Bananas—niños and red—in a market in Mexico.
Touring a banana plantation in Western Australia about 20 years ago, I learned something that surprised me. Bananas do not grow on trees. They grow on tall herbs. In fact, the banana plant is the world’s largest herb. It’s mostly water held together with a bit of greenery. However, though bananas are herbs, many of their distant relatives are spices, including ginger, turmeric, and cardamom.
Another thing that might seem surprising, especially if you’re reading this in some cold, northern clime where bananas aren’t growing in your backyard, is that bananas, including plantains, are considered a staple food on the world stage. (Bananas are one of the two world’s staples—the other is coconut—that are not cereals or roots.)
The bananas we find in our grocery stores are hybrids—and, indeed, this is true of the hundreds of varieties of bananas found in markets worldwide. In the wild, bananas are full of seeds and not terribly appetizing. Most cultivated bananas today are descended from a hybrid created eons ago using an edible (though not ideal) wild banana known as the “monkey banana,” which still grows in the Malaysian/Indonesian region, and another wild species, this one inedible. Because of the relative unpleasantness of wild bananas, it seems likely that this crossbreeding took place fairly early in human history.
Wild bananas originated in the general region of tropical Asia, though scholars’ opinions vary, placing the point of origin solidly in Malaysia or giving it a range from eastern India through Southeast Asia. Based on recent archaeological evidence, there are even some scholars backing New Guinea, at least as the first point of domestication. Wherever in this region bananas started, they were on the move early, though for much of their early history, we only know where they popped up, not how or exactly when they got there. For the first several millennia, however, they stuck to the warm, wet regions of the Asian continent. The archaeological record indicates that bananas were being cultivated in the Indus Valley—a fair distance from home—by around 4000 BC.
Whether or not bananas started in India or were introduced early on, it is the first place bananas showed up in print—in Buddhist texts in 600 BC and in the Ramayana, one of the holy books of Hindu, in the 4th century BC. Bananas appear not to have ever made it to Greece or Rome. In fact, for a long time, the only European mention of bananas was in reports made by people who simply saw or heard of the fruit. For example, Alexander the Great and his soldiers encountered bananas when they invaded India in the 4th century BC, which we learn from the Roman scholar, Pliny the Elder, who described the fruit when he recounted Alexander’s exploits, though Pliny never saw a banana.
Banana cultivation appears to have been well established in China by AD 200. However, bananas could be grown only in the south of China and remained a rare delicacy in the north until the 20th century. This was actually a pattern that was to repeat wherever the banana moved—almost instant ubiquity in the tropics; rarity in the temperate regions, at least until modern times. Bananas also began to spread into the Pacific islands, moving outward from eastern Indonesia to the Marquesas and then island hopping, in the company of Polynesian mariners, to Hawaii.
Arabs, who controlled the spice trade for millennia, may have cultivated bananas in North Africa as early as AD 650, though no farther south than Egypt. The primary evidence of Arab familiarity with bananas is that the Koran identifies the fruit consumed by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden as being a banana. However, the banana came to sub-Saharan Africa with the Indonesians who began settling in Madagascar around AD 700. Because the bananas were carried directly from the Malay Peninsula to Africa, the original Malaysian wild species can be found in Africa. By the 14th century, the banana had spread to Africa’s west coast.
In 1402, Portuguese sailors encountered bananas in West Africa. Aside from adopting the fruit (carrying it off and establishing it in the Canary Islands), the Portuguese also adopted the Guinean name, banema or banana. It was from the successful plantations in the Canary Islands that the first banana plants were introduced to the Americas.
Friar Tomás de Berlanga, who would later become the Bishop of Panama, carried banana roots with him when he visited the island of Hispaniola in 1516. From there, bananas spread quickly to Central and South America. Here, as in other tropical regions, bananas, both sweet and starchy, became staple foods. However, bananas remained completely unknown in the United States until the late 19th century. Bananas were officially introduced to the American public at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, but the flow of bananas into the US had actually started a few years earlier.
In 1870, a sea captain from Wellfleet, MA, sailed into Jersey City with a 160 bunches of bananas he’d bought in Jamaica. The captain, Lorenzo Dow Baker, had bought green bananas, so the fruit was just reaching perfect ripeness when he reached port. Each bunch went for the then princely sum of $2—and they were snatched up by a public eager for new, exotic taste treats. Baker began making regular runs to Jamaica and soon, with the help of a 21-year-old Boston produce dealer named Andrew Preston, began to build the fleet of ships and distribution network that would become the Boston Fruit Company.
In 1873, a young New York railroad contractor named Minor Keith headed to Central America to help Costa Rica build a national railroad. This turned out to be a brutally difficult project, with 4,000 deaths, including Keith’s brothers, during the 19 years of construction. To help fund the project, Keith planted bananas along the route of the train and began shipping bananas to the US. In 1883, 110 thousand bunches of bananas were exported from Costa Rica. By 1890, the number exceeded a million. When the railroad was completed, Costa Rica couldn’t pay for it, so they gave it and the surrounding land to Keith. Keith, with his railroad and plantations, joined forces with the Boston Fruit Company in 1899, forming the United Fruit Company. By 1903, the company, which then controlled 75 percent of the banana sales in the United States, was listed on the New York Stock Exchange. This was the beginning of what would grow into Chiquita Bananas International.
However, despite the efforts of ship’s captains and railroad builders, bananas were not widely or consistently available in most of North America (or Europe) until after World War I. But with the advent of refrigerated vessels and better communication, that changed rapidly. Today, bananas are the most popular fruit in the U.S., with the average American consuming about 25 pounds a year.
The banana (in its approximately 400 variations, including the plantain) grows in virtually every humid tropical region in the world—130 countries, more countries than any other fruit crop. Surprisingly, bananas are so important locally that many banana-growing countries export little or nothing of their annual crop. For example, India, which is the leading producer of bananas in the world, growing almost a quarter of the planet’s bananas, keeps almost everything for domestic consumption. In East Africa, annual consumption can be in excess of 400 pounds per person.
Bananas are exported chiefly by Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Costa Rica, Honduras, and Guatemala—the so-called “Banana Republics.” (In fact, when I was in Ecuador, I learned that most of Quito’s taxicabs were purchased from Russia in exchange for a vastly large quantity of bananas, at a time when Russia needed food more than cars.) The only European country that grows bananas, oddly enough, is Iceland, where they are planted in soil heated by geysers.
Banana plants grow very rapidly, then produce one enormous purple to pink flower, which, when pollinated, produces a very large bunch of bananas. The plant then dies, and a new plant starts up from its roots almost immediately. Once they begin producing, the plants can produce continually for 15 years or more.
Banana flower, Thailand
Of the estimated 85 million tons of bananas produced worldwide each year, approximately 30 million tons are plantains. Unlike the sweet bananas (most commonly designated “dessert bananas”) that we consume as fruit, the plantain is generally treated as a vegetable. It is starchier, less sweet, and needs to be cooked. Plantains can often be found prepared as fritters, battered and deep fried, or prepared like potato chips. Plantains appear in various tropical cuisines as side dishes, fried, sautéed, mashed, or baked. In some places, they take the place of the potato. In many places, immature dessert varieties are also used as vegetables.
So that banana you have on your cereal or in your lunchbox is actually a major player on the world stage, historically, culturally, and economically. Actually, it’s pretty amazing that so many of us get to enjoy them.
[This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in Hungry Magazine.]
© 2008 Cynthia Clampitt