BANANA- Plátano

Banana trees are herbaceous or at most only semiwoody, so arguably they shouldn't be considered here. However, most people think of them as trees, so here we are.

Banana flowersThe thing is, technically, the Banana tree's actual "trunk" is below the ground. The item we think of as a Banana "tree" is actually a sprout arising from the underground trunk, which technically is thought of as a stolon. What looks like a trunk is actually the clustered petioles, or stems, of the Banana's big leaves. If you cut across a Banana tree's trunklike aboveground part you'll see how the petioles nest within one another. And these leaf petioles are so tough and fibrous that they can seem woody, and maybe they halfway are.

Banana flowers are even more interesting than the stems. At the right you see a typical Banana flower cluster, or inflorescence. In that picture male flowers cluster at the bottom of the dangling inflorescence (where the purple item is) and female ones arise at the top, where the bananas are in the picture. Bananas are just the matured pistils, or female sexual parts, of female flowers.

The male flower shown at the top of the next page was plucked from beneath the peeling-back, leaflike thing (bract, or modified leaf) at the top of the purple item at the inflorescence's tip.

Banana male flower

In the picture above, the flat, long item with powdery lines along its margins, extending from the center of my thumbnail, is a stamen -- the male sexual part. The blunt, yellow-tipped thing below that is a sterile staminode, maybe giving pollinators something to hold onto as they pull themselves into the flower's throat, dusting themselves with pollen.

In the picture beginning this section, showing a dangling banana stalk, notice that the immature bananas at the picture's top all have something sticking from their tips. Atop the next page you can see what that is.

Banana flower stigma

The ribbonlike, striated item curving toward the picture's top, right is the calyx, which started out as a cylinder, then split down one side and curled back, and soon will fall off. Earlier on the other side there was a similar ribbonlike thing; but that was the corolla, and it's already fallen off. The pale, slender, fingerlike objects arising at the base of the single, thicker, dark-headed item are sterile, vestigial stamens. The black item at the left is the stigma, where pollen theoretically germinates, atop the ovary's "neck," the style.

Actually, these sexual parts are useless to the cultivated Banana, since Banana genes have been so scrambled during centuries of domestication that the flowers of cultivated bananas no longer produce fruits with viable seeds.

This genetic scrambling means that the usual binomial system (genus plus species) for naming plants isn't appropriate for bananas. In the past they were called Musa paradisiaca, but nowadays there's no good two-part binomial for the Banana tree. For us amateurs it's best to just call it the genus Musa, and let the species go unsaid.

Finally, the Spanish name for Banana plants varies across Mexico. In the Yucatan most folks I've spoken to call medium-sized supermarket bananas plátanos and the big tough ones Northerners may know as plantains, plátanos machos.