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
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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Update: June 2012