Thursday, 27 December 2007

going bananas

Musa species
MusaceaeCommon Names: Banana, Bananier Nain, Canbur, Curro, Plantain
Origin: Bananas aren't grown on trees. They're part of the lily family, a cousin of the orchid, they are in fact an herb. With stalks which can reach 25 feet high, they're the largest non woody stemmed plant on earth.
They are thought to have originated in Malaysia but spread throughout Asia, India and Africa well before Columbus discovered America. Unknown in this hemisphere before then, bananas came to the New World in 1516 when Spanish missionary Friar Tomas de Berlanga brought over the first root stocks.
The word banana is African, though, a word carried to the New World by Portuguese slave traders. They knew about bananas way back in history, for Alexander the Great found the people of India eating bananas in 327 B.C. In Alexander's time, bananas were called “pala” in Athens.
North America was introduced to the tropical fruit in 1876 at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. Each banana was wrapped in foil and sold for 10 cents.
Today the average American consumes about 25 pounds a year of the mellow yellow, every one of them imported from Latin America, where the climate favors the warmth-loving plants. Rich in potassium, vitamins B, A and C, bananas are not only popular but considered healthful by most of us.


Bananas and plantains are today grown in every humid tropical region and constitutes the 4th largest fruit crop of the world. The plant needs 10 - 15 months of frost-free conditions to produce a flower stalk. All but the hardiest varieties stop growing when the temperature drops below 53° F. Growth of the plant begins to slow down at about 80° F and stop entirely when the temperature reaches 100° F. High temperatures and bright sunlight will also scorch leaves and fruit, although bananas grow best in full sun. Freezing temperatures will kill the foliage. In most areas bananas require wind protection for best appearance and maximum yield. They are also susceptible to being blown over. Bananas, especially dwarf varieties, make good container specimens if given careful attention. The plant will also need periodic repotting as the old plant dies back and new plants develop.


Growth Habit: Bananas are fast-growing herbaceous perennials arising from underground rhizomes. The fleshy stalks or pseudostems formed by upright concentric layers of leaf sheaths constitute the functional trunks. The true stem begins as an underground corm which grows upwards, pushing its way out through the center of the stalk 10-15 months after planting, eventually producing the terminal inflorescence which will later bear the fruit. Each stalk produces one huge flower cluster and then dies. New stalks then grow from the rhizome.


The ovaries contained in the first (female) flowers grow rapidly, developing parthenocarpically (without pollination) into clusters of fruits, called hands. The number of hands varies with the species and variety. The fruit (technically a berry) turns from deep green to yellow or red, and may range from 2-1/2 to 12 inches in length and 3/4 to 2 inches in width. The flesh, ivory-white to yellow or salmon-yellow, may be firm, astringent, even gummy with latex when unripe, turning tender and slippery, or soft and mellow or rather dry and mealy or starchy when ripe. The flavor may be mild and sweet or subacid with a distinct apple tone. The common cultivated types are generally seedless with just vestiges of ovules visible as brown specks. Occasionally, cross-pollination with wild types will result in a number of seeds in a normally seedless variety.


Location: Bananas require as much warmth as can be given them. Additional warmth can be given by planting next to a building. Planting next to cement or asphalt walks or driveways also helps. Wind protection is advisable, not for leaf protection as much as for protection of the plant after the banana stalk has appeared. During these last few months propping should be done to keep the plant from tipping or being blown over.

Soil: Bananas will grow in most soils, but to thrive, they should be planted in a rich, well-drained soil. The best possible location would be above an abandoned compost heap. They prefer an acid soil with a pH between 5.5 and 6.5. The banana is not tolerant of salty soils.

Irrigation: The large leaves of bananas use a great deal of water. Regular deep watering is an absolute necessity during warm weather. Do not let plants dry out, but do not overwater. Standing water, especially in cool weather, will cause root rot. Plants grown in dry summer areas such as Southern California need periodic deep waterings to help leach the soil of salts. Spread a thick layer of mulch on the soil to help conserve moisture and protect the shallow roots. Container grown plants should be closely watched to see that they do not dry out. An occasional deep watering to leach the soil is also helpful.

Fertilization: Their rapid growth rate make bananas heavy feeders. During warm weather, apply a balanced fertilizer once a month--a 8:10:8 NPK fertilizer appears to be adequate. A mature plant may require as much as 1-1/2 to 2 pounds of the above fertilizer each month. Young plants need a quarter to a third as much. Spread the fertilizer evenly around the plant in a circle extending 4 - 8 feet from the trunk. Do not allow the fertilizer to come in contact with the trunk. Feed container container plants on the same monthly schedule using about half the rate for outside plants.

Pruning Only one primary stem of each rhizome should be allowed to fruit. All excess shoots should be removed as soon as they are noticed. This helps channel all of of the plant's energy into fruit production. Once the main stalk is 6 - 8 months old, permit one sucker to develop as a replacement stalk for the following season. When the fruit is harvested, cut the fruiting stalk back to 30 inches above the ground. Remove the stub several weeks later. The stalk can be cut into small pieces and used as mulch.

Propagation: Propagation of bananas is done with rhizomes called suckers or pups. Very small pups are called buttons. Large suckers are the preferred planting material. These are removed from vigorous clumps with a spade when at least three feet tall, during warm months. Pups should not be taken until a clump has at least three to four large plants to anchor it. When the pup is taken the cut must be into the mother plant enough to obtain some roots. Plant close to the surface. Large leaves are cut off of the pup leaving only the youngest leaves or no leaves at all. Some nurseries supply banana plants as container grown suckers.

Fruit Harvest: Stalks of bananas are usually formed in the late summer and then winter over. In March they begin "plumping up" and may ripen in April. Occasionally, a stalk will form in early summer and ripen before cold weather appears. The fruit can be harvested by cutting the stalk when the bananas are plump but green. For tree-ripened fruit, cut one hand at a time as it ripens. If latter is done, check stalk daily as rodents can eat the insides of every banana, from above, and the stalk will look untouched. Once harvested the stalk should be hung in a cool, shady place. Since ethylene helps initiate and stimulate ripening, and mature fruit gives off this gas in small amounts, ripening can be hastened by covering the bunch with a plastic bag. Plantains are starchy types that are cooked before eating.


The antiquity of the banana and its tendency to produce mutations or sports have resulted in an extensive number of cultivars. Only the common ones are listed.
Apple, Silk, or Manzana
Dessert type, pleasant sub-acid apple flavor when fully ripe. Fruit: 4 to 6 inches. Grows to 10 to 12 feet. The fruit is not ripe until some brownish specs appear on the skin. From planting until harvest is approximately 15 months.
Resistant to Panama Wilt disease. Clones of this variety are distinguished by the size of the pseudostem. The largest is Lacatan (12 to 18 feet) followed by Robusta and Giant Cavendish (10 to 16 feet). The smallest is the Dwarf Cavendish (4 to 7 feet).
Cuban Red
Very tall (up to 25 feet), very tropical. Skin dark red, with generally reddish pseudostem. Fruit is especially aromatic with cream-orange pulp. 20 months from planting until harvest.
Gros Michel
Commercially, the most important and considered by many to be the most flavorful. Because of its susceptibility to Panama Wilt disease it is being replaced with resistant varieties. Although there is no Panama Wilt in California, it does poorly here as the plant seems to need more heat and it tends to grow more slowly than other varieties
Ice Cream or Blue Java
Medium-tall (15 to 20 feet), bluish cast to the unripe fruit. Fruit: 7 to 9 inches, quite aromatic and is said to melt in the mouth like ice cream. Bunches are small with seven to nine hands. 18 to 24 months from planting until harvest.
Lady Finger
Tall (20 to 25 feet), excellent-quality fruit, tolerant of cool conditions. 15 to 18 months from planting to harvest.
Commonly grown in California for years as a landscape plant. Grows to 16 feet, more cold hardy than any other. 15 to 18 months from planting to harvest. Flavor is good, texture is less than perfect, but when properly grown and cultivated it can produce enormous stalks of fruit. Excellent in banana bread. Sometimes called horse, hog or burro banana, it can be purchased at most nurseries.
A Hawaiian variety with short, salmon-pink flesh, plump fruit that may be cooked or eaten fresh. A slender plant preferring a protected area with high humidity and filtered light. Grows to about 14 feet tall.
A Cavendish clone resembling the Robusta. Some believe them to be the same. The Dwarf Cavendish is the most widely planted as it is better adapted to a cool climate and is less likely to be blown over.
The same as Giant Cavendish. Originated from a mutation of Dwarf Cavendish found in Queensland, Australia. A commercial banana grown in many countries that does well in California. 10 to 16 feet in height and has a distinctive long, very large bud. The Del Monte is a Williams.

When is a Banana Ripe?

Most of us know that the color of a banana's skin indicates its degree of ripeness. But there's ripeness and then there's ripeness. Here's a precise guide to using bananas.
Green -- unripened bananas, used in soups and stews.
Yellow with green tips -- partially ripe, used for broiling, baking or frying.
All Yellow -- ripe, eaten raw or in waffles, puddings, cakes or pies.
Yellow with brown freckles -- full-ripe, raw or in salad, fruit cup or other dishes calling for uncooked fruit.
All Brown -- over ripe, if flesh is firm, still in prime eating condition.
Blackened areas -- bruised fruit and should be avoided.
Raw, unripened fruit can be irritating to your digestive system. Imperfectly ripened bananas are composed of starch; but as the natural ripening proceeds, the saccharine material is converted into dextrine and glucose. Cook the starchy, unripened fruit as you would use a potato, or let them ripen at room temperature to sweeten. When they are the color you need, bananas can be stored in the refrigerator. The skins may turn dark, but the pulp will stay at the desired ripeness.
Preparing Bananas
Green Banana Pulp
To make green banana pulp, bananas must be carefully peeled so that all traces of the green outer skin are removed. If the bananas stand before cooking, cover with cold water so they will not become dark.
Cook in boiling, salted water for about a half hour. The cooking should be done slowly as with too rapid cooking the outer part of the banana becomes soft before the interior is done. Bananas must be well cooked and soft or there will be a slight green taste.
Drain, and put bananas through a potato ricer or a puree sieve.
When preparing bananas for a pie filling, proceed as rapidly as possible and use a glass, plastic or silver knife as steel blackens the bananas. The bananas may be sprinkled with a bit of lemon juice after being cut to retard browning.
Fried Bananas
Fried bananas are truly delicious and may be fried in two ways--first peel and cut lengthwise in half, dip in flour and fry a golden brown in hot oil.
For the second way--peel the bananas, cut in half, roll in flour and dip in egg and milk mixture and then roll in fine bread crumbs--fry a golden brown in smoking hot oil.

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