National Geographic : 1951 Sep
Banana, Fruit of the Wise Men BANANAS are the most important fruit in tropical lands around the world. Not only are they a major part of the diet for millions who live in the Tropics but they are also a leading export. About 90,000,000 bunches a year go into world trade, each bunch containing 10 to 20 "hands" of fruit and averaging about 50 pounds in weight. There are many reasons for the banana's popularity. One is its high nutritive value. A banana contains as much as 22 percent car bohydrate, a rich source of food energy: it also contains vitamins A and C. All these hidden benefits, moreover, are contained in a meat which is soft, sweet, and pleasantly aromatic. Also in the banana's favor are the ease and speed with which it grows. Banana "trees" are not really trees at all; they are huge her baceous plants which quickly shoot up to a height of 15 to 30 feet. The plant's true stem is underground and has buds, or "eyes," like a potato. These underground stems, or rhizomes, are transplanted to establish new plantings; as with potatoes, each may be cut into several pieces. Ready to Eat in 18 Months Under favorable conditions, the leaf-bearing stalks appear above ground some three to four weeks after planting. They grow rapidly. The bloom appears about ten or twelve months after planting, and the fruit is mature five or six months later. The botanical name of the common banana of commerce, Musa sapientum, means "fruit of the Wise Men." It traces to an ancient legend that the sages of India rested in the shade of the plant and ate of the fruit. A second species, MA. nana, the dwarf ba nana, is a smaller plant, but it bears fruit simi lar to that of the common banana. These two species, native in southern Asia, probably India, and in the Malay Archipelago, have contributed the varieties of bananas grown throughout the world today. The closely related plantains, or cooking bananas, M. paradisiaca and M. fehi, are important food plants in the Tropics. These fruits are not palatable raw since they remain starchy when ripe, but they are excellent food when cooked. All evidence shows that the banana is one of the oldest fruits known to mankind, perhaps one of the first plants to be cultivated. It had distinctive names in Sanskrit, in ancient Chi nese, and in the Malay languages, indicating that it was known throughout much of south ern Asia in prehistoric times. Bananas were found on all the tropical Pacific islands when those islands were first visited by white men. Apparently the fruit was transported with the waves of migration eastward from the Asiatic mainland to these islands. The first such immigration is believed to have occurred at about the time of Christ. The Arab poet Masudi, who died A. D. 956, extolled a dish popular in Damascus, Con stantinople, and Cairo-a confection of al monds, honey, and bananas in nut oil. This indicates that bananas had reached the Medi terranean shores by that date. Friar Tomas de Berlanga, a missionary priest, is authentically credited with introduc ing the banana into the New World. He brought plants from the Canary Islands to Hispaniola in 1516. Shortly afterward, ba nanas were taken to the mainland of Mexico. The fruit thrived so well and spread so rapidly throughout the American Tropics that later visitors mistakenly thought the banana native on this continent. Growth of a Giant Fruit Industry Throughout the first half of the 19th cen tury, vessels occasionally brought a few bunches of bananas from the West Indies into American ports. After the close of the Civil War this trade increased, but many shipments were overripe when they arrived. Between 1870 and 1880 American planters established commercial production in Central American countries, and, with steam vessels, delivery to northern markets became more dependable. During the same decade, banana production in Jamaica became commercialized, with regu lar shipments to Boston. At this time large numbers of companies were engaged in grow ing, shipping, and distributing bananas in the United States. Conditions in growing and marketing were chaotic, and there was great variability both in the supply and in the con dition of the fruit delivered. In 1899 the principal companies in the banana trade in corporated as the United Fruit Company. The banana industry is now one of the most highly organized fruit industries of the world. Plantations are distributed throughout Central American countries, Colombia, and the West Indies, so that risk of crop failure is minimized. Railroads have been built to carry the fruit from the plantations to shipside. Modern refrigerated steamers transport the fruit to American ports: there it is loaded into refriger ator cars for shipment to all parts of the Nation. About 60,000,000 bunches of bananas are sold annually in the United States, and this strictly tropical fruit is available in almost every food store in the country. Large quan tities are also marketed in Europe. Thus the fruit of the Wise Men, the food staple of the Tropics, has become a world-wide article of commerce.