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The Hill Bananas of southern India

Tuesday, 02 December 2014

Hill Bananas owe their name, and distinct flavour, to the Palani Hills of Tamil Nadu in the southernmost part of the Indian peninsula. Their reputation is such that in late 2008 two Pome cultivars, ‘Virupakshi’ and ‘Sirumalai’, each received a Geographic Indication designation in recognition of the unique characteristics conferred by the interaction between the cultivars and the environment. Over the past decades, however, Hill Bananas have been losing ground to bunchy top, a devastating viral disease. Farmers depending on the crop for their livelihoods have taken steps to manage the disease with the help of scientists and formed the Tamil Nadu Hill Banana Growers’ Federation.


Hill Bananas are usually grown between 600 and 1,500 m. They need between 1,250 and 1,500 mm of rain distributed over the year and take about 18 months to reach harvest. (Photo credit: Anne Vézina)

Hill Bananas are usually grown between 600 and 1,500 m. They need between 1,250 and 1,500 mm of rain distributed over the year and take about 18 months to reach harvest. (Photo credit: Anne Vézina)


The ideal ‘Virupakshi’ bunch has 5 to 7 hands and 12 fingers per hand. When grown as a monoculture, the first crop will yield about 1,000 bunches per hectare and the second one 1,900. (Photo credit: Tamil Nadu Growers’ Federation)

The ideal ‘Virupakshi’ bunch has 5 to 7 hands and 12 fingers per hand. When grown as a monoculture, the first crop will yield about 1,000 bunches per hectare and the second one 1,900. (Photo credit: Tamil Nadu Growers’ Federation)


Hill Bananas are often intercropped with coffee to provide shade to the young coffee trees and regular revenues to farmers while the trees are growing. (Photo credit: Tamil Nadu Growers’ Federation)

Hill Bananas are often intercropped with coffee to provide shade to the young coffee trees and regular revenues to farmers while the trees are growing. (Photo credit: Tamil Nadu Growers’ Federation)


Hill Bananas are also grown in multi-tier systems, along with timber, fruit trees and pepper. The system produces half as many bunches per hectare as a monoculture, but provides better returns overall. (Photo credit: Tamil Nadu Growers’ Federation)

Hill Bananas are also grown in multi-tier systems, along with timber, fruit trees and pepper. The system produces half as many bunches per hectare as a monoculture, but provides better returns overall. (Photo credit: Tamil Nadu Growers’ Federation)


The dried leaf sheaths are regularly removed to help control weevils and aphids. (Photo credit: Shaker Nagarajan)

The dried leaf sheaths are regularly removed to help control weevils and aphids. (Photo credit: Shaker Nagarajan)


A mat of Hill Bananas has an average lifespan of six years, after which it is uprooted and replaced with a new plant. (Photo credit: R.Pavalarajan)

A mat of Hill Bananas has an average lifespan of six years, after which it is uprooted and replaced with a new plant. (Photo credit: R.Pavalarajan)


In the mid-1970s, bunchy top started to spread through the Palani hills, reducing the area on which Hill Bananas are grown from 15,000 ha to the current 5,000 ha. (Photo credit: R.Pavalarajan)

In the mid-1970s, bunchy top started to spread through the Palani hills, reducing the area on which Hill Bananas are grown from 15,000 ha to the current 5,000 ha. (Photo credit: R.Pavalarajan)


Scientists have been showing farmers how to manage bunchy top by removing infected mats and replanting with disease free tissue-culture plantlets provided by the National Research Centre for Banana, Tamil Nadu Agricultural University and private labs. (Photo credit: S. Elayabalan)

Scientists have been showing farmers how to manage bunchy top by removing infected mats and replanting with disease free tissue-culture plantlets provided by the National Research Centre for Banana, Tamil Nadu Agricultural University and private labs. (Photo credit: S. Elayabalan)


In 2006, the Tamil Nadu Hill Banana Grower's Federation was created.  It has since succeeded in getting Geographical Indication designations for Hill Bananas. (Photo credit: Anne Vézina)

In 2006, the Tamil Nadu Hill Banana Grower's Federation was created. It has since succeeded in getting Geographical Indication designations for Hill Bananas. (Photo credit: Anne Vézina)