Banana, a gigantic herbaceous plant belonging to the genus Musa (nat. ord. Musaceae). It is perennial, sending up from an underground root-stock an apparent stem 15 or 20 ft. high, consisting of the closely-enveloped leaf-sheaths, the corresponding blades, each sometimes 10 ft. in length, forming a spreading crown. A true stem develops at the flowering period; it grows up through the hollow tube formed by the sheaths, emerges above and bears a large number of inconspicuous tubular flowers closely crowded in the axils of large, often brightly-coloured, protecting bracts. The fruits form dense clusters.

Banana plant. Banana (Musa sapientum).

The genus Musa contains about 40 species, widely distributed throughout the tropics of the Old World, and in some cases introduced into the New World. In many parts of the tropics they are as important to the inhabitants as are the grain plants to those living in cooler regions. They are most successfully cultivated in a hot, damp, tropical climate. The northern limit of their cultivation (usually Musa Cavendishii) is reached in Florida, south of 29° lat., the Canary Islands, Egypt and south Japan, the southern limit in Natal and south Brazil. There has been considerable discussion as to whether the banana was growing in America before the discovery of the New World. It has been suggested that it may have been carried by ocean currents or in some earlier intercourse between the Old and New Worlds. The evidence, however, of its existence in America at the time of the discovery of the new continent is not very definite. The unripe fruit is rich in starch, which in ripening changes into sugar. The most generally used fruits are derived from Musa paradisiaca, of which an enormous number of varieties and forms exist in cultivation.

The sub-species sapientum (formerly regarded as a distinct species M. sapientum) is the source of the fruits generally known in England as bananas, and eaten raw, while the name plantain is given to forms of the species itself M. paradisiaca, which require cooking. The species is probably a native of India and southern Asia. Other species which are used as fruits are M. acuminata in the Malay Archipelago, M. Fehi in Tahiti, and M. Cavendishii, the so-called Chinese banana, in cooler countries; the fruit of the last-named has a thinner rind and a delicate, fragrant flesh. The species, the fruits of which require cooking, are of much greater importance as an article of food. These often reach a considerable size; forms are known in East Africa which attain nearly 2 ft. in length with the thickness of a man's arm. A form of M. corniculata, from Cochin China and the Malay Archipelago, produces only a single fruit, which, however, affords an adequate meal for three men. The hardly-ripe fruit is stewed whole or cut in slices and roasted or baked.

Banana-meal is an important food-stuff; the fruit is peeled and cut in strips, which are then dried and pounded in a mortar. In East Africa and elsewhere, an intoxicating drink is prepared from the fruit. The root-stock which bears the leaves is, just before the flowering period, soft and full of starch, and is sometimes used as food, as in the case of the Abyssinian species, M. Ensete.

The leaves cut in strips are plaited to form mats and bags; they are also largely used for packing and the finer ones for cigarette papers. Several species yield a valuable fibre, the best of which is "Manila hemp" (q.v.) from M. textilis.

The following is the composition of the flour, according to Hutchison: water, 13%; proteid, 4%; fat, 0.5%; carbohydrates, 80%; salts, 2.5%. It would require about eighty bananas of average size to yield the amount of energy required daily, and about double that number to yield the necessary amount of proteid. Hence the undue abdominal development of those who live mainly on this article of diet (Hutchison). In recent years the cultivation of the banana in Jamaica for the American and also for the English market has been greatly developed.