SINGAPORE - Singapore is no banana republic.
Despite its great variety of native trees, from tembusu to teakwood, historical records show no native species of wild bananas here - just the domesticated, seedless, garden variety kinds planted on school grounds and community plots. Some are ornamental, while others produce plump, sweet fruit with no or few seeds.
However, amateur naturalist Tang Beng Yong thinks he has found some. As he tramped around an open patch of trees along Petir Road, near Dairy Farm Road, the trainee teacher spotted the trees and hiked down a slope for a closer look. The fruits are less than 10cm long, have skinny stems and are full of large black seeds. They are edible but have "more seeds than flesh," said the 41-year-old.
He thinks they were not cultivated and are true wild bananas, and plans to try to germinate the seeds at home. "People don't normally go around planting wild bananas as they are not as good for eating as cultivated varieties."
But Associate Professor Hugh Tan, of the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research at the National University of Singapore, does not think they are wild or native species. He believes they could be varieties that were introduced here then abandoned when kampungs were cleared.
Today's domesticated bananas are variants of two ancestral wild species native to South-east Asia. But the most common commercial varieties today, like the large yellow Cavendish bananas seen in markets, have little resistance to some diseases.
They are clones unable to evolve resistance, while diseases evolve faster than new fungicides can be developed.
Bananas can be propagated sexually by seeds, or asexually by large shoots they put out called suckers, which are clones of the parent plant. Seedless commercial bananas must reproduce asexually.
Prof Tan said large plantations which have only one variety of banana plant may be at risk. He added: "If one plant is infected by disease, all the rest of the plants are equally at risk."
To ensure growers cultivate many varieties that are resistant to different diseases, consumers should eat as many varieties of bananas as possible.
So could Mr Tang's discovery be worth growing?
Prof Tan said: "They are valuable in the sense that if they can persist for years in the Singapore environment without human assistance, they may be well-suited to the climate, soil, and pests."
The Singapore Botanic Gardens also has a rainforest patch with banana trees that look similar to those found by Mr Tang. Its director Nigel Taylor said: "We are unable to say conclusively whether the bananas at Dairy Farm or the Botanic Gardens are native to Singapore."
When Nature Society president and plant ecologist Shawn Lum saw the Dairy Farm bananas, he exclaimed: "That looks like the wild type."
A seed or small plant could have been deposited there by a human or a bat. Another theory is that the species could be a genetic throwback that is somehow producing seeds.
But Dr Lum said DNA tests in the lab would need to be done to see what the Dairy Farm banana plants are related to. He added: "In either case, you've got a botanical thriller on your hands."
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