The banana defined as the perennial herb is one of the world’s healthiest foods. A banana’s trunk has many leaves tightly wrapped around a single stem. The flower emerges at the top as the stalk and eventually bears the fruit we love. There are many types of bananas including plantains.
They vary in size, color, and firmness, are usually elongated and curved with a creamy starch flesh covered with a skin that may be yellow, purple or red when fully ripe. Worldwide, there is no sharp distinction between bananas and plantains. Especially in America and Europe, banana usually refers to soft, sweet, dessert bananas. Bananas are the Cavendish group; Gros Michel, Lacatan, Sucrier, and silk, which are the main exports from banana-growing countries. By contrast, plantains are firmer, less sweet with more starch.
Bananas grow the tallest of any flower on earth, some varieties to 40 feet, without a woody stem. There are approximately 500 species of bananas. Researchers believe bananas originated in Malaysia. India has cultivated the banana for at least 4,000 years. The earliest written reference is a Sanskrit text from around 600 BC. Alexander the Great discovered bananas in his conquest of India in 327 BC. Nomadic Arabs brought bananas to Palestine, Egypt, and Africa. The word ‘banana’ is derived from the Arabic word ‘banan’ meaning ‘finger’. The finger reference may be where the term ‘fig’ meaning banana is derived.
Alexander the Great’s army carried plantains to southern Europe during his world conquest. The history of banana and plantain in the Caribbean has been traced to a Portuguese Franciscan monk who brought them to Hispaniola from the Canary Islands in 1516.
Bananas have become expensive. They are easy to grow and look good in any backyard if properly landscaped. The problem with bananas is you must control their growth. A banana is grown from a shoot/eye that comes from the base of a mature tree. A healthy tree getting enough water may have eight to ten feet. Those shoots mature each having more feet, and then you have what is known as a stool. With the banana tree reproducing so fast it would be easy for the Caribbean to become self-sufficient within a short while and our farmers would be getting the money instead of outsiders. Bananas are a good crop to farm because they are not seasonal, which means a payday almost every week.
Only half of a large plantain provides little sodium, is high in potassium and vitamin A, and a good source of fiber. Plantains may be consumed at all stages of ripeness. Green-skinned plantains are more like an Irish potato with a starchy texture. The fruit is cream colored and firm, used more for side dishes. Yellow-skinned plantains with some black spots are the middle stage of ripeness and can be eaten as both vegetable and fruit. The yellow plantain has a firm, but sweet taste. Black-skinned plantains are fully ripened and are used typically in sweeter recipes. These plantains are all black or spotty black and are soft. Black plantains can be eaten out of hand.
Bananas have been cultivated for thousands of years. Ancient Hindu, Chinese, Greek and Roman literature mention the banana. The region of Southern Asia including the islands of the Philippines, Sumatra, Java and Borneo may be the ancestral home of the banana, which was later introduced to Africa. The man who discovered the Galapagos Islands, Friar Tomas Berlanga, introduced bananas from the Canary Islands to Hispaniola in 1516. From there the banana spread to other Spanish settlements in the western hemisphere. Some botanists argue Columbus found bananas growing wild when he first landed in the Americas.
Bananas only grow between thirty degrees of the equator north and south and must have a temperature between 10 and 40 degrees Celsius. They basically used the same tools in practice today minus the spray can. Their digging tool is called a luchette and of course the cutlass. As time evolved so did the species. The Cavendish line including Gro Michael was brought to Jamaica from Martinique in 1820 yet the Jamaicans take credit for developing this creamy wonder. More than a century later diseases would develop as Sigatoka and Panama disease to which the Gros Michel and most other banana types were not resistant. Presently various viruses are a huge threat to worldwide banana production.
Although several thousand types of banana are grown around the world, The Cavendish, which was first grown in the Chatsworth greenhouse of the William Cavendish, sixth Duke of Devonshire consumed the British market. Today Cavendish accounts for 99 per cent of international consumption. The UK is the largest consumer of this banana. Unfortunately, the Cavendish in danger from a fungus termed Tropical Race 4. It has already destroyed acres of crops across Taiwan, Indonesia, and Malaysia is threatening the plantations of South and Central America. This fungus will stay in the soil for decades, with the possibility a catastrophic outbreak! The Caribbean must have agents watching all imported bananas or cease importation and create our own state-of-the-art plantations.
After the initial work banana farming becomes easier. Plantains and bananas need sunshine and rain, good soil with adequate drainage. The Caribbean, especially the north coast, is perfect for this crop. The biggest enemies of growing bananas are the viruses, worms or nematodes, ants, fires, and thieves. As we import more bananas we also import more diseases and pests from other countries. To plant bananas you need to have a luchette, which is a single wide almost square-shaped blade with a stout pole handle. This tool acts like a wedge to cut the shoots from the mature tree and also used to plant.
After the shoot is about a foot high use phosphorus fertilizer mix to increase the roots. More roots make the tree stable and easier to obtain water and nutrients. Every 3 months it is wise to spray the base of the tree with an insecticide mixed with a soluble fertilizer. This sounds like work, yet once everything is clear walking among the trees of your banana or plantain garden takes a little time and gives much satisfaction.
It takes at least eight months for the first bunch. Watching the banana or plantain grow is a wonder because it is the only fruit that starts pointing downward and then curls upward. More water and fertilizer will increase the weight of the bunch. Almost all plantains are artificially ripened with a chemical ripening agent that is poured over the green bunches and then covered with a cloth or dried banana leaves termed trash. To be successful carefully cover the bunch with a light translucent plastic bag. The old banana leaves are used to cushion the banana when hauling to market. Every bruise becomes an unattractive black spot on the skin and will rot quicker.
Bananas should be yellow when ripe except the variety green cooking fig used boiled or in soups and the red matta borro that get purple and then brilliant red. Plantains sweeten as they become ripe and can be used in every shade green, yellow and brown (overripe). Green can be shredded and fried in oil like a hash brown potato cake. They can also be sliced, fried, pressed flat with a spoon and re-fried. This is an excellent appetizer/cutter named tostones. Yellow plantain can be boiled, fried or baked with spices. Over ripe brown plantains are very sweet and can be fired with cloves and cinnamon then sprinkled with brown sugar as an excellent dessert.
The plantain averages about 65 percent moisture content and the banana averages about 83 percent. Compared to the banana, plantains have twenty times the vitamin A, about three times the vitamin C, double the magnesium, and almost twice the potassium. Compared to apples, bananas have less water, fifty percent more food energy, four times the protein, half the fat, twice the carbohydrate, almost three times the phosphorus, nearly five times the vitamin A and iron.