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Today, the simple and innocent Banana (genus Musa) we all know and love, is under attack. So is the much-admired and popular garden annual, the flowering Impatiens (genus (Impatiens). And this threat isn’t coming from land development; or fire; or drought; or even uncontrollable hordes of hungry monkeys; but from one of the smallest organisms that can be seen with the human eye: Fungus.

Fungus is a kingdom unto itself. Literally. Because scientists, in their drive to understand and classify everything they encounter, have described five Kingdoms in which all life can be placed (although some scientists believe there should be six Kingdoms. And others think of the five, some types of life should be moved and combined into existing Kingdoms. And still other scientists don’t worry about it because they devote all their life to studying one distinct population of one single species. Everyone to their own, we say). In any case, today it’s generally universally accepted that Fungus is different than any other plant or animal; because it lives like both a plant, and an animal: Fungus grows and behaves much like a plant, creating growing roots, stems and ‘branches’; but it must feed off of other creatures and can’t create it’s own energy from the sun like a true plant (And if you’re thinking the insect-eating Venus fly-trap also needs to eat to survive – that’s just a sideline. The fly-trap can create energy from the sun, it just prefers to eat insects. Someone has to).

Recently a new type of fungus has been discovered called impatiens downy mildew, which causes the decorative Impatiens to yellow; grow slowly; develop white, powdery spots on the leaves; and eventually die. Fast-spreading through swimming zoospores and oospores (which certainly sounds disturbing, but would be much more creepy if all this wasn’t happening at a microscopic level), the disease can devastate entire fields – or landscapes or gardens – within a few weeks. The fungus is only attacking domestic varieties of Impatiens, the type usually grown for decoration or flower arrangements, and hasn’t yet affected wild Impatiens. So for now, this battle is on-going, but not yet lost.

Sadly, no matter how far, or fast he rides, Cavendish banana can't escape

Sadly, no matter how far, or fast he rides, Cavendish banana can’t escape

However, the news isn’t so positive on the banana front. The incurable ‘Panama disease‘ (which is also, we think, what affected US President Theodore Roosevelt in the 1900’s. You’ve got to look that one up yourself) is being spread by the ‘Tropical Race 4‘ variety of the fungus (and also a new format for a prime-time reality show): A strain of fungus which affects the popular ‘Cavendish’ banana, the most well known and eaten type of banana in America. This fungus, only one variety among thousands of both helpful and harmful fungi in the world, has advanced into much of the worlds banana-producing nations and evidence shows that’s it not ‘if’, but ‘when’, the fungus will affect every banana plantation across the globe and the big yellow Cavendish we eat for breakfast (or a healthy snack!) might be no more. Don’t panic – YET! – because there are other types of bananas and there’s no need to say goodbye to banana bread and banana muffins and banana pudding (although we suspect there’s more banana flavoring in those products than actual banana). The Cavendish is only about 13% of all banana production and while loved in many Western countries, it’s not necessarily the first choice in other parts of the world. In fact, in the 1950’s a different type of fungus destroyed the then-popular ‘Gros Michel’ banana, which was the banana of choice at that time. When that banana variety went away, producers and consumers moved to the Cavendish. What could possibly go wrong?

One thing that could go wrong, is the recent ‘banana emergency’ declared by the country of Costa Rica due to an outbreak of insects which attack bananas, leaving unsightly marks yet not eating the entire fruit, but making it unusable for sale. It’s almost like they just take a bite out so no one else can have it, and that’s pretty mean. We have no word on what emergency measures were taken, but we hope these insects had to report to the principals office and say they’re sorry.

In addition, another form of Powdery mildew has been found that can manipulate barley – a type of grain – so that the barley plant is tricked into allowing the fungus into the plants cells and supplies the fungus with nutrients, depriving the barley of what it needs. Which, for fungus, is pretty impressive considering the organism doesn’t have a brain. Or a nervous system.

And we must remember, it’s the fungus Ophiostoma ulmi which over the past century devastated millions of acres of elm trees throughout the world, almost totally destroying what was once among the most common trees of North America.

Fungus is everywhere. Yes, even on you. There’s probably more fungus on our feet than in our refrigerator (Ewww). As humans need more and more food, and space, and resources; and farmers, producers and scientists work to develop more and more of many things with a finite amount of everything, we can suspect that new fungus and disease and unknown-results will appear with more frequency. But with good choices and responsible actions, the effects of fungus will never be more than an inconvenience, and not an extinction.




Michone Says: I don’t know what a bandana is, but if this fun-gus is bothering flowers that’s scary. And not fun at all so he shouldn’t use that name.  If I eat the flowers with the fun-gus will I get fun-gus too? I better take a dirtbath just to be safe. But yesterday I saw some flowers that no one had found yet, so first I’ll have a snack.

Posted February 23, 2014 by ECOVIA eco-adventure® in SciSun

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