Ensete ventricosum (Welw.) E.E. Cheesman

Family: Musaceae (Banana family)
Common names :
Wild banana (Eng.) , Wildepiesang (Afrik.)

Ensete ventricosum with Strelitzia in foreground

This relative of the edible banana is a valuable landscaping plant. Its form, texture and large leaves with conspicuous red midribs, create a lush, tropical effect.

Ensete ventricosum is a large, fleshy-stemmed plant with a head of banana-like leaves. The plant grows between 6 and 12 m high. It is a monocotyledon and does not have a true, branched trunk, but an unbranched pseudostem formed by the imbricated (overlapping) bases of petioles (leaf stalks), left behind when old leaves die. The pseudostem broadens towards the base and this gives rise to the species name ventricosum, which means 'with a swelling'. The plant seldom forms suckers from the base. The simple, large leaves with a thick, rose-pink midrib and numerous pinnately parallel nerves extending to the margin, are spirally arranged.

This plant only flowers and bears fruit once and then it dies. The flowers form large, showy bunches or spikes 2 to 3 m in length. The male flowers usually occur at the top and the female or bisexual flowers lower down. The cream-coloured flowers have only one petal, but are surrounded by large, showy, maroon bracts. Flowering usually takes place in early summer (October and November). Insipid, banana-like fruits form after flowering. They have a yellow skin with black spots and contain a row of pea-sized, hard, black seeds. Under normal conditions plants flower when they are about eight years old.

Flower   1 Flower 2 Flower 3
Flowering stages of Ensete ventricosum

The plant is found in the frost-free areas of Mpumalanga in South Africa and it also occurs further north in Africa. It occurs in patches of high rainfall forests, in forested ravines and along streams.

Aside from its horticultural value, this plant has many traditional uses. The plant is of the same family as the edible banana, but its fruit is not edible (or is only eaten in times of scarcity), but young inflorescences are palatable and are eaten when cooked. The pea-sized seeds are said to be the famine food in some other countries like Ethiopia. The pulp in the pseudostems and rootstock is also eaten. The seeds are also used as beads, and to make rosaries or rattles in East Africa. The leaves can be used for thatching and the stalk to make fibres for cordage and sacking.

The species name is derived from the Ethiopian name for banana and there are 7 species in the genus, most of which occur in the Old World tropics.

Growing Ensete ventricosum

Ensete ventricosum cannot tolerate heavy frost and in these areas it should be planted under big trees in order to protect it or brought inside for the winter if grown in a pot.

The species can be propagated easily by seed. It requires warmth, lots of water and fertile soil to grow to its full potential.


  • COATES PALGRAVE, K. 1977. Trees of southern Africa, edn 2. Struik, Cape Town.
  • LEISTNER, O.A. (ed.) 2000. Seed plants of southern Africa: families and genera. Strelitzia 10.
  • FOX, F.W. & YOUNG, N.M.E. 1982. Food from the veld. Edible wild plants of southern Africa. Delta Books, Johannesburg.
  • JACKSON, W.P.U. 1987. Origins and meanings of names of South African plant genera. U.C.T. Ecolab, Rondebosch.
  • PALMER, E. and PITMAN, N.1972. Trees of Southern Africa. A.A.Balkema, Cape Town.
  • MABBERLEY, D.J. 1997. The Plant Book.Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.


Siyabulela Nonjinge
Natal National Botanical Garden
With additions by Yvonne Reynolds
October 2002

To find out if SANBI has seed of this or other SA species, please email our seedroom.

This page forms part of the South African National Biodiversity Institute's plant information website www.plantzafrica.com.