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Facts about Bananas

Updated on December 3, 2011
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Banana is a perennial seed plant that produces an edible fruit, also called a banana. It is found in tropical regions.

Distribution of Bananas

A native of the East Indies or Malay Archipelago, the banana was introduced early into the tropical regions surrounding the Caribbean Sea. The fruit now is grown in large quantities in Central America, some portions of South America, and the West Indies. These regions presently constitute the main producing centers for the American trade and a portion of the European trade. Large quantities of bananas are exported from Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, northern Panama, northern Colombia, from the island of Jamaica, and from Mexico. Exports from these countries to the United States amount to between 70 million and 80 million bunches annually. In addition, the banana grows abundantly in the Pacific islands, the Malay region, and the East Indies. It is also an important crop, especially in the dwarf species, in the Canary Islands.

Types of Banana

The banana tree belongs to the genus Musa and subgenus Evmusa. There are many different kinds of bananas, but five are of special importance. The common banana (Musa sapien-tum) includes the majority of the bananas grown in the Western Hemisphere. It is edible when raw. There are several varieties of this banana, including the Martinique, Jamaica, Gros Michel, and a red variety, the Baracoa. The Gros Michel type of Musa sapientum is the one found most commonly in American markets. It produces a firm and finely flavored fruit. The plantain (Musa paradisiaca) is another type of banana. Its greenish yellow fruit is edible when cooked. The scientific nomenclature is confused here, and many authorities consider the sapientum to be a variety of the species paradisiaca. These banana plants, which may grow to a height of 30 feet (9 meters), have long, wide leaves.

A third type of banana is the Chinese, or dwarf, banana (Musa cavendishii), found in the Canary Islands, Bermuda, and southern China. This banana plant usually attains a height of only 6 feet (1.8 meters) and its leaves are smaller than those of the common banana plant. It can be planted only 10 feet (3 meters) apart instead of the ordinary 15 to 20 feet (4.5 to 6 meters) apart. Two other types of bananas are noteworthy. They are Musa acuminata, raised in the East Indies and Malay Archipelago, and the Abyssinian banana (Musa ensete), an inedible, ornamental species.

Cultivation of Bananas

Bananas are cultivated on a large scale in all the countries mentioned. Differences in methods of cultivation depend on the soil and climatic conditions. Generally, bananas require deep, fertile, moist and well drained soil and protection from wind.

In Central America a new plantation is developed usually from virgin forest in a river valley or coastal plain. The undergrowth is cleared out. The trees are chopped down, and then fallen timber decomposes rapidly, adding to the humus content of the soil. Bits and portions of root stalk that are used as seed are then planted. In the course of a few months the young banana plants will be several feet high. Then the new growth of underbrush, grass, and weeds is cleared away. In about four months more the banana plants reach their full size. A mature plant is usually about 10 to 20 feet (3 to 6 meters) high. Continued occasional clearing is necessary to keep down the excess of wild growth.

The banana plant has an underground root stalk with buds, or eyes, that grow out and up, forming new aerial portions or suckers. Once the plantation is started, the continued development of these buds produces an oversupply of plants. The weaker and less desirable ones are pruned out. Eventually a large mat of plants develops where the small portion of root stalk was planted.

The banana plant does not possess a true stem above the ground. It has, rather, a pseudo-stem consisting of the basal portions of the leaf stalks, which overlap one another and are tightly pressed together. In this manner a trunk is formed that measures 8 to 15 inches (20 to 38 cm) in diameter at maturity.

When the plant is matured fully, a bud forms in the root stalk, grows up through the center of the mass of leaf stalks, and finally emerges from the center of the crown. This emergence is known as the shooting. The bud gradually unfolds, and a large number of clusters of flowers open up. Each of these clusters is protected in the bud by a thick, overlapping, modified leaf.

Only the upper clusters of flowers are fertilized and produce fruit; the lower ones wither and fall away. The number of clusters that develop fruit is variable, generally running from 6 to 15. Each cluster is known as a hand, and the individual fruits are known as fingers. When the fruit is approaching full development, it is cut from the plant; it is never allowed to ripen on the plant. After the bunch of fruit is removed, the plant that produced it is cut down to the ground. This is done because each plant produces only a single bunch. By proper selection and pruning of suckers, the cultivations are kept in almost continual production for years.

Throughout the cultivation process, care must be taken to prevent damage to the plant from low temperatures or from fungus infections.

The Fruit

The fruit is elongated and usually tapered at one end. Its soft, pulpy flesh is enclosed in a comparatively soft, usually yellow, rind. It has a very agreeable flavor and taste.

The banana is of considerable value as a food. It contains a large amount of starch and sugar. Analysis shows that bananas contain, on the average, 75.3 percent water, 1.3 percent protein, 0.6 percent fat, 22 percent carbohydrate, and 0.8 percent ash. This ash has been found to consist of a high percentage of alkaline salts. These constituents make bananas a very valuable food, especially as a source of quick energy. The banana yields about 460 calories per pound, approximately the same amount as corn and more than any other fresh fruit. The food value of bananas is about the same as the food value of potatoes. The banana is somewhat higher in fat content, lower in protein, and slightly higher in carbohydrate than the potato.

Bananas usually are eaten raw. They may also be baked or fried, and with some species, such as Musa paradisiaca, cooking is necessary.

Other Uses of the Plant

The fruit-producing banana tree contains a certain amount of fiber that might be used in the production of paper and twine, but this use has never been developed commercially. Musa textilis of the Philippines is the main source of the hemp for cordage. Also known as Manila hemp, this plant has thin leaf blades that are used for wrapping.

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