to China and became intent on obtaining a specimen. For many years this story seemed to be just a myth as nobody could find the illustration. But when the room was rearranged in the 1920s/30s, the banana, hidden for years behind a large four-poster bed, came to light.

By this time Chatsworth had been growing bananas for nearly 100 years. In 1829 some plants had been sent to England, where in due course one of only two surviving specimens was bought for the Duke of Devonshire by Joseph Paxton. He named it Musa Cavendishii (the Cavendish plantain) and in 1836 a Chatsworth-grown banana was exhibited at the Horticultural Society's Show, causing a sensation and winning for Paxton the Knighton Silver Medal.

A few years later the Duke supplied two cases of plants to a missionary named John Williams, destined for Samoa. Only one Musa Cavendishii survived the journey and that single specimen was the forebear of bananas that flourish in Samoa and other South Sea islands today. In 1839 poor Williams was beaten to death and eaten by the natives of Erromanga in the New Hebrides, supposedly in reprisal for cruelties previously carried out by an English boat crew.

Chatsworth archives contain a reference to a later export of the Cavendish banana. Notes written by Robert Hardie refer to its introduction to the Pacific by his father Charles Hardie who, like Williams, was a missionary. Writes Robert Hardie: "Before leaving England my father arranged for the interchange of food plants and tree or flower plants with the then Duke of Devonshire (this must have been 1853)."

Robert travelled to the Pacific with his father to await the arrival of a whale ship, bringing amongst its cargo the cases from Chatsworth, but everything in them seemed rotten. On the off-chance that a few stumps and roots were not quite dead, Charles Hardie planted them and a small number survived. Plants and roots were eventually distributed to mission stations on other islands.

The first Chatsworth plant may also have been the origin of stock introduced to the Canaries in 1855. Today Musa Cavendishii plays an important part in the economy of the Canary Islands.

Here in Britain we eat over 140 million bananas each week - that's over 7 billion bananas a year. Various concoctions of the good old Cavendish banana are claimed to be good for curing hangovers, jet lag, morning sickness, mosquito bites and warts! And the banana has other claims to fame: it inspired the song Yes, We Have No Bananas (written by Leon Trotsky's nephew in 1923), The Banana Boat Song and a Velvet Underground LP cover with a peelable banana. Also the Banana Splits, Bananarama, Billy Connolly's curved yellow boots and the expression to "go bananas" (credited to Liza Minnelli, talking about her stay in a psychiatric hospital.) And, finally, the last suppers of both Elvis Presley and Robert Maxwell included a banana, quite possibly of the Musa Cavendishii variety.


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