Description of Enset and Systems
Enset looks like a large, thick, single-stemmed banana plant (Plate 2). Both enset and banana have an underground corm, a bundle of leaf sheaths that form the pseudostem, and large leaves (Figure 2.1). Enset, however, is usually larger than banana, with the largest plants up to 10 meters tall and with a pseudostem up to one meter in diameter. The leaves are more erect than those of a banana plant, have the shape of a lance head, and may be five meters long and nearly one meter wide. Banana plants normally form suckers or clusters of plants at the base, but enset does not.
The stem has three parts. The upper-most portion is the pseudostem, which is made of a system of tightly clasping leaf bases or leaf sheaths. The pseudostem may be two to three meters tall and contains an edible pulp and quality fiber. The underground corm is really an enlarged lower portion of the stem. It may be up to 0.7 meters in length and in diameter. A short section of stem near the soil line, between the pseudostem and corm, is the true botanical stem. Leaves and the single flower head initiate from the true stem at its center, grow up through the middle of the pseudostem, and emerge at the whorl in the middle of the leaf bases. Enset has a fibrous rooting system that grows out from the corm.
At maturity, a single flower head emerges, which forms multiple flowers, fruit, and seeds. The entire head, which may be nearly one meter in length, hangs downward from a stalk in the center of the plant. Many of the small, banana-like fruits (enset is sometimes called false banana) on each flower head produce several irregularly shaped black seeds, each about one centimeter across. Most wild and a few cultivated plants are produced from seed, and have more than one parent. Most domesticated plants, however, are propagated from suckers, and are clones of their one parent. Most plants are harvested before or at early stages of flower formation.
Enset belongs to the order Scitamineae, the family Musaceae, and the genus Ensete. Banana is in the same family as enset, but in the genus Musa. Although further research still needs to be done on the taxonomy and distribution of enset species, current data reveal two wild enset species distributed over much of Asia, and four wild species in sub-Saharan Africa and Madagascar (Baker and Simmonds, 1953; Simmonds, 1958). Ensete ventricosum, the only known wild species in Ethiopia, is concentrated in the southern highlands, but also grows in the central and northern highlands around Lake Tana, the Simien Mountains, and as far north as Adigrat and into southern Eritrea (Simoons, 1960 and 1965; and observation by the authors) (Figure 1).
In spite of the extensive distribution of wild enset, it is only in Ethiopia that the plant has been domesticated. Wild enset propagates naturally by seed, and is restricted in Ethiopia to elevations of approximately 1,200 to 1,600 meters above sea level. However, farmers almost always propagate domesticated enset vegetatively, and recognize more than 50 different varieties, clones, or landraces (Alemu and Sandford, 1996; Shigeta, 1991; Zippel, 1995). Domesticated enset (also classified taxonomically as Ensete ventricosum) is planted at elevations ranging from 1,100 to more than 3,000 meters, indicating the extent to which its natural distribution has been expanded artificially through domestication. Vernacular names for domesticated enset include enset (Amhara), asat (Gurage), weise (Kambata), and wassa (Sidama), among others.
There are four major agricultural systems in Ethiopia: pastoralism, shifting cultivation, grain-based cultivation, and enset-based cultivation (Westphal, 1975). Within the enset agricultural system, four major enset sub-systems can be recognized, based upon environmental, agronomic, and cultural criteria, as well as the extent to which people depend upon the plant as a staple crop (Westphal, 1975; observation of authors).
One such sub-system is where enset is the staple food and main crop. Such groups as the Sidama and Gurage grow enset (Figure 2.2) in dense plantations, and are highly dependent upon cattle to produce manure for fertilizing enset fields (Plate 3). The main enset product is kocho, a fermented bread-like food that is consumed locally as well as exported to urban markets. Population densities in these communities are commonly 200 to more than 400 persons per square kilometer.
Another enset sub-system uses enset as a co-staple with cereals and tuber crops. The Gamo, Hadiya, Wolayta, and Ari, among other groups of SNNPRG, depend upon enset as a co-staple in this manner (Plate 4). Within an ethnic group such as the Hadiya, there may be differences between households, with wealthier or higher resource households using cereals more than enset, and lower resource households being entirely dependent upon enset (Spring et al, 1996). Cattle are important for manure to fertilize enset fields, while oxen are used to plow cereal fields. Both kocho and amicho (boiled enset corm) are eaten. Population density among these groups is high, sometimes with more than 200 people per square kilometer.
A third enset sub-system relies upon cereals as the most important crops, with enset and root crops of secondary importance. Such groups as the Oromo farmers of southwestern Ethiopia exemplify this system, where both the hoe and plow are used to grow cereals. Enset is grown largely for security reasons (i.e., if cereal crops fail) and eaten in the form of kocho and amicho. Livestock are important for transport and plowing, but far less so for producing manure as enset fertilizer.
The fourth enset sub-system is where root crops are of prime dietary importance, cereals are of secondary importance, and enset is of minor importance. Groups such as the Sheko in southwestern Ethiopia practice hoe-based shifting cultivation, in which yams and taro are the most important crops, while enset, cereals, and cattle-herding are of minor importance. Traditionally, enset is processed for eating simply by cutting the corm into pieces and cooking over hot stones. Population densities are low in these groups, and settlements are small and dispersed.