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Musa acuminata is one of two species (along with M. balbisiana) that are wild progenitors of the complex hybrids that make up modern bananas and plantains. The cultivated hybrids are tropical monocot tree-like plants grown in wet tropical areas worldwide, and are the fourth most cultivated food crop in the world, with 2009 global production of 97.4 million tons, harvested from 4.9 million hectares.

M. acuminata is native to the Asian tropics, Indonesia, the Philippines, Australia, and East Africa. Archaeological and palaeological evidence suggests that bananas were domesticated in Southeast Asia, and that cultivation dates back to at least 5,000 B.C. Bananas and plantains continue to be an important food source in Southeast Asia, Africa, and Oceania, and an important food and export crop in Central and South America, as described in this YouTube video, Growing Bananas (Part 1). In Central America, the enormous acreage owned and operated by corporate banana plantations from 1900–1960 raised concern about the role of corporations in government (which led to the term, “banana republic,” satirized in the Woody Allen movie, Bananas).

M. acuminata and its hybrids grow to 6 meters (20 feet) or taller, but are perennial herbaceous plants with hard, fibrous “trunks” that are actually pseudo-stems composed not of wood, but of overlapping leaf bases. The pseudo-stems are blotched with brown or black. Leaves are large, to 5.8 meters (19 feet) long and ½ meter (~2 feet) wide, arranged spirally around the stem, with typically 8–20 per plant. The primary stem bears a single large terminal inflorescence, a spike with pistillate (female) flowers below, and staminate (male) flowers above. This develops into a bunch of bananas, consisting, in the cultivated hybrids, of 6¬–9 clusters of 10–25 bananas each, spiraling around the central peduncle (stalk)—usually around 225 bananas, but occasionally up to 300. Hybrids have greatly reduced seeds, but in the wild types, seeds occupy up to 25% of the fruit.

Bananas and plantains both derive from hybrids of M. acuminata, but vary in proportion of sugar to starch. Cultivars with high sugar are called bananas, and eaten fresh or cooked when green; those with high starch (plantains and cooking bananas) are eaten only after cooking. Both are high in carbohydrates, fiber, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, and several vitamins. Bananas are eaten fresh, pureed for baby food, and cooked in diverse dishes typical of tropical cuisines. Fruits, leaves, and stems have numerous traditional medicinal uses, including treating dysentery, diarrhea, and digestive disorders (see Morton 1987).

Musa species and hybrids are attacked by numerous pests and pathogens, including weevils, nematodes, and various fungal wilts. Episodic outbursts of different strains of sigatoka wilt have decimated thousands of hectares of plantations in Central and South America. In the 1980s, a new form of wilt destroyed large areas of bananas in southeast Asia, and is once again threatening Central American plantations (see Peed 2011).

Bailey 1976, Facciola 1998, Everett 1981, FAOSTAT 2011, Jenkins 2000, Morton 1987, Peed 2011, Sadik 1988, United Fruit Company 1922, Wiersema and León1999, Wikipedia 2011)

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