native to: the Indo-Malaysian region
in season: all year
Bananas are members of the Musacaea family; although the plants can grow as tall as 26 ft., they’re not trees, they’re a tree-like herb arising from rhizomes, and the banana is actually a berry. Once a plant flowers it dies back and new plants develop from the rhizome. A bunch of bananas is called a hand, and, yes, that makes a single banana a finger. The plant needs 10-15 months without frost to produce a flower stalk, and all but the most hardy stop growing if the temperature drops below 53F or rises above 100F. Bananas grow best in full sun but bright sunlight can scorch both leaves and fruit. Although there are 50 recognized species of banana, mostly what you’ll get in the US is the Canevdish variety. Bananas probably originated in Malaysia, spreading throughout the Philippines and into India before being brought to Africa by Arabian traders. Portuguese explorers took them to the Americas in 1482, but they didn’t arrive in the US until the late 19th century. Even then, they were only available in port towns; if you’ve ever had your bananas thrown about by a careless checker you’ll understand why.
Bananas are picked green and should be stored at room temperature. Refrigerating bananas will keep them from ripening, even if you let them warm up again later. Frozen bananas will keep for about 2 months either pureed or peeled and wrapped in plastic. Banana peels, when carefully washed, are edible, most often boiled or fried although they can be eaten raw or included in a smoothie. Peels contain vitamins B6 and B12, magnesium, potassium, and bioactive compounds such as polyphenols and carotenoids.
Bananas themselves are starchy when green, sugary when ripe, and are high in potassium, which is important for preventing high blood pressure, stroke, and heart disease, as well as being good for muscles, bones, and joints. They have a moderate glycemic index and are a good source of fiber, so are good for the digestion. They even have fructose-containing carbohydrates that are good for your gut bacteria. Those low glycemic carbs are great for athletes, providing energy and minerals like a sports drink without all that sugar water. Bananas are particularly good for children, being linked to lower risks of childhood leukemia and asthma. They also provide vitamins A, B6 and C, biotin, manganese, potassium, and copper. Bananas also contain tryptophan, although they’ve managed to escape turkey’s reputation for causing drowsiness. Tryptophan may play a role in preserving memory and preventing depression. Bananas’ B6 can reduce swelling, strengthen the nervous and immune systems, and help with weight loss.
Plantain bananas, usually eaten cooked, are starchier and treated more like a vegetable; they’re higher in beta-carotene than sweet bananas.
Eaten in huge quantities, bananas can raise blood sugar, cause headaches and sleepiness, and create unhealthily high levels of magnesium (which relaxes the muscles) and potassium (which causes hyperkalemia, the symptoms of which are muscle weakness, temporary paralysis, and irregular heartbeat). To avoid these problems, limit yourself to fewer than a dozen bananas per day. Beta-blockers can raise potassium levels, so if you’re taking those, you might even want to stay a little lower than that. If you ask me, though, if someone’s eating a dozen bananas a day they probabaly need professional help of some kind anyway.
label-style nutrition information for raw bananas
the plant and its cultivation from California Rare Fruit Growers
Banana Boat Song on YouTube
Versión en español: this post is also available in Spanish.
Esperanta traduko: this post is also available in Esperanto, because Dana is a language geek.