Whence the Banana?

The banana is truly one of the weirdest plants in nature. Not a tree, it’s actually an herb. Which means that every year it sprouts up, fruits, and dies back to its underground rhizome (technically known as a corm). Mind boggling when you consider that banana plants can grow to be over 40 feet tall. To look at one, it appears as some sort of palm tree. That is, until it shoots out a suspiciously phallic-looking flower stem, which in time grows so heavy with fruit — actually berries…actually false berries — that it flops over, bananas pointing upward. It’s this upward growth in defiance of gravity that gives bananas their characteristic curve.

Each flower can have up to 20 clusters of fruit (called “hands” in “the business”) and each cluster can have up to 300 individual fruits (you guessed: “fingers”). Considering that each banana can weigh 8 ounces or so, that’s a whole lot of starchy fruit. On which note, we talked below about how apples convert starch to sugar as they ripen. Bananas do the same thing but at a much more impressive rate. In an unripe banana the ratio of starches to sugars is 25-1, but by the time they fully ripen that ratio has completely flipped, to 1-20, which is why Mrs. Pastry lets hers ripen until they’re practically black. What a sweet tooth that girls has!

Bananas originated in Southeast Asia somewhere, it’s thought in New Guinea, since that’s where they were first cultivated, around 5,000 B.C.. Yet varieties of wild bananas abound in places like Mayalsia and the Phillipines, so it’s hard to know for certain. What everyone agrees on is that bananas found their way to China some time in the first millennia B.C., and to India sometime before 327 B.C. (we know that because Alexander the Great ate them as he tromped on through). From there they spread West via Arab traders who subsequently planted them throughout southern Arab lands. That takes us up to around 650 A.D., where the picture gets hazy. Some botanists claim bananas moved south from North Africa with the Arabs, who traded slaves there. Others say the banana was introduced to Madagascar by Malayan traders, then moved West. However it happened, it swept across Africa in no time, becoming a dominant crop in just a few hundred years (which was “no time” back then).

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to encounter bananas in West Africa in 1402, and they quickly spread them. First to the Canary Islands (where they’re still grown) and eventually to the New World, where they were readily taken up by both colonists and indigenous peoples starting around 1500. Banana plants spread so quickly around Central and South America that most early colonists mistook them for indigenous trees. Bananas remained a local food crop until about 1870 when they were “discovered” by North Americans and trade in the fruit boomed. But that’s a whole ‘nother story. More later today.

4 thoughts on “Whence the Banana?”

  1. My neighbor grows bananas. He is originally from Viet Nam and they eat both the blossom and the fruit. One of the funniest sites is when he protects the developing fruit from the birds and sun – he puts an old buttoned-up shirt over them. It looks like a scarecrow. Ha ha… it’s hilarious but it might only by funny if seen in person. I hope you can imagine how funny it looks.

    At one time there was a banana plantation not too far away on the California coast. Unfortunately the plantation failed and has been replaced by wine grapes. They specialized in little-seen varieties of banana. There are a jillion different types of bananas, may with very unique tastes and mouth-feels. One I particularly recall was called “ice cream banana”. It was short and very stout… and tasted a bit like [guess what].

    1. I’ve heard about those ice cream bananas but have never tried one. Mrs. Pastry would be especially interested!

      Thanks for the comment, Brian. I want a picture of the banana scarecrow!

      – Joe

  2. We had a banana plant at our place in Florida, I loved the smell of the blooms, reminded me of jucyfruit gum! It was a wild version so the bananas were not great (one case where wild is not as good tasting as cultivated).

    1. Amazing how many cultivars of bananas there are in the world. I love the thought of minim ones, fat ones, you name it, but in the end they’re usually too starchy for me. You remind me of an experience buying a banana plant through the mail. Now that my tech problems are apparently fixed I’ll have to put up a post about it!


      – Joe

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