The banana (genus Musa, family Musaceae) is a giant herb related to the orchid, lily, and palm family. (No, it's not a tree.) It's a perennial which grows in warm, humid tropical climates every year from a gnarled, fleshy rhizome which has many buds, like the eyes of a potato. The plant develops leafy stalks with massive leaves that can be 30 feet long, making the banana the largest plant on earth without a woody stem.
Once a stalk has matured, a flowering stem emerges and develops a large bud. Each leaf of the bud unfolds to reveal a double row of tiny flowers, each of which becomes a banana fruit (actually a berry), which is also called a finger. Each row has about 15 to 30 fingers to make up a hand. One stem typically develops 7 to 10 hands of bananas in a one-year period.
On plantations, after the hands are harvested, the plant is cut back, and other stalks develop from the fleshy tuber that is the rhizome. Banana plants can grow from the same rhizome for more than 100 years. Interestingly, these cultivar bananas are triploid, that is, they contain three sets of chromosomes, and are generally seedless and sterile. This means that breeding new cultivars, for example with immunity to banana pests and diseases, is more difficult than it would be with normal diploid plants. Diploid bananas are rare except in Southeast Asia.
Bananas are one of the largest fruit crops in the world, but unlike other fruits, are best picked green and allowed to ripen off the plant; when green, they are very astringent, but most varieties are sweet and soft when ripe. Ideally, bananas should be bought when slightly green at the tips (if you like them not-so-ripe, like me), or yellow with a few tiny brown specks on the skin. Dark marks indicate bruising; avoid those.
To ripen, store uncovered at room temperature, or to speed ripening, put them in a paper bag for a day or two. If they are already ripe, you can store them in the refrigerator; the skin will blacken, but the flesh will remain unchanged.
Chiquita Banana claims that bananas are the perfect food: one banana has about 100 calories, but no fat, cholesterol, or sodium. Bananas are high in fibre, vitamin B6, and potassium.
There are hundreds of banana species; the one I grew up with is Cavendish, a long plump variety. But I was amazed when I lived in Thailand to discover that the Thai consider these inferior bananas, not worth eating. They have tiny delicious finger bananas, as well as a short fat variety which contains big black seeds; these were my favourite. And there's lots more. My Food Lover's Companion mentions a squat square burro banana with a tangy flavour (this could be my Thai one); the blue java banana, with a blotchy silverish skin; the red banana; the strawberry-apple-flavoured manzano, which has black skin when it's ready to be eaten; the little Indian variety mysore, and the strawberry-flavoured orinoco.
And I must also mention plantains, which are a large firm less sweet variety of banana popular in many parts of Latin America, Asia, and Africa. These big babies can be green or yellow or even brown-skinned; the flesh can be ivory to salmon coloured. Plantains are usually cooked when green, and are less sweet and more fibrous than other types bananas.
Bananas are quite versatile. They can be eaten raw or baked, roasted, flambeed, dipped in batter and deep fried (a snack I often enjoyed in Thailand); they can also be dried and made into banana chips, or ground into flour. Bananas make a good quick bread, muffin, ice cream, cream pie, and even a sauce.
The leaves of the banana are useful as well. In Asian and Latin America they are often used to wrap foods such as sticky rice, meat, or fish for baking or steaming. You can often find banana leaves frozen in Asian markets; cut off the appropriate sized piece, and be sure to wash both sides of the leaf well before using. Banana leaves make exotic and attractive serving dishes as well. Some banana varieties are not grown for food at all, but for fiber from the leaves and stems.
I guess I should mention that the shape of the banana makes it an obvious phallic symbol.
I found out much of the information on how bananas grow from
If you're interested in learning more about international solidarity with banana workers, and getting a less rosy view of Chiquita, visit the Banana Action Net at
For information on the environmental impact of banana plantations, why not go to Banana Link at
If it's banana memorabilia you're after, go to the Washington Banana Museum at
See also the truth about Chiquita bananas