Hundreds of banana (Musa spp.) varieties in varying shades of pink, green, and yellow grow wild in their native Southeast Asia. Many of these wild bananas contain enormous, hard seeds, rendering them nearly inedible. By contrast, only one seedless banana cultivar is likely available at your local grocery: ‘Cavendish’, prized for its sweet, creamy taste. Bananas are among the most-produced foods in the world, surpassed only by grain crops of rice, wheat, and corn. Cultivars of cooking bananas and plantains are staple foods for millions throughout the tropics.
In the 1950s, a mysterious fungal disease burned through the banana fields of Central America, destroying entire crops of the single banana variety growing there: ‘Gros Michel’. The fungus, called Fusarium wilt, was able to spread so rapidly due to the banana plantations’ lack of genetic diversity: all ‘Gros Michel’ were nearly genetically identical. A new, resistant banana variety called ‘Cavendish’ replaced ‘Gros Michel’, but today a new Fusarium wilt strain that attacks ‘Cavendish’ is on the rise, threatening to repeat history.
After they were first introduced to the U.S. in the 1870s, bananas became wildly popular. To keep up, American companies like United Fruit bought and cleared millions of acres of land for banana cultivation in Ecuador, Guatemala, Cuba, Panama, and the Dominican Republic. United Fruit came to dominate these countries’ economies, earning the nickname el pulpo, “the octopus,” for its reach into local politics.
These regions came to be called “Banana Republics,” reflecting the way American companies superseded the authority of these countries’ governments in violent and brutal ways.
How far does the average banana travel to get to your supermarket?
The majority of sweet bananas and plantains sold in the US are grown in Ecuador. The distance from Ecuador’s primary port to New York City is about 2,704 miles. However, once arrived to New York City, the banana’s journey is nowhere near complete. Most bananas are picked long before maturity or ripeness. Once they arrive to New York, millions of these still-green bananas head to a ripening facility in the Bronx. Here, pressurized, temperature and atmosphere-controlled rooms trick the bananas into beginning the ripening process again after the long, refrigerated shipping journey from Latin America.
Check out these fun facts about bananas!
- The scientific name for banana is Musa sapientum, which means “fruit of the wise men.”
- Patrick Wightman finished the Barcelona Marathon in 2 hours, 58 minutes, and 20 seconds in a banana costume. This is the fastest marathon ever run by a competitor dressed as a fruit.
- Got bit by a mosquito? Rub the inside of a banana peel on your bite to alleviate itching and prevent inflammation!
Try this banana recipe at home and share your dish with us using #AroundTheTable!