Fruit Finds: All about growing, eating, and enjoying exotic fruit
All content is copyright by Benjamin F. Kuo

Musa spp.

Dwarf Cavendish, Cardaba,
Ele Ele,
Gros Michel,
Ice Cream or Blue Java,
Lady Finger,
Raja Puri,
FHIA-03 (Sweet Heart),
many others.

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P. Mollisima: The Banana Passion Fruit

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Going Bananas

Closeup of bananas on a tree

Wandering through my local supermarket last weekend, I casually tossed a mildly green cluster of bananas into my family's grocery cart for the rest of the week. It's a habit--picking a bunch that's lightly green, but just starting to transform itself to a nice yellow. I usually select a nice bunch of about six or seven bananas; any more is usually too much for my family, and any less and we'd probably run out by the end of the week. Like most other American families, bananas are a basic part of our fruit regimen, and make up one of our favorite snacks during the day.

Bananas are probably one of, if not the most popular of fruits. Available year round, we take for granted the versatility and usefulness of bananas, an integral part of modern life. Bananas are often the first solid food fed to babies, especially here in the US, mashed into a paste and fed to hungry infants being weaned from their mother's milk. We eat them whole as a snack; in our cereal; make it into bread; on top of ice cream; and countless other ways. They are so popular, it's said that much of the profits of grocery stores stems from this one item, out of the thousands of products sold in modern supermarkets. Entire boatloads of special containers are shipped continuously from South America to the United States, where bananas are then carefully ripened and delivered for sale.

Bunch of bananas.

The history of the bananas is as long as mankind itself, extending through history and into prehistory. Believed by both Christians and Muslims in the Middle Ages to be the forbidden fruit of paradise (Musa paradisiaca), the banana has followed the movement of man through the tropics as a constant companion. Along with taro, bananas are believed to be the first cultivated crop.

The banana originated somewhere in Southeast Asia, which boasts the most variety of wild and cultivated bananas in the world. Originally seedy, inedible plants, through both human breeding and millenia of vegetative propagation, bananas eventually became edible and seedless. From Asia, the banana was spread throughout the tropics, as mankind spread throughout the world. Anthropological, linguistic, and ethnological studies have found bananas were carried east by the Polynesians from the Philippines more than 4000 years ago to Fiji and possibly even as far as Ecuador. Plantains, starchy bananas more commonly used for cooking, were apparently carried to West Africa from Asia more than 3000 years ago, by a people who have long since disappeared, and were separately carried to central Africa, where they have been growing for 8000 years. Linguists have uncovered these connections by tracing common names for banana, finding that otherwise distinct and unconnected ethnic groups share the same nomenclature for the banana.

Bud of the banana fruit.

Despite popular belief, the banana is not a tree but is really a giant herb. A perennial, the banana replaces itself after fruiting with additional shoots from a mother plant. Plants are typically propagated through corms, the starchy flesh found in the center of the root, or through suckers cut from the mother plant. Bananas are even propagated through tissue culture, grown in sterile test tube conditions by the thousands. There are over 1000 known varieties of bananas, although only a few are cultivated and brought to market here in the United States.

Buddha believed the banana to be a symbol of fragility, because the mother plant dies after bearing fruit, and Chinese paintings often portray wise men meditating on the impermanence of life at the foot of banana plants. Alexander the Great found bananas in 327 BC in India, having just swept through Afghanistan and conquering all of Persia. Even in recent history, the fates of entire countries have been controlled by the banana industry and the politics of banana production. Through the 1940's, coups were orchestrated and dictators propped up by the CIA, all in the name of maintaining the control of banana production--giving rise to the phrase "banana republic."

Banana plantation in Santa Barbara, California.

In the US, the most popular variety of banana is the Dwarf Cavendish, the everyday yellow supermarket variety. Europeans are more familiar with the "Gros Michel," a smaller and sweeter, but similarly yellow variety. However, in the rest of the world, the banana actually qualifies as a staple food--ranked as the fourth most important crop in the developing work after rice, wheat, and corn. Unlike the U.S. and European markets, which are driven by huge transnational corporations, most of the production of bananas is grown by small scale farmers, both of dessert bananas and staple plantains. In part because of the small scale of production, banana varieties in developing companies and particularly in Asia are much more varied and available.

Over 95 million metric tons of bananas are grown each year. Although Latin America and the Caribbean are best known here for their bananas, they only produce 35% of the bananas consumed in the world. India is actually the world's largest banana producer.

My favorite variety of dessert banana is the Hawaiian Apple Banana. The Apple Banana (about the only kind you can buy now in grocery stores in Hawaii, because of its popularity) is sweet and tangy, with much of the character of Dwarf Cavendish. Reminiscent of a slightly underripe Cavendish, but with none of the astringency, the Apple Banana has floral overtones with a mellow sweetness which doesn't overwhelm the banana, even as it ripens. Unfortunately, Apple Bananas are rarely available here on the mainland (except through specialty catalogs like Harry and David).

Amazingly, bananas are used for brewing a low-alchohol beer in Africa, and even made into a ketchup in the Phillipines. The bud is eaten by some cultures, as is the stem, which is considered a delicacy in India. Banana fibers are used for building boats, and in countless other ways--proving the versatility and usefulness of this plant.

Although bananas are tropical fruits best adapted to 30 degrees north and south of the equator, they are grown in the warmer areas of Southern California, or in protected microclimates. Although my own bananas haven't yet been successful at fruiting (I live in a particularly cold pocket of Moorpark, but only have been trying bananas for a couple of years), they have survived in a sheltered space next to my house even through extended freezing temperatures. Even after being frozen to the roots, many of my bananas have come back happily next spring, giving me hope that they might decide to fruit one year. Nevertheless, I'm happy that this versatile and delicious fruit is widely available to enjoy, even if I haven't been able to grow them myself.

- Benjamin Kuo

Originally published in The Fruit Gardener, April 2002

(c)2003 by Benjamin F. Kuo. All rights reserved.