Now, I don’t grow bananas. England isn’t that kind, even in the south. But I do love bananas. I do eat bananas, a lot. And I would love to grow bananas. But because I can hardly keep citrus trees alive and I’ve already half killed to plums and a pear in my short gardening life-time, best not to go there…
But I’ve done my research and I present to whoever can grow bananas an ‘all you need to know page’, I hope!
Banana, an edible fruit, botanically a berry, produced by several kinds of herbaceous plants in the genus Musa. In some countries, bananas used for cooking may be called plantains. The fruit is variable in size and colour and firmness, but usually elongated-ly curved with soft, rich flesh in starch covered in the middle by a rind that can be green, yellow (yay), red, purple or brown. The fruit grows from the top of the plant, hanging in clusters. Almost all bananas come from the wild species Musa acuminate and Musa balbisiana.
Worldwide, there is no sharp distinction between “bananas” and “plantains”. Especially in the Americas and Europe, “banana” usually refers to soft, sweet, dessert bananas, particularly those of the Cavendish group which are the main exports from banana-growing countries. By contrast, cultivators with firmer, starchier fruit are called “plantains”. In other regions, such as South East Asia, many more kinds of banana are grown and eaten, so the binary distinction is not useful and is not made in local languages.
The word banana is thought to be of West African origin, possibly from the Wolof word banaana, and passed into English via Spanish or Portuguese
All the above-ground parts of a banana plant grow from a structure usually called a corm. Plants are normally tall and fairly sturdy, and are often mistaken for trees but what appears to be a trunk is actually a “false stem” or pseudostem. Bananas grow in a wide variety of soils, as long as the soil is at least 60 cm deep, has good drainage and is not compacted. The leaves of banana plants are composed of a “stalk”, petiole, and a blade, lamina. The base of the petiole widens to form a sheath – the tightly packed sheaths make up the pseudostem, which is all that supports the plant. The edges of the sheath meet when it is first produced, making it tubular. As new growth occurs in the centre of the pseudostem the edges are forced apart. Cultivated banana plants vary in height, depending on the variety and growing conditions. Most are around 5 m (16 ft) tall, with a range from ‘Dwarf Cavendish’ plants at around 3 m (10 ft) to ‘Gros Michel’ at 7 m (23 ft) or more. Leaves are spirally arranged and may grow 2.7 metres (8.9 ft) long and 60 cm (2.0 ft) wide. They are easily torn by the wind, resulting in the familiar frond look. When a banana plant is mature, the corm stops producing new leaves and begins to form a flower spike or an inflorescence. A stem develops which grows up inside the pseudostem, carrying the immature inflorescence until eventually it emerges at the top. Each pseudostem normally produces a single inflorescence, also known as the “banana heart”. After fruiting, the pseudostem dies, but offshoots will normally have developed from the base, so that the plant as a whole is perennial. In the plantation system of cultivation, only one of the offshoots will be allowed to develop in order to maintain spacing. The inflorescence contains many bracts between rows of flowers. The female flowers, which can develop into fruit, appear in rows further up the stem, closer to the leaves, from the rows of male flowers. The banana fruits develop from the banana heart, in a large hanging cluster, made up of tiers (called “hands”), with up to 20 fruit to a tier. The hanging cluster is known as a bunch, comprising 3–20 tiers or commercially as a “banana stem”, and can weigh 30–50 kilograms (66–110 lb). Individual banana fruits (commonly known as a banana or “finger”) average 125 grams (0.276 lb), of which approximately 75% is water and 25% dry matter (nutrient table, lower right). The fruit has been described as a “leathery berry”. There is a protective outer layer (a peel or skin) with numerous long, thin strings (the phloem bundles), which run lengthwise between the skin and the edible inside. In cultivated varieties, the seeds are diminished nearly to non-existence; their remnants are tiny black specks in the interior of the fruit.
Farmers in SE Asia and Papua New Guinea first domesticated bananas. Recent archaeological and palaeoenvironmental evidence at Kuk Swamp in the Western Highland Province of Papua New Guinea suggests that banana cultivation there goes back to at least 5000BC and possibly to 8000 BC. It is likely that other species were later and independently domesticated elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia is the region of primary diversity of the banana. Areas of secondary diversity are found in Africa, indicating a long history of banana cultivation in the region. There are numerous references to the banana in Islamic texts beginning in the 9th century. By the 10th century the banana appears in texts from Palestine and Egypt. From there it diffused into North Africa and Muslim Iberia. During the medieval ages, bananas from Granada were considered among the best in the Arab world. Bananas were certainly grown in the Cyprus by the late medieval period. Writing in 1458, an Italian traveller and writer wrote favourably of the extensive farm produce of the estates at Episkopi, near modern-day Limassol, including the region’s banana plantations. Bananas were introduced to the Americas by Portuguese sailors who brought the fruits from West Africa in the 16th century. Portuguese colonists started banana plantations in the Atlantic Islands, Brazil, and western Africa. North Americans began consuming bananas on a small scale at very high prices shortly after the Civil War, though it was only in the 1880s that the food became more widespread. As late as the Victorian era, bananas were not widely known in Europe, although they were available. Verne introduces bananas to his readers with detailed descriptions in Around the World in Eighty Days in 1872. The earliest modern banana plantations originated in the Western Caribbean zone, involving the combination of modern transportation networks of steamships and railroads with the development of refrigeration that allowed more time between harvesting and ripening. Their political manoeuvres gave rise to the term Banana Republic for states like Honduras and Guatemala. The vast majority of the world’s bananas today are cultivated for family consumption or for sale on local markets. India is the world leader in this sort of production, but many other Asian and African countries where climate and soil conditions allow cultivation also host large populations of banana growers who sell at least some of their crop.
While in no danger of outright extinction, the most common edible banana cultivar Cavendish (extremely popular in Europe and the Americas) could become unviable for large-scale cultivation in the next 10–20 years. Its predecessor, Gros Michel discovered in the 1820s, suffered this fate. Like almost all bananas, Cavendish lacks genetic diversity, which makes it vulnerable to diseases, threatening both commercial cultivation and small-scale subsistence farming.
Bananas are a great dietary source of potassium. One medium-sized banana (118 grams) contains 9% of the RDI. Potassium is good for protecting your heart from disease, by lowering your blood pressure. Eating a good amount of potassium can decrease your chance of heart disease by 27%. Also, potassium is good for you hair and nail growth, keeping them strong and un-brittle. Dietary fiber has been linked to many health benefits, including improved digestion. A medium-sized banana contains about 3 grams of fibre. Bananas contain mainly two types of fiber:
- Pectin: Decreases as the banana ripens.
- Resistant starch: Found in unripe bananas.
Resistant starch escapes digestion and ends up in our large intestine, where it becomes food for the beneficial gut bacteria. Additionally, some cell studies propose that pectin may help protect against colon cancer. Bananas are often referred to as the perfect food for athletes, largely due to their mineral content and easily digested carbs. Eating bananas may help reduce exercise-related muscle cramps and soreness. The reason for the cramps is unknown, but a popular theory blames a mixture of dehydration and electrolyte imbalance.
So what do you do when you (are lucky) and grow a large number of bananas or have a large bunch sitting in your kitchen, quickly turning brown?
Well, here are some ideas to incorporate bananas into your daily diet:
- Sliced up on cereal or porridge with milk for breakfast is great.
- Mashed with strawberries makes a good light pudding or snack.
- Sliced with greek yoghurt is delicious.
- Banana and peanut butter/Nutella on toast anyone…?
- Sliced or mashed banana with milk and a dash of sugar.
- Banana smoothie/ milkshake
But the best recipe for browning/very brown that they are past edible, is banana cake.
My favourite is Chocolate Banana Loaf (what a surprise), but to begin with, I offer you this plain version. Never toss your brown bananas away, just shove them in this delicious cake, or if you have too many, bananas freeze very well. To defrost, put them in the microwave and mix them into another cake batter later on.
Serves 10, 1.5kg loaf tin
-300g self-raising flour -150g salted butter -150g granulated sugar -3 eggs -4 large bananas -75ml full-fat milk
- Preheat the oven to 180C. Line the loaf tin with baking parchment.
- Mix the flour and butter together until they resemble a bread crumb consistency. Mix in the sugar.
- Add the eggs and combine. Peel the bananas from their skins and mix in thoroughly. Add the milk, to loosen the mixture. Mix well.
- Scrape the smooth cake batter into the lined loaf tin and bake in the oven for approximately 45 minutes. When a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean, the cake is done.
- Leave the cake in the tin to cool before transferring to a wire rack. Serve in square slices. Keep in an airtight container and consume within three days.