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St John USVI Flora: Banana

Bananas - a psychedelic drug?
Uses of the Banana
Bananas - the Dark Side
St John Flora: Banana Flower
Banana Flower

Once upon a time, bananas were wild plants that grew only in Asia. Then, like now, bananas were a tasty fruit. The problem with them was that they were difficult to eat, because the wild bananas were full of extremely hard seeds about the size of small peas. The seeds could make up about eighty percent of the banana fruit, leaving only twenty percent as edible flesh. To eat a banana in those days one needed to be either very hungry or have a lot of patience.

Every once in a while, however, a wild banana plant would undergo a genetic mutation causing it to produce a seedless fruit. (The tiny dark particles that you see in the commonly seen bananas of today are actually undeveloped seeds that are so small and so soft that you may not even notice them.)

Without fertile seeds the mutated bananas could not reproduce and spread in the normal fashion. The only way the seedless banana can reproduce is parthenocarpically, which means without seeds. It does this by means of suckers, which grow off the main stem forming new plants that have exactly the same genetic makeup and attributes as the parent.

In all probability, these mutated seedless bananas were eventually found and sampled by human beings foraging for food. Needless to say, the seedless variety was much more desirable than the difficult-to-eat seeded ones and once they were discovered, people decided to bring back some slips for home cultivation. This is a relatively easy process. All that needs to be done is to severe the suckers from the main stem with a sharp object. The small, light and easily carried slips can then be transported and replanted in more convenient locations.

The seedless banana undoubtedly became a popular and sought after crop and gradually was spread throughout Asia and the Pacific.
About 300 AD people from Indonesia came to Madagascar, a large island off the eastern coast of Africa. These settlers brought slips of their favorite varieties of bananas with them and from Madagascar, the seedless banana was then spread throughout the continent of Africa.

Today Africa produces about half of the world's bananas, almost all of which are for local consumption. Although sometimes allowed to ripen and turn yellow and eaten as a sweet fruit, Africans usually harvest bananas while they are still green and are cooked and eaten as a starch. (The people living in the East African highland countries such as Rwanda and Uganda are the world record holders for banana consumption, eating almost 500 pounds of bananas per person per year.)

Bananas came to the Hispaniola from Africa in the late fifteenth century, brought there by slave traders and captured Africans. From there they were carried to the other Caribbean Islands and to mainland Central and South America.

In the late nineteenth century a sea captain named Lorenzo Baker brought bunches of bananas that he received as a gift from a Jamaican planter to Boston. They proved to be extremely popular and have since become the world's fourth most valuable food crop.

Today in the United States and Western Europe, bananas can be found in almost any grocery store or market. These store-bought bananas are almost exclusively one variety called Cavendish.

Although wild seeded bananas still exist in Asia, where their hard dark-colored seeds are used to make necklaces and other jewelry, they are becoming increasingly rare due to deforestation and their replacement, even in remote village areas, by the more economically viable seedless varieties.

Due to the fact that bananas were so new to North Americans when it first arrived, they had to be instructed in the proper manner of eating bananas. A Domestic Cyclopaedia of Practical Information of the 1870s gave these banana eating instructions: “Bananas are eaten raw, either alone or cut in slices with sugar and cream, or wine and orange juice. They are also roasted, fried or boiled, and are made into fritters, preserves, and marmalades.”

One of the reasons for the popularity of bananas early in the 20th century was that it was the only fruit, along with oranges, which could be found in the smaller markets during the winter months. By the 1920s the consumption of bananas had grown to the point that it could be found in almost every worker’s dinner pail or school child’s lunch box. Since that time bananas have sustained its popularity as the most popular fruit eaten, at over 24 pounds per capita, in North America.