The bananas are a member of the genus Musa, but in the form of edible cultivars (plant varieties produced by breeding) are sterile or seedless cross forms, it is not possible to give them precise species names. In all probability, bananas developed in South-East Asia, especially in the region extending from India to New Guinea, in the primeval times from the wild species, such as Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana that are often mentioned as the forerunner of majority of the banana cultivars, but have now proliferated all through the topics and sub-tropics. Necessarily, banana plants are of tropical damp plains.
The banana plant is a tree growing up to a height of 2 meters to 9 meters. The aerial stem of the plant is basically made up of the overlying bases of leaf higher up and is called a 'pseudo-stem'. This plant bears very large leaves which are more often than not tattered by the wind. The genuine stem is actually an underground corm that measures roughly 30 cm in length and width, which gives rise to the leaves. The corm also gives rise to suckers and they are generally made use of to propagate the plant. On the other hand, corm pieces that have buds may also be used to propagate the plant.
The flowering stem of the banana plant emerges just after a year of planting the sucker. The flower stem appear at the apex of the plant and progressively inclines itself to suspend downwards. At the terminal of this flower stem appears sterile male flowers that are shielded by large reddish bracts that form a noticeable feature of the plant till they shrivel and drop. The groups of female flowers are borne higher up the flower stem and these female flowers produce seedless fruits devoid of any fertilization (by means of a process known as parthenocarpy). At times, dark color, hard seeds are formed within the fruit provided the pollen is obtained from an adjacently growing wild species of banana.
The fruits of banana differ in length (varying from 6 cm to 35 cm) and color - they are found in green, yellow and even red color. While no seeds are actually formed, the brown spots that embody the remnants of the ovules may be noticed. It may be noted here that ovules are basically structures that produce seeds following pollination and fertilization. Following the fruiting, the pseudo-stem is chopped down, while the plant continues to exist by means of its underground suckers. When banana is cultivated commercially, the fields are maintained for about 5 to 20 years prior to undertaking re-plantation. However, several small or marginal farmers in the tropical regions sustain the squares of banana fields for as many as 50 to 60 years!
As far as production, consumption and trade of bananas is concerned, this fruit is of great significance. About 50 per cent of banana production is consumed fresh in the form of a dessert; the other 50 per cent is cooked and consumed in boiled, fried, baked or roasted form. Occasionally, green bananas that are used for culinary purpose are called 'plantains', however, the truth is that it is not possible to maintain the difference all the times. Bananas that are used for desserts only enclose roughly two per cent starch, and a high amount of sugars. In effect, of the 20 per cent sugars contained in this variety of bananas, as much as 50 per cent comprise sucrose, while the remaining is glucose and fructose. Bananas also contain 11 mg/ 100 gm of vitamin C. On the other hand, the situation is reversed for bananas used for cooking vis-à-vis the starch and sugar content. Bananas that are used for cooking contain comparatively more starch than sugars.
The fruits of banana plant have several additional utilities, for instance, they can be canned, to prepare purees as well as be added to bakery products and ice-creams. Raw or unripe banana fruit is cut into thin pieces to prepare a snack food called banana chips, while the ripened banana fruits are occasionally dehydrated and called banana figs. It may be noted that banana chips enclose roughly 38 per cent starch plus 22 per cent total sugars (comprising sucrose), but does not contain much of vitamin C. On the other hand, dehydrated ripe bananas contain roughly 50 per cent of total sugars, while the amount of vitamin C is greatly diminished. Bananas used to prepare desserts can be easily digested by children and older adults alike. It is also believed to be an appropriate food for them as well as people enduring intestinal problems. People in East Africa prepare beer by fermenting ripe banana fruits, while they chop the pseudo-stems as well as other parts of the banana plant used as cattle fodder. On the other hand, people in south-east Asian nations consume the cooked (boiled) male buds of banana.
It may be noted that Africa alone produces roughly half of the world's bananas and people in East Africa cook bananas and use them as a staple food. Interestingly enough, the consumption of bananas by people in this region is extremely high and may be to the extent of 400 kg per person per year! While international trade of bananas commenced only a little over 100 years, today this fruit is an important item of global commerce. Bananas are primarily exported to regions, such as Europe, North America, and Japan, while the major amount of this fruit is produced in countries like Africa, the Philippines, the Caribbean islands as well as South and Central America. On the other hand Fiji and Samoa export their banana produce to New Zealand. Most of the bananas produced in Africa and Australia are consumed locally, leaving only a fraction of the production for export. Bananas that are exported are transported in green or unripe condition in refrigerated ships. The fruits are ripened to the yellow state in the countries that import the fruit, occasionally employing ethylene gas to facilitate the ripening process.
It may be noted that 'ensete' (botanical name Ensete ventricosa) is a crop that is a close relation of banana and is cultivated in the form of a staple food in a number of southern and south-eastern regions of Ethiopia. This plant is cultivated in fields that are located at altitudes of 1500 meters to 3000 meters. The pseudo-stems as well as the corms of ensete are made into pulps and it is either cooked fresh or brewed and subsequently, used for making bread.
Chemical analysis of banana has revealed that this fruit primarily encloses sugars, such as glucose, sucrose and fructose, and fiber, which make them perfect for an instantaneous as well as somewhat long-drawn-out energy source. Bananas have a number of condition specific uses and some of them are discussed below briefly.