There are more than a thousand banana species in the world, but you've probably only ever tasted one. The Cavendish banana is the one we know and love. It's the one the international banana economy is based on--the only species that's exported from one country to another, anywhere in the world. But its extinction is coming.
That's because we've bred the Cavendish to be seedless. No hard black seeds in our delicious banana flesh means banana trees only reproduce asexually, with human intervention. So all Cavendish palms are genetically nearly identical, making them highly susceptible to disease. The Panama Disease Race Four fungus attacks the roots, leaves, and vascular system of banana trees. As it mutates it becomes a more and more efficient killer. The Cavendish banana, meanwhile, is a genetic sitting duck. Sometime in the next decade (scientists have no way to predict the exact timing), experts say, the fungus will become perfectly evolved to attack the Cavendish, and will quickly spread to wipe out the banana stock worldwide. All this happened once before--the banana the whole world once knew was a different and by all accounts bigger and tastier species. Over the course of several decades, a previous strain of the fungus attacked and wiped it out, and with it the worldwide banana industry, before the Cavendish came along in the 1960s to resurrect it.
This is one of several stories told over the course of Fruit Hunters, a documentary by Canadian filmmaker Yung Chang that screened this past weekend at Miami's Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden and is available now for streaming and download. The film focuses on Noris Ledesma and Richard Campbell, two researchers who travel the world collecting exotic fruit species for preservation and cultivation, and on actor Bill Pullman's quest to turn an empty piece of land in the Hollywood Hills into a fruit orchard. Pullman, it turns out, is also an exotic fruit aficionado, and has more than a hundred species of fruiting plants on his property in Hollywood.
The film pits the relative monoculture of the supermarket--the few species we encounter regularly that are bred more for ease of shipping, storage, and consistency than for flavor--against the wild diversity and intensity of fruits in nature.
We follow Ledesma and Campbell on a trip to Indonesia in search of the elusive Wani Mango. They attend a resplendent Balinese fruit harvest ceremony, then scour fruit markets for the Wani. After a long negotiation, they're able to convince the locals to take them into the rainforest, where they find the elusive tree. They must take a cutting from the top of the canopy, which will have the best chance of thriving when grafted onto a branch back at Fairchild Tropical Garden, where they are curators of rare fruit.