Musa: Banana Tree

Family: Musaceae
Common name: Banana, Banana tree

An integral part of Kerala’s cuisine and culture, Banana trees can be seen in all backyards, and banana fruits in all homes. The plant is technically not a tree, but an overgrown herb which grows to a height of 5 meters with long, broad leaves.

There are some species of dwarf bananas that only grow to a height of 3 meters and there are some tall variants that grow as tall as 7 meters.

They do not have an actual bark, the pseudostem is made up of the bases and sheaths of the long leaves. Leaves start off in a tubular fashion where the edges are rolled up inside. They then open up into large leaves having a thick petiole and central vein, from which horizontal veins radiate to the edges of the leaves.

The petiole and central vein are fibrous and having large cavities in between networks of fibers. The large leaves are not very sturdy and tear easily in strong winds, resulting in torn and hanging fronds, typical of banana trees.

Once the banana tree is ready to flower, an actual stem forms in the middle of the leaf sheaths connecting the infloresence to the roots. The infloresence is very pretty, with flowers enclosed inside large purple sheaths. They look like one single hanging bulb initially.

And then the inflorescence opens up layer by layer from the top, revealing the flowers which later develop into layers of fruits. The flowers contain an abundance of nectar which attracts birds, butterflies, insects and bats.

Banana fruits are formed as tiers, a large fruit having about 15-20 tiers, with 20-30 bananas in each tier. This depends on the species of banana and the size of the fruit.

The fruits have a soft outer peel which vary in color from green, yellow, pink and purple; and thin fibers running the length of the peel on the inner surface. Banana fruit is primarily water, about 75%. It’s is rich in potassium, iron, magnesium, vitamins and micronutrients.

The fruits is attached to the stem with a large curved stalk, which usually needs support once the bunch starts becoming heavier. Unripe bananas have a firm texture and green skin, with a very starchy, gum-like taste. Ripe bananas have more sugar content, and softer flesh which is easy to digest.

Banana stems and flowers are used in cooking. Unripe fruits are eaten after cooking or frying. Banana chips, made with raw Nendra bananas is a favorite snack in Kerala.

Ripe fruits are eaten raw, used to make wines, juices, milk shakes, also payasams and snacks. Ripe Nendra bananas are dipped in flour and fried to make ‘pazhampori’, a popular South Indian snack. Fruits are also steamed, baked, grilled over coal, made into flour or mashed and given to babies.

Banana leaves are used as plates to serve food on Onam, the state festival of Kerala. Onasadya, which consists of rice with a variety of vegetarian dishes, and payasams are always served on banana leaves.

They are also used on auspcious occasions like weddings, festivals, house warming ceremonies, decorations, pujas, temple rituals etc. Banana is truly a tree and fruit that Keralites cannot live without.

Commercially, the fibers from banana stem is used in making fabric and paper. The leaves are used as livestock fodder, and large leaves are used for thatching and weaving.

Most species of commonly found bananas are asexual and reproduces from suckers that form around the parent plant. Bananas have gone through a lot of selective breeding, mutations and hybridization, resulting in many variants.

Other than wild bananas, the cultivated ones do not contain seeds. The corm or the large stem at the base of banana plant is dug up, cut and planted again to form more bananas platns.

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