A legendary, spectacular plant has flowered for the first time at Kew

A remarkable enset tree, also known as a ‘false banana’, has flowered at Kew Gardens for the first time. The Ethiopian ‘wonder crop’ has been called the ‘tree against hunger’ because it is resistant to droughts and diseases. The plant is a staple for around a fifth of the population of Ethiopia. 

The tree will only flower once before it withers and dies, with the flowering period only lasting a few weeks or months. Clusters of white flowers will emerge alongside purple protective leaves. 

People in Ethiopia make food out of the base of the tree’s leaves and its underground stem. The tree produces the enset fruit, which looks a lot like a small banana. However, it’s virtually inedible because of the large black seeds inside. 

The flower in an Ethiopian enset tree
Photograph: Sebastian Kettley / RBG Kew

Dr James Borrell, research leader in Trait Diversity and Function at Kew, said: ‘Not many people have heard of enset out of Ethiopia and that’s a shame because this truly remarkable plant is a vital source of nutrition for millions of subsistence farmers across the region.  

‘Enset has a unique set of characteristics that set it apart from other familiar crops; most importantly it’s a perennial and be planted and harvested at any time. As a result, farmers can treat enset as a “green asset” to buffer against food shortages when other crops fail or are otherwise unavailable, much like a bank account for food.

‘It’s no surprise then that Ethiopians frequently refer to enset as the “tree against hunger”.’

Enset plants are an African relative of the banana plant and reach up to 30ft high. The edible part – a false stem or ‘pseudostem’ – is typically scraped into a pulp then fermented underground for up to a year to transform it into a basis of a bread-like food called ‘kocho’.

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