Where Do Bananas Come From?
History and Cultivation
Bananas originated in South Asia, where they were domesticated. Their presence in Papua New Guinea dates back to at least 5000 B.C. Africa also has a long history of banana cultivation, particularly in Cameroon and Madagascar.
Islamic texts dating back to the 9th century have references to bananas, along with texts from the 10th century from Palestine and Egypt. Muslim Iberia, particularly Granada, was known for having superior quality bananas.
During the 16th century, Portuguese explorers and traders brought bananas from West Africa to the New World, and with it, they brought the name “banana,” which comes from a West African language called Wolof. The Portuguese created banana plantations in their colonies in Brazil, western Africa, and some Caribbean Islands.
North Americans began eating bananas when they were brought to Boston after the Civil War, and they became widespread in the 1880s. The United Fruit Company (which would later become Chiquita) formed in the early 19th century, followed by the Standard Fruit Company (which would later become Dole).
The United Fruit Company saw the potential for profit with banana plantations, as they were an inexpensive fruit to produce. They began plantations in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean islands, where they exploited the land and labor of natives. Soon, the Standard Fruit Company, (which would later become Dole) started banana plantations in Honduras. The economies of these small, poor countries became dependent on their banana export.
The large-scale companies became monopolies and began to interfere with the unstable local governments where they had their plantations, even convincing the U.S. government that they were communists, in order to take over more land. These foreign companies took advantage of their position and began to control the politics of these poorer countries. Guatemala and Honduras were two of the main countries affected by these so-called banana republics, which has caused long-term disadvantage to both of them, both politically and economically.
The main cultivars of bananas are all descended from two wild bananas: Musa acuminata, and Musa balbisiana. Wild bananas have large seeds and little pulp, and are quite difficult to eat. Wild bananas were bred over many years to achieve the tiny seeds they have today.
Now, rather than breeding bananas, farmers must propagate them, because their seeds are infertile. This is done either by cutting and transplanting part of the stem, or by tissue culture. This method helps insure that plants are disease-free.
Since bananas are a non-seasonal crop, they can be found in grocery stores year-round.
India produces the highest amount of bananas per year, but most are consumed domestically.
The top ten banana producing countries are:
- Costa Rica
The main producers of bananas worldwide are:
- Del Monte
These top four producers grow their bananas in Ecuador, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Honduras.
The top producers of plantains are in Uganda and Colombia. The Windward Islands in the Caribbean grow Cavendish bananas for the international market, including Europe and North America. Their government subsidizes banana production in order to help to support their agriculture as well as the fair trade movement. Many other countries with the appropriate, warm climate produce bananas on a smaller, family-sized scale.
Gros Michel: This variety was the most popular type of banana before the 1950s, when many became infected with Panama disease, and were replaced with the dwarf Cavendish.
Cavendish: The overwhelming majority of bananas produced today are of the Cavendish variety, which belongs to the Musa acuminata family. This variety was created in 1836, but since they do not breed, they still lack genetic variation, which makes them more susceptible to disease.
Dwarf Cavendish: A miniature variety of the standard Cavendish.
What’s the difference between a banana and a plantain?
While botanists used to separate bananas and plantains as different species, they recently stopped differentiating the two. Now, bananas and plantains are more a culinary difference: Plantains are normally used for cooking and considered a starch (like a potato), while bananas, sometimes called dessert bananas, are firmer, sweeter, and eaten like a fruit.
Plantains are eaten when they are less ripe, meaning they have a lower sugar content. When bananas are greener, they are less sweet because they emit ethylene as they ripen, which breaks down the starches into sugars. In many tropical countries, especially within Africa, plantains are cooked similarly to potatoes: fried, boiled, baked, and made into chips.
Fun fact: ripened bananas are fluorescent under ultraviolet light, green are not – helping animals who see ultraviolet light know which bananas are ripe.