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 loved having banana trees around when I lived in zone 10b.
Among the many trees that grew in my Southern California garden, there was an abundance of bananas flourishing year-round, all in different stages of ripeness.
A few of them even grew over my hammocks and infused such a balmy and tropical feel to the setting, it was easy to forget that we lived in the city with foghorns blowing from the Port of Los Angeles every day.
Even though I call them “trees,” they’re actually plants—and to be more specific, banana plants are herbaceous perennials.
In other words, herbs.
In the case of bananas, they’re a fruit… but not a fruit.
Befuddled? Let me explain.
Bizarre botanical fact #1: A banana is an herb.
That’s right—a banana plant is technically a large herb, distantly related to ginger.
While most people think of basil, parsley, or rosemary when they think of herbs, it’s easier to see how a banana can be an herb if we look at more “exotic” herbs like lemongrass, horseradish, and wasabi.
A banana is considered an herb in botanical terms because it never forms a woody stem (or trunk) 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 palm trees 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 (or pups) 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.
Bizarre botanical fact #2: A banana is also a berry.
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.
(You can eat banana hearts, by the way. They’re a staple in Chinese and Vietnamese cuisines and commonly found in the produce aisles of those markets in the United States.)
As the petal-like bracts on the bud begin to open one by one, they reveal double rows of nectar-rich blossoms. As you can imagine, the bees went wild over our banana blossoms and hummingbirds made frequent visits throughout the day.
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?
Bizarre botanical fact #3: Banana anatomy was coined by slave traders.
A hanging cluster of hands on a banana plant is called a bunch, with each bunch holding 7 to 14 hands of bananas.
As you likely guessed, individual bananas on a hand are called fingers.
One might think all these terms (bunches, hands, and fingers) were first coined by, you know, the farmers who actually grew them, but in fact, they were named by Arab slave traders who also traded bananas.
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, knobby, 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.
I’ve tried this several times and eventually just left the rachis on, since I never noticed a difference in the size or quality of my bananas whenever I trimmed the rachis.
Bizarre botanical fact #4: Modern bananas have been bred to be sterile… but they DID have seeds at one point.
A plant produces a single crop of bananas and then dies, propagated only by new shoots from the corm.
Each of these shoots (pseudostems) goes on to live for only two to three years, but because the corm can survive for many years, the banana plant’s reproductive process is unique for a fruit.
Bananas are bred as parthenocarpic plants and don’t require any pollination to produce fruit.
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There are no seeds, as modern-day cultivated bananas (like the Cavendish variety sold in stores, or the popular apple bananas and ice cream bananas grown in backyards) are sterile. What seeds they used to have are now barely flecks in the flesh.
However, if you’ve ever peeled the fruit (err, berry) of an ornamental pink banana plant (Musa velutina), you may have noticed the flesh was full of big black seeds. Though this pink banana below was found in a rainforest in Panama, it’s actually a cold-tolerant variety. The banana splits and peels when the fruit is ripe.
Non-cultivated bananas are all like this, and while ornamental varieties like Musa are still edible, they’re often more work than they’re worth.
In warm climates (USDA zones 10 and higher), banana plants are non-seasonal and fruit year-round.
But! You can still enjoy homegrown bananas if you live in a colder climate.
Cold-tolerant varieties of bananas (I know, that sounds like an oxymoron for a tropical plant) can survive just above freezing, but the pseudostems die to the ground in winter.
Musa velutina (hardy to zone 7b) and Musa basjoo (hardy to zone 5, though it won’t flower when it’s that cold) are two such varieties that will send up new shoots in spring when the weather warms up again, as long as the corm is heavily mulched and protected.
If you don’t want to fuss with them in a short or cold growing season, bananas can be kept as houseplants and may even produce fruit if given ample sun and warmth.
Where to buy banana plants:
Now that I’m in Central Oregon, I’m entertaining the idea of growing bananas again in my landscape. How fun would that be to have bananas amid my conifers and aspens?
This post updated from an article that originally appeared on December 14, 2011.
Banana recipes you might enjoy: