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Musa acuminata (Banana, Plantain)

Life > eukaryotes > Archaeoplastida > Chloroplastida > Charophyta > Streptophytina > Plantae (land plants) > Tracheophyta (vascular plants) > Euphyllophyta > Lignophyta (woody plants) > Spermatophyta (seed plants) > Angiospermae (flowering plants) > Monocotyledons > Order: Zingiberales > Family: Musaceae

Musa acuminata (Banana, Plantain) Musa acuminata (Banana, Plantain)

Musa acuminata in fruit. [photos H.G. Robertson, Iziko ]

All edible bananas orginate in whole or in part from Musa acuminata which is native to the Malay Peninsula and adjacent regions. In prehistoric times, people selected plants with seedless fruits and since then they have been propagated vegetatively from suckers. Although there are huge commercial operations exporting bananas from tropical regions to rich countries in temperate regions, the majority of bananas are grown by small farmers in tropical countries for local consumption.

Musa acuminata (Banana)  

Musa acuminata (Banana). [photo H. Robertson, Iziko ]


Musa acuminata is a species native to the Malay Peninsula and adjacent regions and is thought to have given rise in total or in part to all edible banana varieties. Some of the varieties have arisen as a result of hybridisation between Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana the latter of which is found from India eastwards to the tropical Pacific. This hybridisation probably occurred as Musa acuminata plants (2n genome = AA) were increasingly cultivated over the distributional range of Musa balbisiana (2n genome = BB). Although the Musa acuminata cultivars were sterile because of being seedless, they did produce fertile pollen.

Genome Varieties
AA  Diploid (2n = 22) wild Musa acuminata. Human selection in prehistoric times resulted in the production of seedless cultivars. These diploid varieties are still grown in New Guinea.
AAA Triploid (3n) mutants of Musa acuminata. Probably arose a number of times in early cultivation of bananas in the Malaysian region. They are more productive, quicker growing and develop larger fruit than the diploid cultivars. Most cultivated bananas are of this triploid type and two important clone varieties have predominated:
  • Cavendish. Named after the family name of the Duke of Devonshire in England who in 1836 managed to get this clone to flower in his greenhouse. The clone came from Southeast Asia, south China and the East Indies and in the 1800's was spread  from this region by the British and French to other tropical and subtropical regions, with the notable exception of Central and South America where it took quite a time before it predominated over the Gros Michel clone. It has ultimately become the main clone grown world wide in commercial banana production. Although not shipping as well as the Gros Michel clone, it has the advantages of being resistant to a devastating soil fungus (see below) and also of being more productive. 
  • Gros Michel. This clone was originally propagated in gardens of Burma, Thailand, Malaya, Indonesia and Ceylon. From 1825 to 1875 it was introduced to the islands of the West Indies and to some of the Pacific Islands. However, the region that adopted it to the greatest extent was tropical America where it was the main clone grown in the huge banana plantations that were owned and controlled by a U.S. company called the United Fruit Company. Countries with these plantations were effectively controlled by this company and became known as 'banana republics', and the term is now generally used in a derogatory way to refer to small tropical countries that depend on foreign investment. The United Fruit Company developed methods of shipping the bananas to the U.S. quickly before they became overripe. Gros Michel bananas, compared to Cavendish, shipped better because they could take rougher handling when green and could be shipped in whole bunches rather than having to have hands of bananas individually wrapped. Gros Michel predominated in this region until the arrival from the East Indies in about 1893 of a devastating parasitic soil fungus called Fusarium oxysporum to which Gros Michel was susceptible and which spread slowly through this region. The approach of the United Fruit Company was to abandon plantations where the fungus had become established (or grow some other crop on them) and start new plantations on virgin land. This resulted in the shift of plantations from the Caribbean east coast of America to the Pacific west coast. Another fruit company called the Standard Fruit Company, operating initially from Honduras, solved the fungus problem by growing the non-susceptible Cavendish clone and developing methods of breaking the banana bunches into hands and packing these in cardboard boxes for shipping, thus solving the shipping issue for this particular clone. This method of shipping also has the added benefit of enabling mechanisation (lifting boxes is easier than lifting large ungainly bunches) and speeding up distribution at the country of destination. Eventually, United Fruit Company also started growing the Cavendish variety. After the Second World War there was a strong move towards commercial growing of bananas by independent growers who formed cooperatives which sold to export companies.  
AB and AAB Cultivars with a single Musa balbisiana genome are sweet and include the Ladyfinger banana. 
ABB Yields starchy bananas used in cooking and called plantains although this term is sometimes used confusingly for normal bananas.

Despite the huge commercial operations exporting bananas from tropical countries to rich, temperate countries mainly in North America and Europe, it has been estimated that about 85% of all bananas produced, are grown by small farmers for local consumption.


  • Sauer, J.D. 1993. Historical geography of crop plants - a select roster. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida.


Text by Hamish Robertson

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