Plant of the week: Ensete ventricosum

In my last blog, I discussed the sheer magnitude and variety of plants which I felt that I could not properly convey in a single posting. Therefore, I will be starting a Plant of the Week feature of this blog, where I aim to showcase and celebrate an individual species. This week, I have chosen the “Tree Against Hunger” Ensete ventricosum.

Ensete ventricosum

Also known as the Ethiopian banana or simply enset, Ensete ventricosum is a flowering plant or angiosperm. The genus Ensete is scientifically classified in the family Musaceae which includes plants such as banana (Musa acuminata) and plantain (Musa paradisiaca). As such, it is beginning to be studied with potential application to banana cultivation. However, it is a crop species in its own right being widely cultivated  in Ethiopia. Although poorly studied, it is a staple crop of approximately 15 million people [1].EnsetGeography

Native to much of Middle and Eastern Africa, enset inhabits altitudes between 1,100 to 3,100m above sea level. Wild enset is typically found in open moist mountain forests as well as along the side of river banks and swamps. Naturally, enset propagates by seed but has been cultivated in much of south and south western Ethiopia. When domesticated, it can be grown at similar altitudes as wild enset, ideally with rainfall of 1,100 to 1,500mm and temperatures of 10 – 22 oC [1].

Uses

Enset looks similar to a thick single stemmed banana plant perhaps explaining why it was previously classified in the banana genus Musa. As demonstrated by Figure 1, enset has an underground corm, leaf sheaths that form a pseudostem and large leaves. Plants can grow up to 12m tall with leaves as large as 5m.

Enset
Figure 1. The enset plant

As previously mentioned, it is a multi-purpose crop, with most of the plant being used for human consumption or animal forage. The leaf sheath and pseudostem are processed by chopping and grating to produce a pulp often used as a flour substitute. The underground stem of the plant (rhizome) is boiled and eaten like a potato. The large leaves are used to make thatch and mats. The only part of the plant that is not used is the root [2].

Why is it my plant of the week?

I first learnt of enset at Kew Gardens Science festival (August 2017) where it was used to make bread, porridge and soups. As previously mentioned, it is labelled as the ‘Tree Against Hunger’ and is increasingly being recognized as a crop to achieve agricultural sustainability. In the 1980s, a famine hit the Horn of Africa and enset was a major contributor in providing sustenance where other crops had failed. Enset has incredible drought tolerant properties, high yield, can be stored for long periods and harvested at any time of the year [3,4].

Finally, enset has recently had its genome sequenced [4]. I plan to talk further about genomes and the information that can be retrieved from them. In short a genome is the complete set of genetic material within an organism and contains all of the information needed to build and maintain that organism. Analysis of the enset genome will hopefully reveal the genetic information that enables its remarkable adaptations to drought.

If you want to learn more:

  1. Brandt, S. A. 1997. The “tree Against Hunger”: Enset-based Agricultural System in Ethiopia. American Association for the Advancement of Science.
  2. Plants of the World Online. 2018. Ensete ventricosum. Retrieved from http://powo.science.kew.org/taxon/urn:lsid:ipni.org:names:584810-1
  3. Pijls, L. T. J., Timmer, A. A. M., Wolde-Gebriel, Z. & West, C. E. 1995. Cultivation, preparation and consumption of ensete (ensete ventricosum) in Ethiopia. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture.  67(1), 1–11.
  4. Harrison, J., Moore, K. A., Paszkiewicz, K., Jones, T., Grant, M. R., Ambacheew, D., Muzemil, S. & Studholme, D. J. 2014. A Draft Genome Sequence for Ensete ventricosum, the Drought-Tolerant “Tree Against Hunger”. Agronomy. 4(1), 13-33.

 

 

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