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Musa balbisiana is one of two species (along with M. acuminata) that are wild progenitors of the complex hybrids that make up modern bananas and plantains (see page for Musa genus). 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. balbisiana is native to Southeast Asia, including China, India, Indonesia (Java), Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, New Guinea, Philippines, Sikkim, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, where it typically grows in ravines in tropical evergreen forests at altitudes of up to 1,100 meters (3,575 feet). In some of these areas, including parts of New Guinea and Thailand, it may have naturalized following cultivation.

It is not clear when the first hybrids were made, but archaeological evidence suggests that bananas have been cultivated for at least 7,000 years. M. balbisiana is used in banana breeding to help convey disease resistance, but other than in hybrid forms, is not widely cultivated itself, because its fruits contain a high proportion of seeds.

Like other Musa species, M. balbisiana is not actually a tree, despite its tree-like form. Instead, it is a perennial herbaceous plant with a hard, fibrous “trunk” that is actually as pseudo-stem, composed not of wood, but of overlapping leaf bases. It often grows with several pseudo-stems in a cluster, which may grow to 6 meters (20 feet) or taller and 0.35 meters (1 foot) in diameter. Leaves are up to 3 meters (9 feet) long, smaller than in hybrid forms or in M. acuminata. 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 of 8 clusters of 15 or 16 bananas (technically, berries) arranged in two rows. Hybrids have greatly reduced and usually sterile seeds, but in wild types, seeds occupy up to 25% of the fruit.

Bananas and plantains both derive from hybrids of M. balbisiana, but vary in proportion of sugar to starch. See Musa genus for more information on nutrition content and food and medicinal uses.

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, Flora of China 2012, Jenkins 2000, Morton 1987, Peed 2011, Sadik 1988, United Fruit Company 1922, Wiersema and León1999, Wikipedia 2011)

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