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The Banana
Nature Bulletin No. 604   May 14, 1960
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Daniel Ryan, President
David H Thompson, Senior Naturalist

A banana fits the human hand and mouth as neatly as if it had been made to order Merely zip the skin down and bite -- no messy fingers, no squirting juice, and no seeds to spit out, Besides, it is sweet, full of flavor and nourishing. Chicagoans should know They ate 5,000 carloads of them in 1959 -- more than apples, oranges, melons or any other fresh fruit.

What happens before we see ripe, yellow bananas in stores and fruit stands is unknown to most of us That is because all of them are imported from the swampy, fever-ridden tropics of the West Indies, Mexico, Central America and South America -- the so-called "banana republics". The only ones grown in the United States are kept as curiosities in greenhouses or in subtropical Florida.

The history and travels of the banana date back to ancient times. Originally it was probably a native of the hot, steamy jungles of Malaya and the East Indies. About 300 B.C., Alexander the Grate's troops enjoyed them in India where they had already been cultivated for centuries. Very early, it was transplanted to east Africa and, thence, by Arab traders to the Guinea Coast of west Africa where it got the name "banana". From here, in 1482, Portuguese explorers carried it to the Canary Islands In 1516, Father Tomas de Berlanga, a Spanish missionary, brought a few roots from the Canaries to Santo Domingo in the West Indies and introduced this abundant, staple food to the New World, The first shipload of fruit was landed in New York in 1830. After that it was only an occasional novelty on American markets until nearly 1900 when the great expansion of the banana-growing industry began.

The banana is a strange plant and our notions about it are likely to be mistaken. In the first place it is not a tree even though it reaches tree size. What appears to be a tall, sturdy trunk is really the broad leaf- stems wrapped tightly in overlapping layers It has no wood. At the top is a crown of ten to twenty huge, tattered, paddle-shaped leaves, each about 2 feet wide and 10 feet long.

A new banana plant is started by burying a large chunk of an underground rootstock with an "eye", as we plant a potato -- never from a seed. After ten months or a year, when the plant is 15 to 30 feet high, a great purplish bud, like a ripe eggplant, pushes out of the crown of leaves and bends over. The bud opens to expose yellowish flowers, each cluster of which becomes one of the "hands" of bananas on the bunch. As the bananas grow plump, they turn upward, which is upside down to the way we see them hanging in the grocery. Two or three months after the bud appears, although still quite green, the bunch is ready to be harvested and shipped. Bananas which ripen on the plant have a poor flavor.

A banana plant bears only one bunch of fruit. On plantations, after the bunch is harvested, the plant is chopped down and allowed to rot on the ground. New sprouts spring up about the stump, Later, these shoots are all cut off except one or two which, after a year, produce more fruit, Since it is tropical, the fruit matures and is shipped to American markets every month in the year. Operating a banana plantation is as complicated as a three-ring circus or an army in the field.

A close kin of the banana plant with the same general size and appearance is the Plantain -- not even remotely related to our common lawn weed of the same name A native of India, its fruit is widely cultivated for cooking in the West Indies and Central America Plantains are not eaten raw.

Another near relative with the same general appearance as the banana is the Abaca or Manila Hemp plant of the Philippines Fibers extracted from its leaves are the source of our famous manila rope.

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