Next time you buy some bananas…
Next time you buy some bananas, look for the cardboard box they were packed in. You will almost certainly be buying the Cavendish variety of bananas, probably descended from a single plant grown at Chatsworth 170 years ago.
The Chinese or Cavendish dwarf banana is the basis of nearly all the sub-tropical banana trades. Bananas started life perhaps 10,000 years ago somewhere in south-east Asia – the word “banan” is Arabic for “finger”. It may have been the world’s first domesticated plant and its British debut was in 1633 in the shop of a herbalist in the City of London.
Only the wealthy could afford to cultivate this rare treat. Just before Christmas in 1834, William Spencer Cavendish, the 6th Duke of Devonshire, wrote to the Chaplain at Alton Towers: “My Dear Sir, A thousand thanks for the Banana, it arrived quite safe and I am delighted to have an opportunity of seeing that most beautiful and curious Fruit. It is the admiration of everybody and has been feasted upon at dinner today according to the directions.”
By the following year the Duke’s gardener, Joseph Paxton was successfully growing bananas at Chatsworth. Tradition has it that Paxton had been fascinated by a banana plant depicted on Chinese wallpaper at Chatsworth. He correctly concluded that the banana must be native to China and became intent on obtaining a specimen. For many years this story seemed to be just a myth as nobody could find the illustration. But when the room was rearranged in the 1920s/30s, the banana, hidden for years behind a large four-poster bed, came to light.