Bananas with Male Flower Bananas

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.

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General & History

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 Banana cut open

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 Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike v3.0 Unported.

Commercial Bananas   -   [Musa acuminata, Musa balbisiana, and Musa acuminata x balbisiana (all previously Musa paradisiaca and other names)]
All commercial seedless bananas are either polyploids (sterile genetic diploids, triploids or tetraploids) of one of the two species listed above, or are hybrids of the two. They are given letter designations from the first letters of the two species. The old name paradisiaca was rather confused and has been dropped.

Baby Banana - See Niño Banana

Blue Java   -   [Hawaiian Banana, Ice Cream Banana; (ABB group)]
Bunch of Blue Java Banana

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 Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike v3.0 attribution required.

Burro bananas This banana is now fairly available in Southern California particularly in ethnic groceries. It's short, rather squarish in cross section and more flavorful than the Cavendish. They are noted for a hint of lemon in the flavor. They look very like the Philippine Saba banana, but apparently are different and much less sweet.

Cavendish   -   [Chiquita Banana, Grand Nain; (AAA group)]
Ripe Cavendish Bananas

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)]
Bunch of EAHB

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)]
A new variety developed in Honduras and introduced in 1994. It has become fairly popular in Australia but has yet to penetrate the North American Market. It is much more pest resistant than the Cavendish. The Goldfinger can be cooked into fries when green, but is expected to be more popular fully ripe.

Gros Michel   -   [Big Mike; (AAA group)]
Bunch of Gros Michel

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 by Wikipedia.

Lacatan Banana   -   [Lakatan Banana; (AA group)]
Ripe Lacatan Bananas

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 Lacatan"

Manzano   -   [Apple Banana, Latundan, Tundan Banana, Silk Banana, Pisang raja sereh; (AAB group)]
Ripe Manzano Bananas

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.

Niño   -   [Baby Banana, Lady Finger Banana, PLU 4234; (AA group)]
Nino Bananas

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 black specks.

Plantain   -   [Cooking Banana; Dodo (West Africa); (AAB and ABB groups)]
Yellow and Black Plantains

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.

A Polynesian cooking banana, short and blunt, resembling a Mediterranean squash. Subst: Plantain.

Red Banana   -   [Red Dacca Banana (Au); (AAA group)]
Red Dacca Bananas

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)]
Hand of Saba

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) ]
Double Hand of Naam Waa

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.

  • Gluay Naam Waa:   (Musa acuminata x balbisiana (ABB)) A Short plump banana, the most popular banana in Thailand, much used for fried bananas. Some are now grown in the southern tip of Florida in the United States.   Subst: The Burro Banana, available in Hispanic markets, is considered a good substitute.
  • Gluay Hom;   (Fragrant Banana) Similar in appearance to American Cavendish bananas, but actually Gros Michel, its commercial predecessor.
  • Gluay Khai:   (Egg Banana) Very short and wide, with thin skin and very strong scent. Not seen in North America, probably because it doesn't ship well.
  • Gluay Lep Muu Nang:   (Dancer's Fingernail, of Lady Finger Banana) Short and thin, rather pointed at the tip end and very sweet.
  • Gluay Hak Muk:   (Plantain) Large, thick skinned cooking bananas, available in Hispanic markets here in North America.

Yangambi Km5   -   [K5m; Musa AAA, Ibota subgroup] Bunch of Km5

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 alternatives available.

Banana Blossom - [banana heart; banana bell (Australia); Dok kluai (Thai); Shang chao fua (China)]
Male Banana Flowers

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
1/2 Fresh Banana Leaf Banana leaf is used in many tropical areas of the world in place of plates, particularly at banquets and other large events, and in street food stalls and restaurants. Plantain leaves may be a little tougher. Leaves are also an important food wrapper particularly to hold and protect food during steaming and for making rice cakes, which may be cylindrical or pyramid shaped.

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 larger one.   Details and Cooking.

Other Musaceae

Dwarf Banana   -   [Musa acuminata]
Flowering Dwarf Banana

A low growing banana plant grown particularly in the West Indies for edible fruit. Photo by Raul654 distributed under GNU Free Documentation License v1.2

Enset   -   [Ensete; False Banana, Ensete ventricosum]
Growing Enset Plant

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.

Manilla Hemp   - [Abacá; Musa textilis]
Manilla Hemp Flower

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.

Health & Nutrition

Bananas are considered in both tradition and modern medicine to be very healthy and nutritious to eat. Here are a few strong points.

  • Potassium:   This is a mineral bananas are particularly noted for. It can help with salt balance, blood pressure and water balance. It is said to aid cognitive function, particularly in children.
  • Tryptophan:   While banana provides only 100th the amount in an equal weight of egg white, it is still reputed to be calming to the nerves, and is considered "cooling" in traditional Asian medicine.
  • Iron:   Bananas contain enough iron to be helpful in cases of anemia, as it stimulates formation of red blood cells.
  • Dietary Fiber:   Bananas are considered to have a very beneficial influence on the digestive tract, due to fiber and its general nature.
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