Banana – What Is This Plant That Monkeys Love?

Who doesn’t like bananas? And if you don’t, your mom might still have fed you banana bread or pancakes at some point! It isn’t just a staple food source of the tropics but is also widely consumed worldwide.

Though it is one of the most common fruits on the planet, there’s a lot that you might not know about it. What is the banana plant, where did it come from, and how does it grow? Let’s dig deeper and find out everything.

Though it’s treated as a fruit, a banana is botanically a berry produced by several herbs in the genus Musa from the family Musaceae. And yes, the plant is a herb, not a tree! It is, in fact, the largest herbaceous flowering plant on earth.

Bananas are rich in fibers, potassium, manganese, and vitamins B6 and C. Besides eating them fresh, you can also mash them, fry them, or add them to cakes and bread. So let’s find out more about the plant that gives these nutritious, delicious fruits.

Common NameBanana
Botanical NameMusa Paradisiaca, Balbisiana, Acuminata + Other From The Musa Genus
Plant TypeHerbaceous Perennial
Size (Fully Grown)Typically 16 Feet (About 4,9 Meters) Tall, Depending On The Variety
Sun ExposureFull Sun
Soil TypeOne That Is Fertile, And Drains Well
Soil pHFrom 5.5 To 6.5
Flower ColorPurple Bud With White Flowers
U.S. Hardiness Zones9 And 10
Native AreaSoutheast Asia

How Many Banana Varieties Are There?

As we’ve already pointed out, banana isn’t a single species. Instead, the term describes several species or hybrids from the genus Musa. So, for example, most of the modern seedless bananas are bred from Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana.

In some countries, cooking varieties are called plantains to distinguish them from the dessert bananas (sweet types). Plantains are starchy and commonly used as a food source in the tropics. The different varieties vary in size, color, flavor, and firmness.

The size of the tree also varies with the cultivar. While some, like the ‘Cuban Red,’ can grow up to 25 feet high (about 7,6 meters), you’ll also find shorter varieties. For example, ‘Truly Tiny’ only reaches just 1.5 feet (about 46 cm) in height. Here are some common cultivars you’ll find in the two categories – dessert bananas and plantains:

Dessert Bananas

  1. Red
  2. Mysore
  3. Manzano
  4. Blue Java
  5. Goldfinger
  6. Nanjangud
  7. Lady Finger
  8. Gros Michel
  9. Praying Hands
  10. Cavendish Bananas

Plantains (Or Cooking Bananas)

  1. Fehi
  2. Orinoco
  3. Bluggoe
  4. Rhino Horn
  5. Pisang Raja
  6. Macho Plantain
  7. Dwarf Jamaican
  8. Barangan Bananas

History Of Bananas – Possibly The World’s Oldest Fruits

Historians believe that bananas could be the world’s first cultivated crops. There’s evidence that they were cultivated in New Guinea over 7000 years ago. However, Musa varieties were being grown in the Mekong Delta of Southeast Asia even before that, over 10,000 years ago. Then, Arab conquerors brought them west in 327 BC. Through these conquerors, bananas were introduced to the Middle East and Africa.

From African coasts, bananas were introduced to the Portuguese and from them to the Spanish. With the Spanish missionaries that traveled to the Caribbean, the plant finally came to the New World.

The Trip To The U.S.

The first bananas that appeared in the United States markets came from Cuba in 1804. For several years, Americans considered it a novelty. Mass production started in 1834, with the first large shipments arriving from Jamaica in the 1870s.

Banana cultivation suffered greatly when the Panana disease, Fusarium, struck the Gros Michel variety. Then, in the 1920s, a second disease, called Sigatosa, struck the bananas. Eventually, a new type, resistant to the Fusarium disease, appeared in the market in the 1950s by the name of Giant Cavendish.

The new variety of bananas soon dominated worldwide cultivation. Though Cavendish bananas are the most popular ones exported to nontropical countries, it’s the plantain ones that contribute 85% to the world’s banana cultivation.

Currently, India is the largest banana producing country globally, followed by China, the Philippines, and Ecuador.

What Does The Banana Plant Look Like?

People often say that the banana plant is a tree, but it’s actually a giant herb that gives elongated sweet fruits. It’s grown for these fleshy, nutritious bunches that are consumed globally. Let’s check out what the plant looks like, along with a closer view of the main parts.

© 5second – stock.adobe.com

First Look

It’s easy to distinguish this plant, even from a distance. It’s a tall, tree-like plant with a sturdy “apparent trunk.” However, it’s not an actual trunk but a tightly packed structure made from overlapping leaf sheats.

The large leaves are arranged in the form of a canopy over the trunk. The plant flowers in spring to early summer and sets fruits in clusters called hands—these fruit clusters hang from a single stalk.

Leaves

The rosette of 10 to 20 leaves over the false trunk quickly tells you that this is a banana we’re talking about here. The oblong or elliptic leaves can be 10 to 11.5 feet (about 3 to 3,5 meters) in length and 26 inches (about 66 cm) in width.

Though the leaves are not edible, they’re commonly used as umbrellas, mats, roofs, and clothing. In addition, steaming food in banana leaves and using it as a platter to serve local dishes is a traditional sight in many tropical countries.

Flowers

The false trunk, or the pseudostem, produces clusters of flowers, called the ‘banana heart.’ The large, bright purple ‘banana heart’ or spike points downwards to the soil and opens up to display a group of white flowers, both male and female.

Female flowers are further up the stem, which bears the fruit clusters, while the red bud that remains at the end of the spike contains the male flowers that die quickly as the fruit develops.

The flowers are an edible delicacy; the white florets and the pale pink bracts are often a part of traditional Asian cuisine.

Fruit

The beautiful hanging fruit bunches are what we want to see when we grow bananas. These elongated, curved, fleshy fruits are grouped in packs of 50 to 150 and take about 3 to 6 months to mature.

The individual clusters arranged on the stem are called ‘hands’ and can carry 10 to 20 fruits each. The fruit is wrapped in an outer protective layer, ranging from yellow to green, but some also have red skins. The starchy flesh is white or pale, with tiny black specks of seeds through the center.

In What Conditions Do Bananas Grow Best In?

Growing bananas doesn’t take much effort if it gets the right climate and growing conditions. But, there are certain things you should know if you want to see those perfect bunches hanging from the plant.

Temperature

The plant requires 10 to 15 frost-free months to bear the flower stalk. Therefore, they grow best in warm, humid conditions, with the optimal temperature range being 78 to 86°F (about 25 to 30°C).

Growth slows down as the temperatures drop below this range. Freezing temperatures can kill the plant. Scorching temperatures beyond 95°F (about 35°C) can also slow down growth.

Soil And Sun

Most banana varieties grow best in full sun, while some variegated varieties prefer partial shade. Well-drained, loamy soil works best for them, amended with plenty of organic matter to a good depth. Lastly, the soil pH should be between 5.5 to 6.5.

Water And Fertilizer

Native to tropical rainforest counties, bananas need a lot of water from the soil and humidity to thrive. 1 to 2 inches (about 2,5 to 5 cm) of moisture each week is generally enough, but you’ll need to check every few days to ensure the soil is consistently moist.

Bananas are heavy feeders. Feed them high-phosphorus fertilizer, like 8-10-8 once a month, but make sure it doesn’t come in contact with the plant’s trunk.

Is It Safe To Eat / Consume Bananas?

Bananas are delicious and highly nutritious. They can help manage blood pressure, reduce the risks of cancer, diabetes, asthma, and help keep your heart healthy. Let’s see if they are safe for everyone to consume, or are there any conditions in which their consumption should be monitored or avoided.

Pregnant And Breastfeeding Women

When consumed in food amounts, bananas are safe for pregnant and breastfeeding women. However, there isn’t information on whether over-consumption is advisable, so stay on the safe side and only eat them in moderate amounts.

Children

Bananas are safe for children. They make popular first solid food offered to babies from 6 months of age. But, too many of them may cause constipation.

People With Allergies

Some people are allergic to bananas. If you have pollen food syndrome or latex food syndrome, likely, you’re also allergic to this plant.

People With Diabetes

In moderation, bananas are safe to eat for people with diabetes. But, those people following a low-carb diet should consult a healthcare provider before consuming them.

Pets

The plant is non-toxic to pets. Bananas are safe for pets but should be offered in moderation.

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