A team of researchers from the Department of Botany, Calicut University, has reported the discovery of a new species of wild banana with the potential to be developed as an ornamental plant.

Named Musa arunachalensis after its habitat, the plant was discovered at an elevated site in West Kameng district in Arunachal Pradesh. The team led by M. Sabu, professor and Head of the department of Botany, came upon the specimens during a scientific expedition to the north-eastern State.

Subsequent studies carried out by the research team revealed that it was a hitherto undiscovered species. The finding has been published in Phytotaxa, an international journal on botanical taxonomy.

According to the paper, M. arunchalensis grows in the undergrowth and in forest margins. It flowers and fruits in the period from January to May and differs from other species of the same genus (Musa) in the nature of its inflorescence.

It first emerges erect, then curves sideways and finally becomes arched at the advanced flowering stalk. Another unique feature is the colour of the bract (small leaf at the base of a flower) that is reddish orange with a yellow tip. Dry old leaf sheaths cover the pseudostems, giving them a dry appearance.

Dr. Sabu said M. arunachalensis could be utilised to improve existing ornamental and edible varieties through breeding and other techniques.

Habitat loss

The paper has highlighted the threats faced by the rare species due to habitat loss. The team fears that forest clearing for Jhum farming or traditional shifting cultivation and widening of roads would cause irreparable damage to the existing population. Sounding a note of caution, it says continued deforestation would lead to extinction of the species.

Dr. Sabu points out that ex situ (off site) conservation of the species is difficult because of the low number of suckers and few seeds produced. “Therefore, urgent steps are needed for in situ (on site) conservation.”

India is known for its genetic diversity of bananas ranging from seeded wild species to seedless cultivars. Wild Musa species are largely distributed in the north-eastern States, the Western and Eastern Ghats, and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

However, many regions in north-eastern India have not been explored for the rich diversity of the species, mainly because of inaccessible terrain, dense forests, and civil unrest.

Recently, many new Musa species have been reported from South China, Myanmar, and Vietnam whereas very few species have been discovered in India since 1892.

In April this year, the same research team comprising P.E. Sreejith and Alfred Joe, apart from Dr. Sabu, had reported a new subspecies of wild banana (Musa velutina subsp. markkuana) from Arunachal Pradesh.

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