Musaceae: fol. 13r Bananas Pt.1

I’m including analysis of this folio to emphasise three points:

1. That the various plants in any group are drawn accurately.

2. That the emphasis  is not simply – nor even primarily – on medicinal uses for a plant.

Copyright. Permissions

3. (covered by the subsequent post) That no European Latin scholarship – whether of botany or of medicine – had such accurate knowledge of some plants in the manuscript, nor of the cultural habits  alluded to them: certainly not as early as 1438 when the manuscript was made.


fol 13r Musa spp.

One could go through the usual steps to explain the image, but this is one which is so familar to the west today, that there seems to be little need to labour the process.

The root [i.e. cortex and roots] shows no obvious signs of including  mnemonics (though a similar form is used in other folios to suggest plants used for a fermented drink).  Taken literally, however, that part of the drawing closely matches suits the overall form for this plant-group and is so accurately drawn that I leave comparisons to the reader.

The ‘stems’ [sheaths] closest to the viewer are sheered off, while those at the back, from which new leaves shoot, are drawn to indicate rapid regeneration.

Being herbaceous, members of the Musaceae [including the ‘plaintain bananas’ Musa acuminata and Musa balbisana] were indeed cultivated and trimmed after fruiting. And, in the same way, the new shoots will regenerate within the same growing season. In the photo the old growth is closer to the viewer, too.

banana stalks

The ‘regeneration’ motif is rightly shown; not as a series of shoots rising from a single surface, but as separate sheaths, only the new (furthest from the viewer) growing in that way. New leaves with their stems (‘branches’) are continually harvested, used among other things for roofing, cooking and storage of perishables,  so it is reasonable that we should see the smaller  ‘cut bole’ motif, signifying what one might call a ‘small-t’ timber.

I cannot emphasise enough that the manuscript’s botanical drawings are neither ill-informed, nor childish, nor ‘bizarre’ or a tabula rasa on which one’s imagination may have free rein.  Solid study of botany, and solid historical research –  rather than imagination – is required here. And no-one, least of all the present writer, can hope for infallibility.

It is thought that the banana plant, native to much of Asia (even into the Himalayas ) was introduced into Arabia proper no later than the sixth century AD. There are even vague reports that a ‘banana’ of some form was cultivated in Norman Sicily in the eleventh or twelfth centuries, but I’ll take that up in a later post.

banana Musa sikkimensis leafM. sikkimensis is one of those which has variegated leaves, though whether referenced in the drawing I cannot tell. I think it very likely that among the variegated leaves we have the important ‘blood banana‘ (M. acuminata spp zebrinus)  included here.

Blood banana.  -wiki –

Otherwise, one has 2,600 extant banana species to choose from, dispersed over an enormous geographic range.

Most have paddle-shaped younger with  smooth margins which, in most cases, become increasingly tattered as they age, though here again exceptions exist: in this case e.g. Musa basjoo.

And others might have been included here, such as the important plant now called ‘the Traveller’s Palm’  Ravenala madagascariensis.


fol 13r Fol.13r shows the fruit/flower at the early stage. In reality these fruits hang pendulent, but we are shown the view which, for example, a person would see if checking or pre-purchasing a crop.

Two stylistic elements are worth mentioning – not only relevant to this folio in the manuscript:

(1) ~ the habit of picturing the fruiting elements upturned;

(2) ~ omission of elements that are  naturally coloured in the black- to dark purple range.

The ‘upturning’ has been referred to in earlier posts.  (see e.g. the Myrobalans posts). It is seen in the relief shown (right) which comes from Buddhist India, during its Hellenistic period (to the 3rdC AD).

I don’t know the antecedents for this custom of omitting plant-parts coloured in the black-to-deep purple range. But it is seen in Karnak’s  ‘herbal chamber’ and so may be Egypto-Phoenician. It was presumably known to the Hellenistic rulers of Egypt and Antioch, and indeed some specific examples (especially in portraying Dracunculus vulgaris) persist into the medieval herbals ~ themselves of Greco-Egyptian origins as far as we know.

Compare again those ‘upturned’ fruits with the picture below.  I’ve reversed the pendent fruit to make this point more clearly – namely that what makes the picture so clear in fol.13r is that this deep-coloured sheath  has been omitted.

In one or two cases, a purplish element might simply be coloured blue (compare again with 9v, the ‘viola’ group).

But in fol.13r there is no effort to render the sheath blue; it is omitted altogether.

No dilettante or tourist so carefully observes other peoples’ taboos without having lived (voluntarily or otherwise) within a given culture for some considerable time.
In the next post, I review mainland Europe’s knowledge of the banana – to the end of the seventeenth century.

It shows, yet again, that the Voynich manuscript cannot be the product of an early fifteenth century European author and sheds light on why Kircher might have been so very keen to get hold of it ~ after having initially refused to consider it, apparently because he feared it might be about alchemy.


E. Sherwood is one of the people who recognised fol.13r as ‘banana’ though as far as I know her system was not explained. I agree with her identifications in some few other cases, too, though not always with her assignment of a plant to a given folio.

Postscript (April 4th. 2013) Since writing this material, first published on my ‘notes’ blog, a number of my botanical identifications (and others’) have been adopted by Ms.Sherwood’s associate, “Steve D”. I gather they are collecting “Voynich” plants for an imaginary or semi-imaginary garden and tend  to adopt one’s suggested botanical identification, or at least the taxonomic description, without troubling to consider the reasoning involved or the analysis which led to that identification. Lack of explanation and of any historical or reasonable geographic limit is also characteristic of their site.

Among plants whose names are adopted, but then reassigned, I find the most puzzling their taking up the eastern Kudzu vine and Rhus (both of which I identified after analysing a specific folio). More recently, my suggesting Amaranth for f.34v  twelve days ago has yesterday seen  “Steve” announce with some excitement the discovery of  “a new Voynich genus” – Amaranth.

As usual, the conclusion is adopted, minus any explanation of it, and then transferred seemingly at random to some other folio.

I can only suggest the nature of their exercise by way of explanation. Steve and Edith are  creating an imaginary botanical garden set in a more-or-less imaginary medieval Europe. In this garden, plants as diverse as the Kudzu and Amaranth or Banana are imagined planted by 1430.

Certainly a lot of fun, but not likely to assist efforts at understanding the written text.


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