August 27th is National Banana Lovers Day (April 18th is National Banana Day 2018).
While you’re on a long conference call, or waiting for an internet connection that’s taking its time, show your love by decorating your banana.
No drawing talent? Take a Sharpie or a ball point pen and create swirls, zigzags, dots, whatever.
Like to draw? Create banana art for family and friends (photo #1).
Can’t do either? Then enjoy this history of bananas.
The original, wild, banana was tiny and filled with large seeds the size of peppercorns (photo #2).
Bananas were first domesticated in Southeast Asia and Papua New Guinea, by at least 5000 B.C.E. and possibly as far back as 8000 B.C.E.
Southeast Asia has the largest diversity of banana species, followed by Africa, indicating a long history of banana cultivation in those regions (source). Over millennia, bananas were bred into the fleshy fruits (botanically, they’re the not fruits but the berries** of herbs) we know today.
Many wild banana species can still be found in China, India and Southeast Asia, in the areas south of China, east of India, west of New Guinea and north of Australia. They require a tropical or sub-tropical climate.
A 2001 New Yorker article notes:
“More than a thousand varieties of banana exist worldwide. The vast majority are not viable for export: Their bunches are too small, their skin is too thin, or their pulp is too bland.”
Numerous of these varieties are plantains, are starchy and inedible until cooked (there’s more on plantains below).
The article continues: “There are fuzzy bananas whose skins are bubblegum pink; green-and-white striped bananas with pulp the color of orange sherbet; bananas that, when cooked, taste like strawberries (photo #3).
“The Double Mahoi plant can produce two bunches at once. The Chinese name of the aromatic Go San Heong banana means “You can smell it from the next mountain.’ The fingers on one banana plant grow fused; another produces bunches of a thousand fingers, each only an inch long.”
Alexander the Great introduced bananas to what is now Western Europe in 327 B.C.E. They were brought back from his campaigns in Asia and India, China and Southeast Asia.
It took centuries after that—around 800 C.E.—for bananas to make their way to the Middle East.
By the 10th century, the banana appears in texts from Palestine and Egypt. From there it diffused into North Africa and Muslim Iberia (southern Spain). During the Medieval Ages, bananas from Granada were considered among the best in the Arab world [source].
BANANAS COME TO THE AMERICAS
Bananas were introduced to the New World in the 16th century via Portuguese sailing ships, which carried them from West Africa to South America. The fruit’s name comes from a West African language [Wolof, the major language in what is now Senegal] where banan means finger.
In 1870, a Cape Cod fishing-boat captain named Lorenzo Dow Baker imported 160 bunches of bananas from Jamaica to to Jersey City, New Jersey: the first bananas in the U.S.
Shopkeepers hung the bunches and cut off the number of bananas requested by the customer. By 1900 Americans were 15 million bunches of bananas annually; 40 million by 1910. Twenty years later, Baker’s company was renamed United Fruit, today called Chiquita Brands.
By the 1960, United Fruit controlled nearly seven hundred million acres of land and 90% of the American banana market.
If you’ve had bananas in other countries and find our American imports to be bland in comparison, that’s because the original species Baker imported, the Gros Michel, has long since been replaced by the Cavendish—a blander variety that travels more easily.
THE LOSS OF THE GROS MICHEL BANANA
Many thanks to Wayne Ferrebee for much of this information.
Over millennia, farmers hybridized wild species of bananas and selectively bred the different strains into varieties called cultivars.