Plant science at the dinner table: bananas

There is much to learn about this incredibly popular fruit!

Banana flower with baby bananas. Image by Pixabay.

I have been fascinated with how bananas grow ever since I visited a banana plantation in Costa Rica several years ago. Since then, I have been privileged to take several groups of Michigan State University students to learn more about this fascinating crop from a banana farmer while touring Sagitun Farm near Placencia, Belize. I find the way bananas are grown, harvested, packed and transported all interesting. To see for yourself, take a virtual visit to a banana farm through the "Planting and Growing Bananas” video, as well as the “Harvesting Bananas” video.

The videos should give you a new understanding of what it takes to get one of our most loved fruits from the farm to our tables. Given the incredible amount of time and resources, one must wonder how bananas can be grown, harvested,  transported and sold for 49 cents per pound.

Want to learn more about this incredibly popular fruit? Here are some fun facts about bananas:

  • The Latin name for the common banana is Musa spp, which means “fruit of wise men.” This species also includes plantains.
  • Americans enjoy about 27 pounds of bananas per person per year. 
  • Bananas do not grow on trees; they actually are the fruit of the world’s largest herb.
  • Bananas are propagated through cuttings which means that all bananas are clones of each other.
  • Hybrid bananas are parthenocarpic, which means that they don’t need to be pollinated to produce fruits.
  • Wild bananas do require pollination. They are pollinated by fruit bats.
  • The popular long yellow banana you see in the grocery store is the variety known as Cavendish. This banana makes up almost the entire global market.
  • A banana is classified as a berry because its’ seeds are inside the flesh of the fruit.
  • A cluster of bananas that you purchase in the store is called a hand; the individual bananas are called fingers.
  • “Banana” comes from the Arabic word “Banan,” meaning “finger.”
  • India is the top producer of bananas worldwide.
  • Hawaii is the top U.S. producer of bananas and the only state that produces them commercially.
  • There are more than 1,000 different varieties of bananas worldwide.
  • Bananas are a good source of fiber, potassium, vitamin B6 and vitamin C.
  • Today’s global banana production is seriously threatened by a strain of the soil-borne fungus Fusarium oxysporum f. sp cubense Tropical race 4 (Foc TR4). Learn more about TR4 from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
  • Due to TR4, banana farms have taken biosecurity measures such as not permitting visitors to banana farms.
  • Bananas are grown in 135 countries.
  • Bananas and plantains are a staple crop and important part of food security for 400 million people.
  • Bananas are an essential source of income in many developing countries.
  • Banana leaves are used as wrapping for many foods. They are also used for making paper and cooking some foods.

To learn more about bananas, check out the NPR Freakonomics episode titled “The Most Interesting Fruit in the World.” It provides a great history about the modern banana and what the future might be for this supermarket staple.

No matter how you like your bananas, in a pancake, smoothie, split or straight out of the peel, I hope you enjoyed reading this Michigan State University Extension article about the great little fruit and appreciate all the work it takes to travel to your table.

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