Establishing a healthy orchard starts with choosing the correct plant material. In South Africa’s only laboratory of its type, banana plants are cultivated from tissue culture to produce high yielding clones.
In a laboratory in Letsitele, Limpopo, a team of technicians is quietly at work creating what will grow to become South Africa’s entire banana crop. The process seems more related to medical science than agriculture: the employees, wearing face masks and gloves and wielding scalpels, work in an ultra-sterile environment, slicing and duplicating banana tissue culture as the first step to producing a high-yielding, disease-free banana plantation.
The plants are produced in Du Roi Laboratory through rapid multiplication of tissue culture, which offers farmers the benefit of converting or expanding plantations quickly and efficiently with superior selections of plants that are true to type.
“The benefit of tissue- cultured plants is that they are uniform, so they grow at the same pace and are ready to harvest at the same time. It makes management of the plantation that much easier,” says Suné Wiltshire, the laboratory’s general manager.
The starting point is a 4ha mother block, established for many years, that includes the varieties proven to possess the best characteristics. This is crucial, says Wiltshire, as the tissue culture process is a clone of the mother plant.
Suckers are taken from the mother blocks to the laboratory, where they are dissected into smaller pieces and placed in small tubs in growth hormones to encourage them to multiply faster. The tubs are then placed in growing rooms where temperature, light and humidity are controlled to produce an ideal growing climate.
After four weeks, the tubs are returned to the laboratory, where the plants are dissected further. The staff, working with scalpels and tweezers, never touch the plants with their hands.
Several steps later, after six to eight weeks in the nursery, the plants reach 20cm and they are then ready to be planted in the land.