The tree of the knowledge of good and evil

My Mum reckoned bananas and milk were the perfect food. I’d prefer it if my three-year-old would eat something else occasionally, but the diet doesn’t seem to have disagreed with her. As a botanist of course I’m interested in what we eat from a botanical perspective: unsurprisingly there is still a wonderful terrain of botanical and horticultural interest to be explored in the kitchen, and I have just covered some of this ground, thanks to the recent arrival of a special book about the banana

The book, which just managed to get its publication date into 2007 and arrived on my desk on New Year’s Eve, explores a single banana plant grown in 1736. Why publish in 2007? Because the book is a reissue and translation of an early work of Carl Linnaeus, often called the father of modern botany, and 2007 was the tercentenary of his birth.

The topic may seem pretty obscure – Musa Cliffortiana is a monograph about a banana plant grown in a glasshouse at the Hartenkamp near Leiden in 1736. But it was not just any banana plant, and the book tells us as much about Linnaeus’s approach to his work, and the environment in which he worked, as it does about our relationship with the banana. It is yet another example of an interesting narrative associated with a fruit we take largely for granted (or did until Cyclone Larry introduced the banana surcharge).

The plant, and the glasshouse, belonged to George Clifford, a director in the Dutch East India Company and enormously rich. Linnaeus had arrived in Holland in June 1735 and by September had found work with Clifford, doubling as his personal physician and curator of his botanical collections. With the flowering of George Clifford’s banana plant, Linnaeus found the opportunity to carefully explore the botany of the banana while further cultivating both his relationship with his sponsor and his own reputation. The book seems to work effectively on all of these fronts – wonderfully sycophantic in appreciation of George Clifford’s generous patronage, extraordinarily observant, and also a marvellous expression of self-promotion. The first laudatory poem in Hortus Cliffortianus – yes, there are two! – sets the exuberantly florid yet earnest tone:

‘May Clifford’s banana flourish for countless years, and through his banana, may Clifford’s life be prolonged for all eternity; and may the charisma of such great merit never perish and may the learned Linnaeus never be without the honour due to him; for to him Clifford’s banana owes it life.’

The botanical name of the banana exemplifies Linnaeus’s drollness and wit. Linnaeus derives Musa from Muse, the generic name for the nine goddesses of the arts in ancient Greek mythology. It also punningly honours Antonius Musa, physician to the Emperor Augustus and author of the pharmacopoeia quoted by Galen in his medical writings (inviting an analogy with Linnaeus and his sponsor George Clifford). As well, it reflects the Arab word moaz, widely used by early botanists.

The link to the Muses involves references to debates of Linnaeus’s era about the categories of art and learning, and also brings another analogy. In myth, Apollo was the leader of the muses, as well as a bringer of order to chaos and a dragon-slayer. Apollo’s face in the frontispiece of Hortus Clifforitanus, another of Linnaeus’s dedications to Clifford, is clearly Linnaeus’s own!

Linnaeus’s prurient approach to the sexuality of plants is again to the fore, not least in the notes he made in his own copies of the original book. These notes have been incorporated in Stephen Freer’s translation. Here is the note on observing the fertilisation of Clifford’s banana plant in the glasshouse at Hartenkamp.

‘It was a sad sight! This virgin plant was so fair, so chaste and elegant as to have no other plant in any garden, or in the world, that surpassed it in majesty and splendour: but, as soon as it had ceased to be a virgin and become a mother, as soon as it had indulged for a day or two in sexual union – a thing very agreeable to any male – thereupon you could observe the fading of a sort freshness in appearance, as in a newly-wed virgin, and that it became sadder and more serious.”

Translator Stephen Freer notes that while mythology, etymology, emblematics and similar topics of historical interest were major concerns for medieval and early modern botanists, Linnaeus’s focus is clearly the botany of the banana plant and on botany in its own right – only a few pages refer to its uses or to literary matters.

Linnaeus does allow himself to speculate on whether bananas were the tree of the knowledge of good and evil from the biblical account of the Garden of Eden. Certainly there’s a much stronger argument for the banana than the apple (where there is only an obscure connection between the Latin words for apple and evil) although the Bible gives us little to go by.

Stephen Freer’s keen observations on the translation are a wonderful adjunct to the text. Freer’s notes extend to observing Linnaeus’s misquotations of the classics. The cover notes record his career up to his retirement due to ill health in 1962, at the age of 41 – and then his prolific output since then. And it seems that, at 87, he is about to embark on a translation of the first edition of Linnaeus’s Systema naturae!

This is a book worth getting hold of. I’ve found the translation, the notes and the introductory essays, especially the introduction by Staffan Müller-Wille, more illuminating of Linnaeus’s character and approach to his work than the standard biographies. Details are below.

All this may have inspired you to want to grow a banana. Bananas have been cultivated in the Western Highlands of New Guinea for between 7,000 and 10,000 years, and have been distributed by humans throughout the tropical and sub-tropical world. Adelaide hardly fits the bill for warm, wet and humid – and the States where bananas are grown commercially have restrictions on domestic cultivation. However, in the Adelaide Botanic Garden Musa acuminata
can be found within the Class Ground, growing as an ornamental – and sometimes bearing edible fruit for the possums – along with M. basjoo and M. bicolor ‘Variegata’. You can also see other varieties between the Ficus Walk and the Kiosk
Lawn and in the Bicentennial Conservatory. Plantings of Ensete ventricosum (Ethiopian
banana) can be found along the Main Walk and in other various beds around the garden. If you are not determined to grow an actual banana, the best surrogate for similar foliage in Adelaide is probably the unrelated Strelitzia nicolai, the Giant Bird of Paradise.

Carl Linnaeus: Musa Cliffortiana/Clifford’s Banana Plant. Reprint and translation of the original edition (Leiden 1736). Translated into English by Stephen Freer, with an introduction by Staffan Müller-Wille (2007). A.R.G. Gantner Verlag, Ruggell, Liechtenstein. 264 pages, ill, hardback. ISBN 978-3-906166-63-6. Price €80 plus postage.

Originally published in The Adelaide Review on 18 January 2008.

For more information about the Botanic Gardens of South Australia, visit the website.



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