The science bit
Very large herb up to 7m tall. Pseudostems blotched with green, brown and/or black. Leaves up to 3m long, sheathed at base forming thicker stem with each new growth. Collections of flowers (inflorescences) hanging (pendulous). Can both reproduce sexually and asexually. Cultivated varieties of this plant have very small, insignificant seeds. Pollinated by wind, insect and bat.
- Most of the world’s edible bananas are derived from Musa acuminata or naturally occuring hybrids between Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana.
- There are about 1,000 types of banana: sweet, savoury, round, bent, straight, green, yellow, pink, silvery, even spotted and striped.
- Hundreds of different banana and plantain cultivars are grown for domestic consumption, but ‘Cavendish’ bananas dominate the world export trade and are the dessert banana we buy in UK supermarkets.
- Although there is a rich diversity of plantains and East African Highland bananas, they are genetically very similar. This means all varieties tend to be susceptible to the same pests and diseases, such as the infamous Panama disease.
- Each plant just produces one stem of bananas, holding up to 200 bananas.
- India is the world’s biggest producer of bananas.
- The name ‘banana’ is African and was carried to the New World by Portuguese slave traders. It comes from the Arabic word ‘banan’ meaning finger.
Where it grows
Native to South East Asia, bananas are now cultivated around the tropics. They thrive in shaded and moist ravines, marshlands, semi-marshlands and slopes from near sea level to 1200m altitude.
Bananas are eaten the world over, and are one of the top selling items in supermarkets. Most bananas are consumed where they are grown: in the tropics, where they are a vital staple crop providing food from fruit, bud and leaf as well as shade, shelter, building materials, wrappings for food and other goods, even shrouds. They form part of rituals centred on fertility and women’s guardianship of life and are planted in sacred precincts in India. Sportspeople love them for their energy boosting properties and because the potassium they contain helps in avoiding muscle cramp.
The Future Harvest Centre, International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plantain (INIBAP), manages the largest genebank of banana tissue culture in the world. The collection, essentially, is not owned by anyone but is held ‘in trust’ for the public good and its accessions are freely available. In recent years great advances have been made in techniques of deep freezing or (cryopreserving) plant material. INIBAP is now engaged in efforts to cryopreserve the entire banana collection of over 1,000 accessions in order to improve its long-term conservation.
- Asexual reproduction: reproduction without the sexual process, eg vegetative reproduction.
- Herb: plant with fleshy parts rather than a persistent woody stem above ground.
- Pseudostem: ‘false stem’ usually made up of leaf sheaths or bases.
- Sexual reproduction: produces offspring by the fusion of male and female gametes.