Banana is one of the most popular fruits in the world. And for good reason, it appeals to our primate souls. You could say we evolved alongside fruits like banana and mango. Many botanists and anthropologists would argue these plants had us do their bidding, helping them to disseminate all over the world. And it’s not just humans. Everything from insects to birds, marsupials to bats love bananas.
Banana is in my top three favorite fruits by far. I’m not talking about the artificially ripened, cardboard things you get in the grocery store. Those are the Cavendish variety of banana and likely the only banana most people know. They are grown ubiquitously in mono-cultures all over the tropics because they are thick skinned and ship well. They are picked green, shipped thousands of miles, ripened with ethylene, and have practically no flavor compared to most of the 70 other banana varieties.
My love of the banana plant doesn’t stop at the fruit either. In my opinion the banana plant is one of the most important and useful plants of the tropics, up there with the likes of bamboo and the coconut palm. It may even be one of the keys the saving the forests of the tropics, and reversing some of the effects of climate change.
The banana plant is a herbaceous plant, not a tree, in the Musaceae family. The underground part of the banana plant is commonly referred to as the corm. From the corm grows a pseudostem, or flowering stalk, made up of tightly wound leaves. After fruiting the stalk dies back and the corm sends out another shoot, or sucker. In cultivation after a stalk has fruited it is generally cut down to allow room for the next generation of stalks. Banana plants are propagated for the most part by vegetative reproduction. A portion of the corm is removed and becomes the base for a clone of the original plant.
The focus of this article is to explore the myriad ways the humble banana plant is useful and multifunctional.
First up on the list is the all important face stuffing. As I touched on above, there are about seventy varieties of banana with something for everyone. There are dessert bananas like Mysore and Ice Cream ( Blue Java), cooking bananas and plantains, and acid bananas like the Brazilian. Some are dwarf. Some are variegated. There are red, yellow, and green fruit. And the fruit can be eaten ripe or cooked unripe. The flowers and inner part of the stem are commonly used in Indian and Indochinese cuisine. The leaves are used to wrap food like tamales in Central America. In South East Asian banana leaf wraps are used for steaming or grilling rice dishes, fish, and desserts. In Polynesian culture meat and vegetables are wrapped in banana leaf before being buried in pits of smoldering coals for slow cooking. The leaves of banana can even be used as a kind of natural plate.
Pioneering and soil building. This is the area where the banana plant is underutilized but has the most potential. Dense plantings of Musa shade out and help get over stubborn tropical grasses when attempting to kickstart a natural succession from prairie to forest. As the forest species get established the banana’s great biomass can be dropped down to nurture the young trees. Swiss farmer and researcher Ernst Gotsch often uses banana stalks to quickly build soil and to fertilize fledgling trees when pioneering new forest plantings in his Syntropic system.
In areas with enough rainfall, banana plants can be planted on contour on slopes for stabilizing eroding soils. The cut stems of the plants can be laid out and pinned up on contour to help trap mulch and build soil, supporting young trees planted behind. In addition, water logged trunks of banana laid out around plantings or lining pathways act as a kind of slow release irrigation.
If I had my current garden to do over again the first thing I probably would have done is plant every square inch with banana and nitrogen fixing trees to quickly shade out the grass and start a mulch source going. As I was ready to plant my fruit trees I could then drop down some select banana plants and plant my trees into a nest of nurturing banana mulch.
The great biomass of Musa functions as a significant carbon sink. At harvest, banana plants (with root mass) provide about 25 tons per hectare*. With significant draw down of atmospheric carbon and the increase in oxygen production broad acre banana polycultures become a valuable tool in the fight against climate change. Additionally, these plantings increase rainfall down wind and help cool the air through evapotranspiration. This biomass can also be a significant source of organic material for biogas production.
Banana plants produce fast growing and nutritious fodder for domestic animals like cattle and goats. We use shredded banana suckers to feed our compost worms and ducks on our urban homestead.
Pit gardens like banana circles are a convenient way to dispose of gray water, rough mulch material, and manure while producing food. Musa leaves make a handy roof thatch and can be used to glee small ponds.
In Japan high end traditional garments are made from banana fiber.
Banana clumps provide habitat as well. In our garden every banana stalk, we have a lot, has a tree frog or two living in the folds of it’s leaves. Their chorus rings out in the night from stand to stand. The flowers are a significant source of forage for bees and they are a host plant to moths like the giant leopard moth (Hypercompe scribonia). The cut stalks rotting on the ground are a denizen of earth worms, wood lice, and countless micro organisms.
Lastly, banana plants make an extremely attractive landscape plant and provide some windbreak protection. Nothing says tropical garden like the banana plant.
These are just a few of my favorite qualities of and uses for the banana plant. There’s sure to be a part two to this article as my love affair with Musa continues.
* [ Penn, J., New Scientist 20 May ‘85 ( from Permaculture a designers’ manual by Bill Mollison)].
https://youtu.be/LyzTz98VlAE( Making banana fiber cloth ).
https://youtu.be/gSPNRu4ZPvE( Ernst Gotsch ).
https://youtu.be/C7h-JbaJjn4 ( Pioneering with banana ).
https://youtu.be/S41pbU_Ddvs ( Cooking Banana ).
https://instagram.com/p/BlsjVmglqiL/ ( Banana mulch in the garden ).