Many years ago, between my Freshman and Sophomore years of college, I spent two summers working and living on a kibbutz in Israel near the Sea of Galilee—what the Israelis now call Lake Kinneret (meaning “harp”). A kibbutz is a communal farm, and one of the primary crops grown on the particular kibbutz I lived on was bananas. The banana trees were planted in rows, about four feet apart. They grew to stand nearly twenty feet tall, and about a foot in diameter, though the “trunk” is essentially just leaves rolled tightly together like a scroll. To look at, a banana tree resembles a squat palm tree. Each plant produces one enormous bunch of bananas weighing about eighty pounds that grows out of the center of the plant. We had to use long poles to prop the tree up to keep that bunch from pulling the tree over into the mud.
In times past, the Israelis would flood the fields in which the trees grew: they need a lot of water. But over the years they discovered that providing a small but steady drip of water would serve the same purpose and they invented the modern drip system for irrigation.
I knew practically nothing about bananas when I lived in Israel, besides the fact that I liked them and the ones on the trees we cared for were far from ripe by the time I had to return to America to continue my education at the end of the summer.
Bananas, I have since come to discover, are like modern corn: they cannot exist without human care and intervention. In fact, they exist only because of hundreds, even thousands, of years of selective breeding: just like corn, seedless watermelons and dogs and cats.
The modern bananas that we enjoy eating today are sterile, seedless mutants. The little black dots that you see in them are all that are left of what used to be hard, inedible seeds. Those little black dots in a banana cannot grow into new plants. New plants are created only by taking cuttings from existing ones. Therefore, all banana plants are essentially clones of remarkably recent innovation.
Although the banana has been part of human civilization for thousands of years, the yellow dessert banana has not. The wild banana was not even edible. But it was discovered that by crossing two inedible wild species, a sterile plant that was edible could be created. However, it was edible only after cooking it. And since it was sterile, it could be spread and cultivated only by using the offshoots from the base of the plant. Some people have suggested that the banana was actually the first fruit farmed by human beings. These edible cooking bananas were red or green and today are called plantains. They originated in South-east Asia, specifically in Malaysia, but quickly spread around the world. By 600 BC we find them mentioned in Buddhist texts and by 327 BC Alexander the Great’s army records the existence of banana crops in India. Alexander the Great is credited with bringing the banana from India to Western civilization.
By 650 AD Islamic conquerors took the banana to Madagascar and then spread it to the African mainland by vegetative propagation. In Africa, many genetic mutations occurred that produced different species of bananas. Currently there are about 300 different varieties. Portuguese traders then spread the fruit from Africa to the Canary Islands.
By the 1500s the Portuguese and Spaniards brought bananas to the Caribbean islands and Central and South America. The Guinean native name of the fruit, “banema” came into English as “banana.” We first find the word banana appearing in print in the 1600s.
Up until then, the banana had existed only in red and green varieties that had thick skins and rather hard, dense insides that had to be cooked in order to render them edible. But in 1836 a Jamaican by the name of Jean Francois Poujot was wandering through his banana plantation and came upon a plant that was not producing red or green bananas. Instead, they were yellow. He picked one, peeled it, and discovered that it was already soft inside. Upon tasting it, he found it sweet and delicious in its raw state. It didn’t need to be cooked! He quickly began cultivating this variety, which is today the only sort of banana most of us have ever eaten.
Yellow bananas were introduced to the American public at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition as a new, exotic dessert. Each banana was wrapped in foil and sold for ten cents. By 1900 bananas were considered a commodity and were traded by large corporations. The United Fruit Company is credited with being the first to commercialize bananas. Thanks to new transportation technologies such as refrigeration, bananas quickly became widespread and common. Today, they are grown in most tropical and subtropical regions of the world. The main commercial producers for North American consumption include Mexico, Costa Rica, Brazil and Ecuador.
The yellow banana is therefore less than two hundred years old, the product of hundreds of years of selective breeding and a random mutation in Jean Francois Poujot’s banana field.