Life under the fronds

Life under the fronds

As non-fussy as the banana plant is, keeping the pesky banana skippers away is a task for any gardener.

The 'artistic' infestation

Banana is a revered plant in our culture. Every part of the banana plant, be it leaf, flowers, fruits, or stem is beneficial to humans. Medicinally, the tender inner stems — a good source of fibre — controls cholesterol. The juice helps in clearing kidney stones.

The fibres drawn from the protective outer sheath is strong and used as yarn in the textile industry. The soft fibres drawn from the inner stem was earlier used as lamp wicks and also as threads to string flower garlands until cotton replaced them. The fruits and flowers are edible, while the leaves are natural platters. They enhance the flavour of the warm food served on them.

Rolling with skippers

Our banana plant is young and has just started to give out healthy foliage. On a late evening  walk in September, I noticed a skipper under one of the leaves. It looked busy. I took a closer look and found that it was laying eggs. There was a cluster of 14 pesky banana skippers that I had read about sometime back, and decided to keep a watch. Earlier, there have been records of these skippers in the North-Eastern states and in Southeast Asia. Their arrival to South India has been recent, around 2013-14, with reports of skippers taking over plantations in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.

In the next two days, the clutch turned pink. With rainy days in between, I missed checking on them. When I went back, the eggs had hatched. I searched the leaf and found that one side of its edge had been torn into twelve distinct rolls. Inside each one of them was a larva. They were less than a centimetre long, covered with a white powdery substance and had a well-defined blackhead. They were busy spinning yarns to secure their roll. I was now sure that they were the Erionota thrax, the banana skippers.

It was remarkable what the day-old larvae knew. They consumed the shell from which they had hatched, crawled to the edge of the leaf, chewed, and rolled it. It looked like they were executing a well-written program. They kept spinning the yarn to strengthen the roll all the time. Within a day, they took possession of the top portion of the leaf, leaving the midrib intact. This paralyses the plant for it can no longer photosynthesise if enough number of leaves are affected. Considering banana plants have very few leaves (they are large and very few in number) they eventually die. This is unlike plants like lime and curry leaves (they have many more leaves) which can handle this leaf loss when lime caterpillars feed on them.

Additionally, lime and curry leaf plants grow new leaves when season changes. The banana plant does not do this and so these infestations are fatal. So, how does one get rid of the infected leaf? Pests need nutrition for survival. If you deny them that, they die. The best practice is to trim the infected part of the plant and discard it.

Getting rid of them

Banana is a non-fussy plant. If you’ve lived in or visited a village, you might have seen banana plants in the backyard close to the well. Here, the soil is always moist and fertile. Most things tossed out from the kitchen mix with the already existing mulch to provide nutrients. If you lack ground space, some banana varieties can be grown in containers.

A regular feed of compost and NPK should take care of its nutritional supply. Check regularly for eggs and other pests under the leaves. Instead of spraying pesticides, trim the affected portion and drop it into a separate bin. Spray neem and soap solution on the infected leaf and cover it with a newspaper. You can mix this with compost later.

As gardeners, we must record every event in our garden for posterity. The unexpected surge of pests, the surprise visit of birds and butterflies, early flowering, the delayed fruiting, every detail documented helps you and others in the gardening community. Until next time, happy gardening!

Motley Garden is your monthly pot-pourri of observations and lessons from gardening and nature.

The author is a botanical artist from Bengaluru. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram as @neelavanam

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