Belfast born Charles Edward Telfair (1778 – 1833) qualified as a medical doctor in 1797 and joined the Royal Navy. He became a respected ship´s surgeon and in 1810, during the Napoleonic wars, he took part in the blockading of Mauritius and Reunion in the Indian Ocean. In 1816 Telfair finally settled in Mauritius and became secretary to the first governor, Robert Farquhar.
Telfair´s main interest was botany and amongst other things he was made honorary curator of the island´s Botanical Garden which enabled him to receive seeds and plant cuttings from all over the world. Not only did he develop these, he forwarded the plants on to his army correspondents. One of the most intriguing plants that Telfair received was a dwarf banana, a species that was thought to originate in Cochinchina (Vietnam). In 1829 he sent two of these plants to a contact in England.
The recipient of these two plants was Robert Barclay, of the banking family. Unfortunately Barclay had no chance to see his dwarf bananas bear fruit as he died a year later in 1830. After his death his collection of exotic plants was sold, one of them was sold to Joseph Paxton, head gardener at Chatsworth House on behalf of his employer, William Cavendish, sixth Duke of Devonshire. Paxton bred the banana in the spacious new Chatsworth House greenhouse which had been built to his own design. Nevertheless, it took three years for the plant to bear fruit. In November 1835 Paxton´s plant finally flowered and by the following May it was loaded with bananas, it even won the Knighton Silver Medal at that year´s Royal Horticultural Society´s show. He named the plant “Musa Cavendishii” after his patron.
In 1833 Lord Hepburn inherited from his father, the title of the third baronet of Smeaton –Hepburn. The title came with a magnificent mansion built by his grandfather in 1793.
Lord Hepburn was a keen horticulturalist and through direct contact with the Duke of Devonshire in the Houses of Parliament or by meeting up with Joseph Paxton at a horticultural show, he certainly planted “Musa Cavendishii” in his greenhouses at Smeaton-Hepburn.
What is the connection between Lord Hepburn and Alfred Diston (British artist, writer and businessman established in Puerto de la Orotava, today known as Puerto de la Cruz)?
In 1835 Lord Hepburn married Helen Little, daughter of Archibald Little, owner at the time of Sitio Litre and director of the company “Pasley, Little & Co” (wine merchants), he was a friend and employer of Alfred Diston. The Cavendish bananas were sent to Tenerife and became, years later, the main agricultural product of the economy of the island especially after the decline of the wine market and the cochineal.
Alfred Diston ran both Sitio Litre and the Botanical gardens in Puerto de la Cruz. We can confirm that the first bananas planted in Tenerife were planted in Sitio Litre and the Garden of Acclimatisation in the Port of Orotava (today known as the Botanical Gradens in Puerto de la Cruz). He was in charge of running the botanical garden as it had been abandoned by the authorities at the time; he often used his own money to keep the garden in order. Alfred Diston realised how quickly this plant was growing and offered these to the landowners of the Orotava valley and Puerto de la Cruz, these included the Fyffes and Yeoward families of English origin. From 1888 onwards the Cavendish bananas were harvested by these families and despatched in their ships to Britain.
The banana plantations rapidly extended from the north of Tenerife to the north of Gran Canaria, later on, to the island of La Palma and even to La Gomera.
In conclusion, the origin of what today is called “The Canary banana” has its beginning in the property of Sitio Litre, known today as the Historical Garden of Sitio Litre in Puerto de la Cruz.