Photograph by Becky Harlan
Photograph by Becky Harlan
The Plate

Why This April Fools’ Kiwi Hybrid Is Bananas

In a video that went viral last week, a bearded, plaid-wearing man named Robert Mahar earnestly describes how to make a banana-kiwi hybrid (baniwi? kiwana?) by squishing together chunks of the two fruits, burying them in soil, watering them, and waiting. When this hybrid matures, he says in a voiceover, it grows into a fruit with the shape and skin of a banana and the bright-green flesh of a kiwi.

So is this subterranean, fruity embrace really how hybrids like pluots or tangelos are actually made?

No. It’s really, really not.

Mahar—who makes video tutorials for do-it-yourself crafts—originally posted his faux banana-kiwi hybridization lesson as part of a longer DIY container garden video on April 1, 2014. If the date he published the video on YouTube wasn’t enough of a clue, he wished viewers a happy April Fools’ Day at the end and suggested in its description that whoever managed to get this technique to work should go buy a lottery ticket.

But then earlier this month, a truncated banana-kiwi clip was posted by the Facebook group Foods Around (which Mahar says he has no affiliation with) and has since been viewed more than 69 million times. The truncated tutorial was convincing enough that Snopes had to debunk it, which Mahar says he was tickled to see.

“To have them take the time to write an article about something so, in my mind, clearly ridiculous, is incredibly amusing,” he says. He describes fighting hard to maintain his deadpan as the camera crew cracked up during filming.

But while it’s impossible to smush together two fruits to grow a hybrid, there is a seed of truth in this video, says Luca Comai, a plant geneticist at the University of California, Davis.

For one thing, the kiwis and bananas we eat are each hybrids themselves. Many of the bananas we find in the stores have three sets of chromosomes from two different ancestral species of banana. And the kiwifruit we eat are also polyploid, meaning they have more than two sets of chromosomes that probably accumulated during prehistoric times, when pollen from one species of kiwifruit was transferred to the female reproductive parts of another, resulting in an interspecies hybrid. In this case, cross-pollination happened by accident—but intentional cross-pollination is how horticulturalists develop hybrids like the plum-apricot combination called the pluot (or plumcot, depending on some complicated factors).

The second thing that’s not totally crazy about this video is the idea of growing one plant out of another. Horticulturalists use a technique called grafting to splice together the stem from one species of plant to the rootstock of another. Comai says this is commonly done with fruit trees, noting that in Europe, many local species of grapes are grafted onto American grape rootstock that’s more tolerant to an aphid-like bug called phylloxera. Grafting is also sometimes used to control the size of trees in orchards.

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A field technician grafts multiple hybrid cultivars to a large avocado tree stump. After the successful grafts, the tree will yield avocados of multiple varieties over a long growing season.

(Check out this artist’s quest to graft 40 different species of fruit onto one tree.)

While grafting certainly can’t produce a baniwi, there is some evidence that this technique can generate hybridized cells at the interface between the two grafted plants. These cells can swap their nuclear genomes and mitochondria from one side of the graft to the other.

“It’s too bad that that banana with the beautiful green kiwi inside is not real, isn’t it?” Comai says. And he’s not certain it ever will be—kiwi and banana are just too different to hybridize. Until science manages to figure out how to make the two fruits one, though, there’s always a little sleight of hand combined with Mahar’s method: Cut a banana in half, scoop out some of its flesh, and smush some kiwi inside the bright yellow skin.

Voila, a baniwi.

Rachel Becker is a freelance science journalist whose work appears in National Geographic’s The Plate, Slate, Nature, Hakai, and others. Follow her on Twitter.