The Cavendish banana is the most widely-grown banana cultivar. Plantations devoted to this banana can be found in Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia, and the bulk of bananas on the shelves of Western supermarkets are Cavendish bananas. These fruits are ubiquitous, cheaply available year-round in fresh form.
These bananas originated in Southeast Asia, specifically Vietnam, and they became widely cultivated in the 1950s. The story of the Cavendish is actually a fascinating glimpse into the world of commercial banana cultivation, especially since this is a world that many average consumers know little about.
Bananas first became widely popular in the 1800s, when railway companies started establishing plantations of Gros Michel or “Big Michael” bananas along their tracks. These bananas could be easily transported once they were ripe, generating double profits for the railway by allowing the company to charge for passengers and freight, and to transport a costly exotic food on the same train. The price of bananas started to drop, and bananas quickly became a very familiar tropical fruit.
By the 1920s, however, a problem was starting to develop with the Big Michael cultivar; the bananas were susceptible to Panama Disease, a fungus which attacks and kills banana plants. In the 1950s, it was clear that this cultivar was in trouble, and the Cavendish banana was selected to replace it. However, 50 years later, the Cavendish banana also ran into trouble, raising concerns that this cultivar might also become extinct.
Bananas in general are especially susceptible to disease because the plants are clones of each other. Bananas are reproduced by cultivating their corms, as they do not produce seeds, and as a result, all Cavendish bananas around the world are genetically identical. This means that when a disease evolves to attack the Cavendish cultivar, it can potentially impact every Cavendish plant in the world, wiping the cultivar out in a very short period of time.
Biologists have suggested that the vulnerability of the banana is a strong argument for trying to retain genetic diversity for this tropical plant. By breeding additional cultivars with the use of wild stock and encouraging people to buy a range of bananas, biologists hope to keep bananas in supermarkets in the years to come, even if the Cavendish banana ultimately succumbs to disease.