From Plant Press, Vol. 20, No. 4, October 2017.
By Shruti Dube
In the Botany Research Greenhouses in Suitland, Maryland, as we enter the fall months many plants are heading towards dormancy but an Ensete superbum (family Musaceae) is still flowering and has been in bloom for more than two months. The plant that is in flower is the progeny of individuals collected and brought to the greenhouses by W. John Kress and Mike Bordelon. This species had been collected twice. The first time was in July 1999 in Peik Chin Myang Caves near Pyin-Oo-Lwin, Myanmar, growing in shallow soils on steep limestone cliffs in understory. The other was collected in April 1999 at Ban Tham Arawan between Loei and Udon Thani in Phu Rua District of Nong Bua Lamphu Province, Thailand. The Thai plant was growing on the ledges of limestone cliffs. Both plants flowered and then died in 2006 and 2008, respectively. The plant currently in flower was grown from seeds of the Thai plant.
Ensete superbum is a monocarpic herbaceous species of banana native to India in the Western Ghats, but can also be found growing at the rim of forests in Myanmar and Thailand. Plants may grow up to 4 m in height with a massive base, and a pseudo-stem made up of overlapping leaf sheaths. The leaves are oblong, narrowed to the base with short deeply grooved petiole and bright green in color. The inflorescence is first spherical, later a curved terminal spike on a robust peduncle. The bracts are orbicular, dark brown-red, 1 m long and broad, dense rows each with 10 to 15 flowers. The outer perianth is whitish, the inner perianth is shorter than the outer. The fruits are oblong berries about 7.5 – 8.0 cm long and triangular with subglobose, smooth brown or black seeds. The propagation is only by seed as it does not produce suckers and it is non-stoloniferous. It dies back in winter and resumes the next spring from the corm.
In India seeds are widely used to treat diabetes, leucorrhoea, and kidney stones. Collection of seeds and seedlings, indiscriminate harvesting of plants for medicinal purposes, and destruction of immature fruits by monkeys and elephants have driven this species to the verge of extinction. Several measures have been taken to conserve this species, including ex situ cultivation in the Botany Research Greenhouses.
The massive base of the plant and red flower head with broad leaves are morphological features that add to its appeal and makes it a good garden plant.