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Musa is a genus over 50 of tropical monocot tree-like plants, important for food, fiber, and ornamentals. The genus, now grown in wet tropical areas worldwide, includes bananas and plantains—the fourth most cultivated food crop in the world, with 2009 global production of 97.4 million tons, harvested from 4.9 million hectares. Prominent species include Musa acuminata and M. balbisiana (wild progenitors of the complex hybrids that make up modern bananas and plaintains), and M. textilis (Manila hemp or abacá), cultivated for fiber that is used in rope, paper products, and tea bags.

Musa species likely originated and were domesticated in southeast Asia, where archaeological and palaeological evidence suggests that banana cultivation dates back to at least 5,000 B.C. and possibly to 8,000 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 1900–1940 raised concern about the role of corporations in government (which led to the term, “banana republic,” satirized in the Woody Allen movie, Bananas).

Although they appear to be trees, and grow 3.5–12 meters (12–40 feet) tall, Musa species are technically perennial herbaceous plants because their hard, fibrous “trunks” are actually pseudo-stems composed of overlapping bases of the large, spirally arranged leaves, typically 8–20 per plant. Leaves are 2.4–3.7 meters long and ½ meter wide. 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 6–9 clusters of 10–25 bananas each, spiraling around the central peduncle (stalk)—usually around 225 bananas, but occasionally up to 300. A single banana bunch generally weighs 22–34 kg (50–75 pounds), but occasionally tops 68 kg (150 pounds). After flowering once, the primary stem dies back, and new stems emerge from rhizomes (corms).

Bananas and plantains derive from the same species, 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 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, FAOSTAT 2011, Jenkins 2000, Morton 1987, Peed 2011, Sadik 1988, United Fruit Company 1922, Wiersema and León1999, Wikipedia 2011)


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