Bananas of Madeira

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Thursday, April 19th. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard.

Next up on The World and Everything in It: a trip to the island of Madeira.

That’s a small, mountainous island off the Portuguese mainland. It occupies less than 300 square miles. That’s about one-fourth the size of Rhode Island.

EICHER: You’ve likely never heard of Madeira, but if you have, it might be because of its famous bananas. They’re known for their small size and sweet flavor.

Portuguese explorers first brought bananas to Madeira about 4-hundred years ago. And Islanders have been growing them ever since. They export around 80 percent of the crop to Portugal and they enjoy the rest.

Special Correspondent Susan Olasky visited one grower and brings us this report.

When I was a child, my grandparents lived in a suburb of Washington, DC. My grandfather had a banana tree. And every winter he dug it up and put it in the basement to protect it from freezing.

His banana tree never bore fruit—and maybe that’s why on a recent visit to Madeira I paid special attention to the banana trees—and the huge bunches of small, sweet fruit hanging from them.

AUDIO: (Laugh)

First, let me voice a correction. Technically the banana tree is not a tree.

AUDIO: First of all the banana is a plant. It gives fruit once in its life.

That’s Dina Gonçalves, a resident of Funchal, the capital city of Madeira. A tree, she says, bears fruit season to season. But a plant gets one shot. For a banana plant, the fruit begins with a large purple flower. A number of bananas will form from each flower petal.

AUDIO: ‘Til the bunch is formed. The purple flower will be at the end of the bunch. And when there is no more bananas coming out from the flower, they will cut the flower. And the flower is good to feed animals.

Altogether a bunch could have up to 10 tiers of bananas with 10 bananas in each tier. And that bunch of 100 bananas might weigh 130 pounds. We saw many of those huge bunches covered by plastic bags.

AUDIO: That plastic bag is used for the insects not to bite the fruits and to make a kind of private greenhouse for each bunch.

All the bananas in a bunch grow and ripen at the same rate. And when they are still green, the farmer cuts them.

AUDIO: They never cut after starting being riped because in one week everything will be ripe and there is no family to eat the bunch of bananas in one week. Or to be exported they have to be green. If they are ripe…

Once the farmer harvests the bananas, he chops down the plant. It has done its job, but it’s not done producing. The leaves become food for animals, and the trunk becomes fiber for baskets. And then, at the base of the plant…

AUDIO: There is always one or more babies growing up from the roots of the mother.

If there’s more than one baby banana plant, the farmer will move the extras to keep the right spacing. And the next year the baby will grow and produce another bunch of bananas.

AUDIO: So it’s not the same tree, it’s from grandmother to mother to grandchild. You see ( laugh.) And that’s it.

Easy for her to say. Not so easy for my grandfather in Silver Spring, Maryland.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Susan Olasky reporting from Madeira.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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