Musaceae is a small family within the order Zingiberales (the Gingers), but some of its members are of tremendous economic importance, particularly in the tropics. Banana plants are the largest of all herbs, growing to over 40 feet tall with leaves up to 30 feet long.
The photo shows the bottom end of a maturing bunch of bananas growing in Spain's Canary Islands. All the female flowers have developed into bananas, but the male inflorescence is still opening, layer by layer, to expose rows of male flowers. Commercial bananas are sterile so don't need the male inflorescence, which is often removed and sold as a separate product. Photo © i0053.
Bananas were one of the earliest agricultural crops, starting about 10,000 years ago in Southeast Asia. Taken from there to Africa and from Africa to Central and South America, it is now an important crop throughout the tropical areas of the world. The name "banana" is African.
Bananas are the world's most popular fruit. Even in the U.S. where bananas are not grown, the average person, in a year, eats 10 pounds more bananas than apples. Bananas are currently the 4th most important source of nutrition for the world's population, following only rice, wheat and corn.
Scientific naming of bananas has been highly confusing because the scientists have been highly confused. The former species name Musca. paradisiaca was particularly confused and has been abandoned. For clarity, a letter code has been instituted (see below).
Developing new varieties of banana is very frustrating, especially since all the successful commercial varieties are sterile. In fact, the frustration of endless failures drove one prominent developer to suicide.Buying and Storing Bananas
Bananas are generally sold slightly unripe, which is fine because they are more durable that way and ripen well at room temperature. Avoid bruised fruit and bananas that are all green - they may not ripen well. Green plantains for cooking are the exception.
Do not refrigerate or expose to extreme temperatures or they will not ripen properly. When ripe, they can be refrigerated for a couple days to prevent them from becoming mushy. The skins turn brown when refrigerated but this does not affect the flesh.
Store bananas away from other fruits unless you want those fruit to ripen more quickly. Bananas exude a lot of ethylene gas which causes fruit to ripen.
Wild Bananas -
[Gluay pa (Thai - forest banana); Musa acuminata ("noble
banana", A group), Musa balbisiana ("humble banana", B group)]
Wild bananas are not sterile like commercial bananas so are filled with
hard seeds about 1/4 inch diameter. These are now uncommon even in their
native Southeast Asia, but are of extreme importance to banana breeders
who are developing a successor to the Cavendish, against the inevitable
day when it will succumb to disease.
Photo by Warut Roonguthai distributed under license
Attribution-Share Alike v3.0 Unported.
- [Musa acuminata, Musa balbisiana, and
Musa acuminata x balbisiana (all previously Musa
paradisiaca and other names)]
Baby Banana - See Niño Banana
Blue Java -
[Hawaiian Banana, Ice Cream Banana; (ABB group)]
A banana with a blue-green peel when unripe, yellow when ripe, and
covering a sweet creamy flesh. These are popular in Hawaii, but I have yet
to see any of them in Southern California.
Photo by Forest &
Kim Starr distributed under license
Attribution ShareAlike v3.0 attribution required.
[Chiquita Banana, Grand Nain; (AAA group)]
This is your supermarket banana, grown on huge plantations of genetically identical plants to support a $4 billion export market. It is not the best tasting banana but holds its dominant position by convenience of storage and shipping. It is ripe when it shows a few small black spots on the peel. These bananas run between 7 and 8 inches long, (not counting the stem), 1-5/8 inches across and typically weigh between 6-1/2 and 7-1/2 ounces A 6-7/8 ounce banana was 4-7/8 ounces after peeling for a yield of 70%. Smaller bananas yield less.
The Cavendish is propagated by root suckers. It's a sterile seedless banana producing neither pollen nor seed, Every plant is an offshoot of one single original plant. This lack of diversity places the crop at great risk of disease and there's no way to breed disease resistance.
Currently the black sigatoka fungus is a major problem and airborne
spraying is the only defense, accounting for a full 20% of the cost of
growing bananas. A soil bacteria called Tropical Race 4 also now threatens
the Cavendish, just as a previous variety wiped out its commercial predecessor,
Gros Michel. Prepare at least for higher prices and
the possible disappearance of the familiar seedless dessert banana.
East African Highlands Banana
- [EAHB; (AAA-EA group or Mutika/Lujugira subgroup)]
Not sold in North America, but one of the most important food crops in
Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, and Rwanda. The dish of steamed bananas called
matoke is synonymous with "food" in Uganda.
Photo by Julienls distributed under license Creative Commons
Attribution ShareAlike v3.0.
Goldfinger Banana -
[FHIA0-01; (AAAB group)]
- [Big Mike; (AAA group)]
This is the original banana imported to the U.S. and the original product of
the United Fruit Company (originally the Boston Fruit Company - now
Chiquita Brands). It was wiped out as a commercial product in the early
1950s by Panama Disease, forcing United Fruit to replant in
Cavindish, a less flavorful and more difficult to
ship variety. The photo specimens were grown in Jamaica, but they are
also grown in Thailand.
Photo non-free, published under "fair use" conditions as defined
- [Lakatan Banana; (AA group)]
These bananas are one of the three most popular varieties in the Philippines and preferred to the Cavendish as a desert banana, even though they are more expensive. Not yet readily available in North America, they are distinguished by a slightly orange color. Photo by Obsidian Soul contributed to the public domain.
Another variety, Masak Hijau (AAA group) is called "Lacatan" in
Latin America and the West Indies. For clarity it is called "Jamaican
[Apple Banana, Latundan, Tundan Banana, Silk Banana, Pisang
raja sereh; (AAB group)]
These small bananas are now grown in many areas and are easily available
in Southern California markets catering to Latino populations. They
should be eaten when they show a fair number of black spots but before
they become predominantly black. They have a faint apple or strawberry
flavor but mostly taste like bananas.
[Baby Banana, Lady Finger Banana, PLU 4234; (AA group)]
Miniature bananas now becoming common in Southern California markets. The
photo specimens came from Ecuador and were 4 inches long and weighed 1.65
ounces each in bunches of 6. Favored by restaurants for fancy deserts
they're pleasantly sweet and are ripe when they just start to get a few
[Cooking Banana; Dodo (West Africa); (AAB and ABB groups)]
This is a culinary classification of bananas, and not a specific scientific definition. This name is applied to bananas that are starchier and less sweet than "desert" bananas like Cavendish. Plantains are most often cooked while still green or somewhat green, but are also cooked when yellow, depending on taste and texture desired. They are still quite firm when solid yellow and can still be fried in that state. Some recipes call for them ripe, when they will be solid black and finally have softened. The flesh tends to be a little orange in color. The average plantain sold in North America is about 12 inches long and weighs about 9-3/4 ounces. Details and Cooking.
Plantain Stems & Shoots: Stems are eaten particularly in southern India (Tamil Nadu, Assam, Kerala). When the bunch of bananas is harvested, the plant is cut down and layers peeled off to get to the tender central stalk. This is chopped and prepared in salads and curries. The outer layers are used for binding string and for weaving mats. Young immature Shoots are sometimes cooked and eaten in Ethiopia.
Plantain Roots: Root corms are sometimes eaten in Ethiopia, but not as commonly as those of the related Enset. They are soft and starchy just before the flowering stage.
Plantain Leaves & Blossoms: These are used the same
as those of other bananas.
Red Banana -
[Red Dacca Banana (Au); (AAA group)]
These short bananas are now very popular with supermarkets in upscale areas
because their exotic appearance allows the market to charge high prices. They
tastes pretty much like bananas, but sweeter than the Cavendish. They should
be eaten when the first black spots appear.
Saba Banana -
[Carababa Banana, Philippine Plantain; (ABB group)]
This is one of the most popular bananas in the Philippines and is occasionally
available in Philippine markets here in Southern California.. It is small and
rather boxy in shape. The photo specimens were between 6 and 6-1/2 inches
long (not counting stem) and weighed about 6-1/4 ounces. A 6-1/4 ounce
specimen yielded 3 ounces peeled (48%). In the yellow state shown they were
rather firm, starchy and not particularly sweet - but would be a little
sweeter with more black splotches. This banana is sometimes eaten raw but
most often boiled in the skin and served with a sweet sauce.
Thai Bananas -
[Gluay, Kluai (Thai) ]
Bananas are very important in the cuisine of Thailand, and probably more than 50 varieties are grown there, each with unique characteristics that make it suitable for particular uses. Those most commonly found in Thai markets are listed below. The leaves are also much used for food service and other applications. Even the stems have uses, but not as food (though they are fed to animals).
The photo specimens are Gluay Naam Waa. They were 5 inches long (not counting stem) and weighed 3.8 ounces each. These bananas are shipped green, and are not artificially ripened. They are ready for use as frying bananas when they are light yellow with still a little green showing, as in the photo. They are ready to eat out of hand when they start to develope a few small black streaks.
Gluay Tani (Musa balbisiana B Group - photo at
top of this page) is not found in the markets. It is a widespread wild
banana, and its fruit is full of hard black seeds. These plants form
clumps in the wild, but are not planted around homes because of their
association with the ghostess Nang Tani. When seen, she takes the form
of a young woman with a slightly green complexion, floating with her
feet just above the ground. She usually has a gentle disposition, but
it's considered unwise to take risks with ghosts.
Yangambi Km5 - [K5m; Musa AAA, Ibota subgroup]
This is a a flavorful disease resistant African "desert" variety from the
Congo which could become a popular dessert banana if disease destroys the
familiar Cavendish (though it is somewhat smaller). It is being studied
for resistance to both pests ane disease.Much of the ongoing development
work is being done by The University of Leuven (KU Leuven) of Belgium.
Photo from KU
Leuven, presumed non-free, used under Wikipedia definition of
"fair use" (educational, non-commercial, small, cropped and no reasonable
Banana Blossom - [banana
heart; banana bell (Australia); Dok kluai (Thai); Shang chao fua (China)]
This pointy heart shape item is the male inflorescence of the banana or plantain plant. It forms a point at the end of the flowering stem and consists of red leaf like bracts covering rows of male flowers. The bracts curl up one by one, each exposing a row of flowers (not "baby bananas" as so many descriptions say). Above the "blossom" are a large number of female flowers that will mature into bananas Commercial bananas are sterile, so the male inflorescence is not needed for pollination
The photo specimens were 1 pound 2 ounces, 3-3/8 inches diameter and 8-3/4
inches long, about medium size. They were imported from Mexico.
Details and Cooking.
Banana Leaf / Plantain Leaf
The photo shows half a banana leaf (split down the spine) with a little
off the ends. Around here they are sold fresh or frozen in half or quarter
leaves. The photo specimen, 6 feet long and 10 inches wide, was not the
longest or widest in the batch, but my carpet wasn't long enough for a
Details and Cooking.
Dwarf Banana -
[Ensete; False Banana, Ensete ventricosum]
Enset is planted widely in Ethiopia and noteworthy as a durable, long lived
crop providing a hedge against famine. The tiny banana-like fruits are not
edible, but the starchy root corm is. A tree takes four to five years to
mature, at which time the root can weigh around 80 pounds. There are related
ensets in India, Yunan, China and Thailand but they are not so important for
food as in Ethiopia. See Note-B1.
Photo by H.Zell distributed under license Creative Commons
Attribution-Share Alike v3.0 Unported.
- [Abacá; Musa textilis]
This plant is grown for its tough fibers. It is related to the banana and
completely unrelated to the hemp Cannabis sativa from which marijuana
is derived. Manilla Hemp has been primarily used to manufacture rope and
paper (from which we get the term "manilla envelope"). Photo
distributed under license Creative Commons
Attribution-Share Alike v3.0 Unported.
Bananas are considered in both tradition and modern medicine to be very healthy and nutritious to eat. Here are a few strong points.