The Only Plants That Ever Lived in a Tropical Climate

The Search Is on for Mysterious Banana Ancestors

The search for a family that first planted and fed tropical bananas around the world is becoming ever more active.

The latest find is the discovery of a tiny, yet very different family of tropical banana plants, the only plants known to have ever lived in a tropical climate.

There are a handful of scientists who are trying to find these ancient trees, which they believe belong to one of the three major family lines of the vast tropical banana family.

The ancient trees belong to the species Dendrobium, a member of the largest tropical family of flowering plants, the Orchidaceae—and not one that you might immediately recognize as bananas, but a more complex and enigmatic tree that shares many characteristics with the tropical fruit.

Some members of the orchid family, like the banana’s, have evolved adaptations to survive in the tropics. Members of the more basic family are much smaller and do not live in extreme temperatures.

The recent discovery of these ancient bananas in Costa Rica is the most significant scientific find of the last decade, according to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. That’s because it’s the first time scientists have found plants that fit the criteria for the oldest members of any of the major tropical plant families, like the Orchidaceae—and that is only one among hundreds of species that researchers are now trying to identify among the thousands that once lived in tropical climates.

“Even as recently as 20 years ago we only knew of a few dozen species that were living in tropical climates,” says Christopher Dias, curator of tropical botany at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington. “We are now seeing thousands of species of plants growing in tropical environments.”

The key to understanding the origins of tropical bananas is to figure out which tropical plants are relatives of the bananas. This was the case with the bananas, for the first time in the history of the tropical world.

Ancestors Are Being Discovered

In 1996, a team of Mexican scientists discovered the fossilized remains of a tropical tree that was thought to be a distant relative of the fruit. They named the new plant

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