I’m not much of a banana person (unless it’s cooked in rum and butter, though that combo will make anything taste divine), but I do love having banana trees around.
Among the many trees growing in my garden, there’s an abundance of bananas flourishing right now, all in different stages of ripeness. A few of them even grow over my hammocks and lend such a warm and tropical feel to the setting, it’s hard to keep in mind that we’re fast approaching winter.
Even though I call them “trees,” they are actually plants — and to be more specific, banana plants are herbaceous perennials.
That’s right — a banana plant is technically a large herb, distantly related to ginger. It is considered an herb in botanical terms because it never forms a woody stem the way a tree does. Rather, it forms a succulent stalk, or pseudostem.
The pseudostem begins as a small shoot from an underground rhizome called a corm. It grows upward as a single stalk with a tight spiral of leaf sheaths wrapped around it. Banana leaves are simply extensions of the sheaths. As the pseudostem grows, these leaves unfurl and fan out at the top. They’re fragile for their size and shred easily, resulting in the feathery fronds we usually associate with banana palms. (And to quash that misnomer, bananas are not related to palms either.) Over the course of a year, the stalk gradually pushes its way out from the center of the pseudostem and terminates in a large, flowering, fruit-bearing bud called an inflorescence.
After fruiting, the pseudostem dies to the ground but the corm remains active with new points of growth. Several shoots emerge from the base of the old pseudostem and become new plants that also flower, fruit, die, and spur the next set of shoots.
This constant process produces many generations of shoots and a single corm can have a productive lifespan of decades. If you never remove or transplant the shoots, they end up growing in clusters and give the appearance of a large, mature tree.
During the flowering stage, an inflorescence (also called a banana heart, as it emerges from the heart of the plant) appears on the end of the stem. It is usually a long, tapered, tightly wrapped, deep purple bud. As the petal-like bracts on the bud begin to open one by one, they reveal double rows of nectar-rich blossoms.
The first several rows to be exposed are female flowers that develop into “hands” (or tiers) of bananas, typically with 12 to 20 bananas making up a hand. Because the fruit is produced from a single ovary on the flower, a banana is actually classified as a berry, botanically speaking.
So, it’s an herb and a berry… How’s that for confusing?
A hanging cluster of hands on a banana plant is called a bunch, with each bunch holding 7 to 14 hands of bananas. (And as you likely guessed, individual bananas on a hand are called fingers.)
After all the female flowers have fruited, they’re followed by rows of sterile flowers that wither and shed in succession, then rows of male flowers that also wither and shed.
Layers upon layers of bracts and flowers fall off every day, leaving behind a long, bare fruit stem called a rachis. Some people believe that cutting off the rachis after the last hand of bananas will send more energy to the developing fruits; but I usually leave mine on, since I haven’t noticed a difference in the size or quality of my bananas whenever I trim the rachis.
A plant produces a single crop of bananas and then dies, propagated only by new shoots from the corm. There are no seeds, as cultivated bananas are sterile and what seeds they used to have are now barely flecks in the flesh. Bred as parthenocarpic plants, they don’t require any pollination to produce fruit.
When grown in warm climates, banana plants are non-seasonal and fruit year-round. While I love bananas in the summer, I appreciate them even more in the winter when a small taste of the tropics really brightens up a cold and dreary day (with rum and butter, of course!).