Musella lasiocarpa

Musella lasiocarpa (A. R. Franchet) C. Y. Wu ex H.-W. Li, Acta Phytotax. Sinica 16 (3): 56-57 (1978).

Accepted name Musella lasiocarpa (A. R. Franchet) C. Y. Wu ex H.-W. Li, Acta Phytotax. Sinica 16 (3): 56-57 (1978). or
Musella lasiocarpa (A. R. Franchet) C. Y. Wu, Acta Phytotax. Sinica 16 (3): 56-57 (1978). or
Musella lasiocarpa
(A. R. Franchet) H.-W. Li, Acta Phytotax. Sinica 16 (3): 56-57 (1978).
Synonyms 1. Musa lasiocarpa A. R. Franchet, in Morot, Journ. de Bot. 3: 329 (1889) and J. G. Baker, Ann. Bot. 7: 208 (1893).
2. Ensete lasiocarpum (A. R. Franchet) E. E. Cheesman, Kew Bulletin 2 (2): 102 (1947).
3. Musella splendida Valmayor, R. V. and Danh, L. D. The Philippine Agricultural Scientist 85 (2): 204 - 209 (2002).
Authorities The forms of the accepted name are all derived from H.-W. Li 1978 and can be found in Lancaster 1989, GRIN, and the ING database respectively.

The synonyms are from:

1. is from Baker 1893 and from Simmonds 1960 who takes this as the accepted name.
2. is from Cheesman 1947a and from Icon. Corm. Sinicorum which takes it as the accepted name.
3. my opinion.

Distribution China (Yunnan & Guizhou) up to 2,500 m, Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar (Burma).
Description Whole plant only 30 cm. - 60 cm. tall in the "wild" (perhaps now only in cultivation even in Yunnan) but at least double that in European cultivation even exceeding 2 m. when well fertilised and grown under heated glass. Plant suckering more or less freely often producing multiple suckers at a time all opposed to the same leaf. Pseudostem green with reddish tinges, broad at the base tapering to a narrow top giving a distinctly conical appearance. In the "wild" stems sending out at the base a stout horizontal rhizome but this not yet seen in cultivation in the west and rather suggestive of a prolonged vegetative phase under impoverished conditions. Leaves oblong-lanceolate, tip apiculate, about 30 cm. long in the wild but at least double that in cultivation, held rather stiffly upright giving a "shuttlecock" effect under good light but held rather lax in shady conditions, glaucous greyish-green with very narrow reddish-brown margins continued down petiole margin and onto the pseudostem, narrowed at the base to a petiole one-third the lamina length, more under low light, the broad, fleshy, truncate bases of the old leaves persisting round the base of the stem, lamina withering rather rapidly at onset of flowering. Inflorescence long lived, relatively massive, pushing leaves out at right-angles as it emerges, dense, erect, oblong, somewhat resembling a lotus flower in bud or a globe artichoke, under 30 cm. long in the "wild" but more in cultivation ; bracts thin, butter-yellow sometimes with a reddish tinge, persistent, the upper ovate, the lower ovate-lanceolate. Flowers yellowish, 4 - 8 in a cluster, above 2.5 cm. long. Calyx 5-lobed. Petal shorter, ovate-oblong. Fruit yellowish, oblong-trigonous, dry, pubescent, with 4 - 6 rounded, black-brown seeds in each cell, which fill up the whole cavity.

(Based on Baker 1893 and observations by drc).

References Baker 1893: 208-209, Cheesman 1947a: 102, Fawcett 1913: 265-266, Franchet 1889, GRIN, Icon. Corm. Sinicorum, ING database, Isobe & Hashimoto 1994, Lancaster 1989, Le Dinh Danh et al 1998 : 12, Li 1978: 56-57, Mabberley 2008, Mobot FoC, Mobot Tropicos, Simmonds 1960: 203-204, 207, 210, Simmonds and Weatherup 1990.

Reading some material on this plant one might reasonably suppose it to have been a recent discovery by American botanists. This is not correct. Known to the Yunnanese since antiquity the plant first came to the attention of western botanists following its collection in 1885 at 1,200 m. in Yunnan by the Abbé Delavay (Kew Bull., Add. Ser. 6: 15, 1906).

This taxon has caused and continues to cause problems for taxonomists and its status is still somewhat controversial.

The plant was first formally named by A. R. Franchet in 1889 who placed it in the genus Musa but in a new section he named Musella. Baker (1893) also considered the plant to be a Musa but placed it in the section Eumusa, as Cheesman (1947) writes, "presumably because it is described as having a rhizome, for it has scarcely any other character of Eumusa". Cheesman examined Delavay's herbarium material at Kew (the type is in Herb. Mus. Paris) and on the evidence before him commented that "whatever it may be, it is certainly not a Musa sensu strictiore" and was not therefore prepared to separate the plant from Ensete. While noting that further study might find that the plant represented a new genus Cheesman thus created the combination Ensete lasiocarpum while reviving the genus Ensete in his 1947 paper. The Iconographia Cormophytorum Sinicorum thus gives Ensete lasiocarpum (A. R. Franchet) E. E. Cheesman as the accepted name of the plant.

Simmonds (1960) disagreed with Cheesman although he acknowledged that the general appearance of the plant did indeed suggest an Ensete. Simmonds noted however that the "perianth structure is like that of Musa" and that the "perianth characters are critically diagnostic of genus". Although it is clear that he had not actually seen a living plant Simmonds thus preferred to regard it as a Musa. Those authors who continue to treat the plant as a Musa e.g. the RHS in the 2008 - 2009 RHS Plant Finder are using Simmonds 1960 as their authority.

Other taxonomists consider the the plant to be an anomaly in both Musa and Ensete and in 1978 C. Y. Wu (in H.-W. Li 1978) raised Musella to the status of a separate genus. John Kress at the Smithsonian Institution has (as yet unpublished) molecular as well as morphological data to support Musella's status as a distinct, monotypic genus. We await the publication of this definitive work.

The chromosome number of Musella was reported in 1994 by Isobe and Hashimoto to be 2n = 18; this is the same as Ensete but it is also shared by some Musa such as M. beccarii. The work of Simmonds and Weatherup suggests, somewhat counter-intuitively, that chromosome number is not a good basis on which to sort the Musaceae taxonomically.

Musella lasiocarpa was recorded first in Yunnan where the local names for the plant translate as 'yellow lotus emerging from the earth' or 'yellow lotus of the earth mother' or, more simply, 'rock banana'. The plant is also listed in the Flora of Guizhou as being from s-e and s-w Guizhou. The plant is cultivated in Fujian and the Mobot Flora of China website mentions its occurrence in Vietnam and Laos. The occurrence of the plant in Vietnam is confirmed by Le Dinh Danh et al 1998 (who rather oddly did not immediately recognise the plant for what it was) and by Ho Huu Nhi (personal communication). According to David Bar-Zvi it occurs also in Myanmar (Burma) and this is confirmed at

Botanists with a working knowledge of Yunnan and Musella think that it may be extinct in the wild and maintained only in cultivation by farmers. This suggests the plant has some real economic or symbolic value rather than being purely ornamental.

The plant is said to be cultivated as pig fodder but Roy Lancaster mentions human consumption in 'Travels in China' (Lancaster 1989). Lancaster comments that "in October the leafy stems [of Musella] are sliced into sections and, after boiling to remove a poisonous principle, are cooked and eaten". In context, it seems clear that the "leafy stems" referred to by Lancaster are suckers which develop particularly after flower initiation in autumn. The plant is also grown as an ornamental in Yunnan e.g. as potted plants in hotel courtyards. There is also a medicinal use; I have been told by a Chinese contact that the "flower and the juice of the stem can be used as medicine to stop bleeding etc.".

Musella is becoming more widely available and as this happens more will be learned about its horticulture. Raising plants from commercial seed is notoriously difficult either because of poor viability or complex dormancy requirements or perhaps both. However, the plant produces spontaneous suckers more or less freely and this phenomenon can be manipulated for propagation by damaging the vegetative growing point as is done with Ensete. Tissue culture can also be used to micropropagate the plant. Musella seems to be as adaptable to the climate of Florida as it is to the U.K.  It is easy to grow, although spider mites are problematic, and responds well to high-N fertiliser although it is not so quick growing as, say, Ensete ventricosum.

In Yunnan the plant survives regular frosts but its cold hardiness in cultivation is not properly known. It certainly survives in the UK in zone 9 but it is reportedly hardy to USDA zone 5 or 6 with winter protection.

Type: Delavay no. 2539 (July 1885, Yun-Nan Province, alt. 1,200 m.) Herb. Mus. Hist. Nat. Paris (duplicate at RBGK?); Chinese name "ngay pa tsaio" ' rock banana'. See also Delavay without number; Juin 1887 and in "collection en bocal" nos. 3400 & 3401 and also Delavay without number ; December 1889, Herb. Mus. Hist. Nat. Paris.

Type information from Gerda Rossel.

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last updated 08/10/2008