The banana tree, scientific names Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana, is commonly mistaken for a tree, but it is actually a plant belonging to the Musaceae family, order of the Zingiberales.
The banana plant is typical of the sub-tropical areas of the planet. Its fruits, bananas, are known and consumed all over the world and Italy is one of the major importers.
Not many know that banana trees can also be grown in Italy, especially in the South, where winters are less severe. For many years, in fact, these plants have been successfully cultivated in Sicily and on the coasts of Calabria
The ongoing climate changes are inevitably changing the course of the seasons and the plants that we once considered exotic are now adaptable to the Mediterranean climate. So let’s see what are the cultural needs of this much loved fruit.
History and spread of the banana tree
The banana is a botanical species native to Africa, exported to various continents after the colonial conquests.
Currently, as well as in Africa, it is intensively cultivated in three other continents: America, Asia and Oceania.
The major world producers are: Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Dominican Republic, Guatemala and Brazil.
In Europe, crops of some importance are found in Portugal and the Canary Islands. In any case, even if they are not among the largest producers, the European countries are the largest consumers.
Worldwide bananas are divided into fruits intended for fresh consumption (desserts) and fruits used in cooking (cooking).
The dessert ones are in turn divided into two subgroups.
The first is the Cavendish subgroup, the most important in world trade. It includes most of the exported varieties, such as Williams and Grand Nain. These are the bananas that can be found in most supermarkets in European countries.
The second is the Silk subgroup, which has greater relevance for the local markets of producing countries. This subgroup includes varieties such as: Apple, Silk Fig and Silver.
In Italy, precisely in Sicily, the cultivar Comune di Sicilia has spread. It is a very rustic variety with smaller fruits, which easily reach maturity.
The banana plant
The banana plant is a perennial herbaceous type. Its appearance is very similar to a tree, as it is majestic and reaches a considerable size. Some specimens can even exceed 5 m. However, it is a herbaceous plant, because it has no woody tissues. In addition, the aerial parts of the mother plant fall to the ground after the growing season.
The fact that this fruit plant is a perennial is due to the fact that it emits suckers at the base of the mother plant. These then take over and replace the mother herself.
The banana cycle
Let’s explain it better, the natural cycle of the banana tree begins when the sprout (the sucker), which grows next to the main plant (mother), appears at ground level. The sucker grows, emitting leaves until flowering, then develops the inflorescence and fruits, forming the famous bunch of bananas. After the banana harvest, the leaves dry up and the plant dies.
The next sucker (son), which always appears next to the “new” mother plant, will replace the dead plant in the previous season. This keeps the process on an ongoing basis. The entire cycle, from the appearance of the sucker to the collection of the helmet, lasts about a year.
This extraordinary process is due to the presence of a powerful rhizomatous root system, capable of generating the new suckers.
The mother plant emits many, but the farmer keeps only two to renew the life cycle in a balanced way.
The stem and leaves
The trunk of the banana plant does not actually have a woody consistency, and in fact it is called a pseudo-stem. It is a compact mass of overlapping and spirally arranged sheaths of leaves.
The pseudo-stem of the banana plant is very fleshy, and consists mainly of water. Despite this, it is sturdy enough and can hold a bunch of bananas weighing 50kg or more.
Inside the pseudo-stem there is a stem. The pseudostem continues to elongate until the stem, which has developed inside, emerges in the upper part of the plant.
At this point, the leaves begin to differentiate from the pseudostem and grow into their typical shape.
The leaf is the main photo-synthetic organ of the banana tree. Each emerges from the center of the pseudo-stem like a rolled cylinder. The distal end of the elongated leaf sheath contracts into a petiole, more or less open depending on the cultivar. The petiole becomes the central part, which ideally divides the leaf in two.
The inflorescence of the banana plant is a complex structure, which botanically takes the name of thyrse.
In the banana tree, female, male and hermaphrodite flowers develop. Therefore, the plants are self-fertile and do not need cross-pollination with other plants.
Female (pistillate) flowers appear from a bract (modified leaf, associated with a reproductive structure, such as a flower). They come out first and show themselves as a bunch of flowers, usually arranged in two rows. These flowers will eventually develop into fruit and are called mani.
The number of hands (which will eventually form the helmet) in the female bunch is variable. It depends on the number of female clusters in the inflorescence, on the genotype and on the environmental conditions.
The distal portion of the inflorescence elongates and produces clusters of male flowers (staminates), each subtended by a bract. In cultivated bananas, the male flowers produce fertile pollen.
As it ripens, the fruit grows. The peel of the banana, over time, begins to turn from dark green to light, up to yellow.
They are usually harvested when they are still green and the single fruit is called “fingers”.
The banana pulp is yellowish, sweet and soft. One weighs an average of 125 g, of which 75% is made up of water and the rest of dry matter.
Under the protective skin run numerous and long filaments.
The bananas of the dessert varieties are easily divided along their length into three distinct parts. These correspond to the internal parts of the three carpels of the female flower.
In the middle of the fruit you can see tiny black grains, these are the non-viable seeds (i.e. without the ability to germinate)
The flavor of bananas is greatly influenced by temperatures and the degree of ripeness.
Fruits ripened at high temperatures and harvested when they are almost yellow, will be sweeter.
Bananas harvested still very unripe and ripened in more difficult environmental conditions, will have a less pleasant taste and a more turgid consistency.
In our latitudes, bananas are ready for harvesting between late summer and early autumn.
How to grow banana
The banana plant is typical of sub-tropical countries. These are characterized by a warm and humid climate, without too many excesses of cold or heat.
The optimal temperature range for vegetative growth is between 26 and 30 ° C. Growth stops when the temperature exceeds 38 * C, or drops below 14 ° C.
The banana can therefore be grown outdoors only in the very mild areas of our country, namely the coastal areas of the Center and the South.
If in winter the temperatures drop below freezing for too long, the plant risks being irreparably damaged.
However, an excellent solution is that of greenhouse cultivation, choosing the most rustic varieties. In this way the plant will be safeguarded in the coldest periods of the year.