‘The Banana Man’ had become a somewhat intriguing and mysterious figure in my mind, ever since I first heard about him all the way back in November, from Sebastian, the South African ‘force for nature’ who you may remember from my story on his quirky and yet ingenious ‘Pig Poop Plant Plan’ (still available online if you are curious). Sebastian just mentioned him in passing, but having read about the adventures of The Banana Man (the superhero) in comics like Dandy and Beano when I was a kid, for the last few months it had been playing in the back of my mind about just who this fruity yellow-fellow might be
Sebastian and I had agreed that one day we would go together to try and track him down. Of course, The Banana Man remained appropriately elusive, but eventually, Sebastian told me he had gotten word! And we met up in the town of Moncarapacho one morning to see if we could finally find him. And boy, what an adventure that was...
The first stage was getting him on the phone to find out where exactly he was. This led to a little confusion as neither Sebastian nor I had spent a lot of time in Moncarapacho (however, we now know it rather well) and it took us a few spins around the quaint old streets until we eventually found the right road out of town, and then, the right dirt road out into the sticks. At this point, we were starting to feel like we might never find him. I mean, what does The Banana Man even look like? I needn’t have worried. When he came out of a bush in the road in front of us there was no doubt that it was him.
Leonardo is Italian (although his accent did make me think for a minute that he might be German) and couldn’t help reminding me of a Roald Dahl character. There’s really something quite magical about him. Leonardo has a lot of problems with his balance and so needs both a wheelbarrow and walking stick to make his way around - which he does remarkably well through his banana thicket (more on that in a bit). Despite all this, his enthusiasm and joy about both bananas and life, in general, is infectious and inspiring.
We followed him as he wheeled his wheelbarrow through a pathway in between some trees and when we came out the other side it felt like we had somehow teleported to a tropical country. You see, bananas originated in Southeast Asia, but today they are grown in South and Central America, India, China and Africa. There are over 1,000 different varieties in the world, but the one we know and love is called the ‘Cavendish’. Unfortunately, this variety is under threat from diseases that are becoming increasingly resistant to all our fungicides. So, it’s a good idea to think about cultivating a different species, as well as seeing where else we can get them to grow - and this is exactly what Leonardo has been doing.
I’m afraid Leonardo couldn’t tell us what species exactly he has growing here, only that it is from Costa Rica. But don’t worry, when I asked him if they were “nice and tasty to eat?” his eyes lit up and he said, “Oh, yes!” He was originally given five of these trees when he was living in Peru, and from just these few he has now created this plantation of what he estimates to be over 2,000 trees.
As Leonardo pushed his wheelbarrow through his jungle, I quickly learned a lot of things about bananas that I never knew. I mean, for one thing, I should probably stop calling them trees (but I won’t). Bananas are actually more like a giant herb (distantly related to ginger). “They are like prehistoric grass”, Sebastian and Leonardo joked. You see, they don’t grow from seeds but from root-clumps called a ‘rhizome’. They continually expand outwards with new trees sprouting from these roots. Another thing I found interesting is that the fruit doesn’t need bees to pollinate them, and although bees do buzz around the flowers, Leonardo laughed and told me bananas will just grow regardless. They take around two years to grow and only fruit once and then die, at which point, you should really remove that stem to make way for the youngsters that will be ready to come through.
The only trouble, Leonardo told us, is that with every new tree the rhizomes grow closer and closer to the surface which makes it more likely that a tree will topple over if its bunches of bananas get too big and heavy. But we don’t call him The Banana Man for nothing, he thought ahead and planted them deep in big beds, which not only means that he has left room to pile new earth on top, but also that he can fill them with water. Banana trees like water a lot and can sit ‘in the bath’ indefinitely without any trouble at all.
Although Leonardo’s banana species is a lot more resistant to frost than the Cavendish, he said it was a cold winter last year and so they didn’t do too well. However, on a good year, he said he can harvest an impressive one tonne of bananas. Unfortunately, it turned out we had come at the wrong time of year to try them. I must remember to go back and get some in October/November when the harvest begins. If you too would like to go on your own adventure to try and find Leonardo, to either get some bananas or one of his trees to start your own jungle, then, well... I’m afraid this time I can’t offer you a website or Instagram page to go to. Leonardo is a lot more ‘old school’ than that. His phone number is 918 132 066.