Edited by Ruth W. Spiegel


Copyright © 2000 Smithsonian Institution. All rights reserved.
ISBN: 1-56098-966-1

Chapter One



The banana is any of a variety of tropical or subtropical plants of the genus Musa (possibly from Muz, Arabic for banana) that bear clusters of long yellow or reddish fruits. There are sixty-seven species and more than two hundred varieties of Musa. Bananas may have been cultivated as early as 1000 B.C. in the rain forests of Southeast Asia. Arabs brought the fruit to the Middle East and Africa in the seventh century. In 1482 the Portuguese found bananas growing as a staple food on Africa's west coast in what is now Gambia, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, and transplanted them to the Canary Islands.

    The botanical name of the type of banana familiar to grocery shoppers in the United States, Musa sapientum, means "fruit of the wise men." It was so named by the eighteenth-century Swedish botanist Linnaeus because the Roman historian Pliny (A.D. 23-79) wrote that the sages of India rested in the shade of the plant and ate its fruit. The word banana was first printed in English in the seventeenth century.

    Linnaeus named the related plantain Musa paradisiaca or "heavenly fruit" because of a legend that it, not the apple, was the forbidden fruit of Paradise. In a variety of West African languages the fruit Musa is known as "banna," "bana," "gbana," "abana," "funana," and "banane."

    Plantains are starchy and thick-skinned bananas that are used mostly for cooking, while the everyday bananas imported into the United States are usually eaten raw. The flesh of plantains is salmon-colored when ripe and cooked, and tastes different at each stage of its development. Plantains are integral to the diet of Africa and Latin America, cooked the same ways as potatoes, but until recently have not been imported in large quantities or found in grocery stores in many parts of the United States. They have never been marketed on the grand scale of bananas, and for that reason have not been included in this book's exploration of bananas' effect on mainstream culture.

    There is no evidence that bananas grew in the Western Hemisphere before the voyages of Columbus, and the Spanish are credited with bringing bananas to the New World from the Canary Islands. In 1516 Friar Tomas de Berlanga, a Catholic missionary priest of the Order of Predicadores, landed on the Island of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and planted banana stems or rhizomes as the cheapest and most satisfactory food for the growing African slave population. When Friar Tomas was made Bishop of Panama, he took banana plants with him to the mainland. Vasco de Quiroga, first bishop of Michoácan, is said to have introduced bananas to Mexico. The plants spread rapidly throughout Central America, Mexico, and southern Florida, so much so that later observers believed the banana to be native to this continent. The first English colonists of Roanoke, Virginia, took banana stocks with them from the Caribbean islands to plant in a decidedly nontropical climate.

    Bananas do not grow on trees; in fact, the banana is a huge herbaceous plant that grows to a height of fifteen to thirty feet. It is perhaps the largest plant on earth that does not have a woody stem above the ground. This makes it susceptible to wind-storm damage. The plants grow from rhizomes that have buds or "eyes" like a potato, and new plants grow up from shoots around the parent stalk. The rhizomes can be separated and transplanted to establish new plants. The commercial bananas familiar to most Americans have three sets of chromosomes instead of the usual two, which causes the fruit to be large, hardy, and seedless. The tiny dark specks in the center of a banana are the infertile vestigial seeds. Diploid bananas, with two sets of chromosomes, do contain numbers of hard seeds, some as big as half a pencil eraser.

    Commercially grown bananas are planted in rows "very much like hills of corn except, of course, at a greater distance apart." Planting can be spaced in a plantation so that fruit is continuously coming to maturity. As the plants develop, they produce a red flower that points downward toward the ground. Eventually the bracts drop off, exposing the young bananas that originate from the clusters of flowers arranged spirally around the stalk. As the fruits develop they bend upward so that they end by pointing toward the sky. The fruit grows on a single stalk with seven to ten bunches each holding twelve to fourteen individual fruits. Bunches are known as "hands," and the individual fruits are called "fingers."

    It takes about eighteen months for the banana plant to grow from a shoot to produce a mature bunch of fruit. The stalks, each containing up to 150 individual bananas, generally weigh from eighty to a hundred pounds. Bananas are usually cut green, even in the tropics, since they tend to toughen, sour, and split open, attracting insects, if allowed to ripen on the plant. Each plant fruits only once; when the plant has produced its fruit, it is cut down and left to decay to form humus that supports another shoot growing from the same stem.

    To bear fruit, a banana plant needs from 14 to 23 consecutive months of frost-free, sunny weather. Although they can be grown in Florida, Louisiana, Texas, and even parts of California, bananas are not viable as a commercial crop in the continental United States north of 30º latitude where the temperature normally falls below 50 degrees F. In the far south and in greenhouses, the plants will fruit but not consistently enough to sustain large-scale commercial planting. A 1904 publication noted that "while bananas can be grown as far north as Florida, to reach their perfection a much warmer climate is needed and a much larger rainfall. Cuba is too far north to produce the very best results." Bananas are popular as ornamental plants both indoors and out in many parts of the country, but when night-time temperatures dip below 60ºF, it is time to bring the plants indoors.

    Banana plants were probably planted in Spanish settlements in southern Florida, where Cavendish bananas were found growing as a dooryard plant in the nineteenth century. There have been sporadic efforts since to foster commercial banana farming in Florida in response to the enormous profits in banana importing and the growth of the North American market. The U.S. Department of Agriculture introduced Chinese dwarf cooking-bananas to Florida in 1841 but there was little interest among consumers at that time.

    A Colonel Whitner was reported to have ten thousand banana plants growing on his plantation near Silver Lake, Florida, in 1876. An observer noted that "some of these are large trees, which do not die after bearing their fruit, but the majority are of the dwarf species, which are renewed every year." The January 1879 "Sunday School Leaflet of the American Home Missionary Society" listed bananas among the exotic fruit to be found in Florida, while a tourist guide to Florida published in 1891 listed bananas as a "staple commodity capable of being raised in Florida and shipped to outside markets with a profit to the producer." This and other efforts to promote banana growing in Florida have consistently failed because of periodic frosts that can devastate entire plantations.

    In 1913 a British publication noted that banana plants could be found in the United States along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico "although fruit is not expected more than once in four or five years" owing to periodic frosts. The report stated that in southern Florida "there are few large patches, though nearly everyone has a few plants. The fruit is generally inferior in quality, as compared with tropical fruit." The author believed that there was little commercial cultivation of bananas because "the fruit can be grown so much more cheaply in Central America and the West Indies."

    In 1921 W. E. Bolles of Oldsmar, Florida, organized the Florida Banana-Growers Association to try to grow bananas on a commercial scale. Bolles saw an enormous market tot Florida bananas sold at the same wholesale prices as imported fruit, as much as "$1,400 per acre per year, when they get going good." No one came to the first meeting, twenty people attended the second meeting, and over two hundred attended the annual association meeting in October 1923.

    The 1920s' Florida land speculation boom, fueled by eastern investors, may have had something to do with this sudden interest in banana farming, and growers reported making more per acre from bananas than from oranges and grapefruit. Soon an estimated two thousand acres were planted to bananas. Bolles believed that "there are reasonable probabilities of growing bananas commercially not only in all Florida, but in southern Louisiana and southern Texas, and the plant can be made to fruit in southern Georgia and California."

    A U.S. Department of Agriculture report on banana growing in Florida was more cautious. In the midst of the land speculation boom, the report noted that "there is nothing to justify the expectation that the crop will be profitable on land purchased at inflated or speculative prices even when climatic and soil factors are favorable." The report warned:

Ownership of small tracts forming a part of a large planting managed as a unit is sometimes featured as a promising method of promoting banana culture and on a commercial scale in Florida. Non-residents are in many cases induced to become investors in such projects, influenced by statements showing large prospective profits, comparable to some of the banana-growing enterprises in tropical America. Such statements usually presuppose almost ideal growing and marketing conditions, of which growers in the continental United States are not assured. Before making such investments a personal inspection of the site is in all cases desirable. Claims made with regard to prospective earnings should be weighed by the same standards that would be applied to other lines of production in which the owner's personal interest and supervision are usually necessary to profitable operation.

Interest continued in commercial banana growing but the reality of the climate, and the price of land and labor combined to make U.S.-grown bananas uncompetitive with those imported from Central America. A USDA report written in 1934 noted that "any commercial planting to be successful over a long period should not only be made in a warm location, but some sort of artificial protection against cold injury should be provided either by the use of wood fires (commonly used in Florida citrus groves) or by the use of some form of orchard heater." A report issued by the Association of American Railroads in 1946 noted that "efforts to cultivate bananas commercially in the United States have been unsuccessful," and that there was "an insignificant (and probably experimental) domestic production of bananas in Florida."

    In 1952 the Florida Department of Agriculture published a report on banana growing that followed the same lines as the reports in the 1920s, with the rueful conclusion that "the one great difficulty in growing bananas in Florida is the rather general inscrutability of our climatic conditions to most varieties." The big American banana-growing and-importing companies concentrated their efforts in the Caribbean basin, leaving the risky Florida business to growers who sold their bananas on the local market or to tourists from roadside stands.

    Bananas grew on the Hawaiian Islands when the islands were visited by Capt. James Cook in 1799. The Hawaiian Almanac and Annual for 1891 listed bananas as an export crop, beginning with 121 bunches in 1862. Exports gradually increased to 105,630 bunches in 1889. These records do not specify where the bananas were being shipped. In 190l the U.S. Department of Agriculture established an Agricultural Experiment Station in Hawaii that from the start paid a great deal of attention to bananas, researchers finding a dozen varieties with commercial possibilities. By 1926, with the development of modern shipping facilities, commercial production increased to about 200,000 bunches annually. Twenty years later, bananas received on the United States mainland from Hawaii and Puerto Rico combined amounted to less than 1 percent of total banana imports. Today the continental American banana market continues to be supplied by the countries of Central America. The state of Hawaii has never had a significant commercial banana industry.

    As an aside, in the United States there is only one successful commercial banana-growing business. In the 1980s Doug Richardson and Paul Turner began growing bananas in an unusual ecological niche on the California coast. Seaside Banana Gardens in La Conchita, 75 miles north of Los Angeles, lies on a narrow crescent of land backed by 300-foot-high bluffs. The ocean on one side keeps the temperature constant, the bluffs protect the plants from wind, the sun streams across the land all day long, and the area has proven itself perfect for banana-growing. Richardson and Turner planted fifty-five varieties of bananas (2,500 plants) and developed a successful organic banana business with clients across the country. The varieties grown at Seaside Banana Gardens included the Brazilian ladyfinger, the apple banana, the Hawaiian Popoulu, and a group of Polynesian cooking varieties.

    Residents of the United States became familiar with bananas in a variety of ways. Missionary society Sunday school stories about exotic tropical places included tales of bananas and other strange fruit; the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition featured tropical plants including the banana; cookbooks, newspaper articles, and advertisements promoted the new fruit. Bananas began to appear in retail networks, in greengrocer shops, and on pushcarts. They were linked to romantic adventure and associated with palm trees, warm weather, and perpetual vacation.

    Many nineteenth-century writers confused the banana and the plantain. One described the banana as "similar in composition to the potato. In some tropical countries it is much used as a food, especially in Cuba, where the negroes make a sort of ragout, of which the banana is the principal ingredient." This was probably a description of the plantain. A Domestic Cyclopaedia of Practical Information (1877) made no distinction between the banana and the plantain:

BANANA. The fruit of the palm tree [sic], found in the West Indies and South America, and throughout the tropical regions of both hemispheres. In the countries where it grows it is almost always the staple food, occupying the same place there as the cereals with us. No other product of the vegetable kingdom affords so much nutriment from a given space of ground as the banana, and no other food is so peculiarly adapted to support life in the tropics. It is estimated that a quarter of an acre planted in bananas will produce enough for a family of five the year round. It grows in thick clusters of 150 to 200 to the cluster. It is eaten raw, either alone or cut in slices with sugar and cream, or wine and orange juice. It is also roasted, fried or boiled, and is made into fritters, preserves, and marmalades. It is dried in the sun and preserved as figs; meal is extracted from it by pounding and made into something resembling bread; and the fermented juice affords an excellent wine. With us it is brought to the table as dessert, and proved universally acceptable. The best kind, when they can be procured fresh, are the "lady-fingers" as they are called. They are found in our markets from March to October.

In 1872 housewives were told that "bananas have a taste something like muskmelons. They are not improved by cooking, yet may be preserved to taste as well as when raw. Boil them two or three minutes in a little water, with a teaspoon of sugar to each banana, and bottle; or put them raw in a bottle, fill it with boiling water, and seal."

    Bananas were also described as being "as large as a cucumber and resembling it in color and shape. This fruit is filled with a sweet nutritious custard-like juice, and is eaten raw, boiled, baked, and cooked in various ways. It is preserved with sugar and with vinegar; is used as bread; and when pressed and fermented yields a spirituous drink resembling cider. The sap also makes an excellent wine." These authors may have assumed that the exotic fruit could be used as other fruits without themselves testing the recipes. They knew of bananas but do not themselves appear to have been familiar with them.

    In the nineteenth century the people of the United States loved fruit and enjoyed many varieties of domestic fruits and berries. They had also enthusiastically adopted such exotic imported delicacies as the pineapple and the coconut. But some Americans were wary of imported fruit. The author of The Young Housekeeper wrote: "Were our foreign imported aliments perfect in their kinds—fruits among the rest—I should have less objection to their use than I now have. But it does seem to me very unreasonable to use imperfect, unripe, dried or half-decayed substances, merely because they came across the water, in preference to our equally rich and more perfect domestic productions."

    The Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876 included a forty-acre display of tropical plants in the Horticultural Hall with orange trees, a banana plant, date palms, wax plants, century plants, sago palms, fig trees, orchids, and pineapples. The banana plant was so popular that a guard had to be posted near it so that visitors would not pull it apart for souvenirs. The New York Flower Show in 1890 also featured banana plants that attracted considerable interest "for their application to domestic and commercial economy."

    Many American children became familiar with pictures of banana "trees" in school textbooks and Sunday school books, and learned the pleasing but "inaccurate information that the fortunate natives of the tropics have nothing to do but roam the flowery glades and live on bananas." Between 1860 and 1890, missionary reports from Jamaica, Mexico, and South America often included descriptions of bananas as part of the exotic setting.

    Bananas were available at a specialty greengrocer in Philadelphia in 1876, wrapped in tinfoil at 10 cents apiece—an hour's wage for many people. (At that time, tinfoil was also used to preserve lemons, chocolate, and tobacco.) One young visitor to the Centennial Exposition remembered the excitement when his father bought half a dozen bananas to take back to their hotel room for a feast. The father, familiar with bananas from travels in the Caribbean, was disappointed in the quality of the fruit, but the boy was thrilled and took a peel home with him to show his friends back in Illinois. By the time he got there, the peel had blackened and shriveled and he was disappointed that his friends were not suitably impressed. It was not until the mid-1880s that people in the Midwest became somewhat familiar with the banana as a fruit and could find them in grocery stores. Even then bananas were expensive and remained a luxury item for some time.

    Fruit still-life paintings were popular throughout the nineteenth century as appropriate pictures to hang in dining rooms. These paintings reflected the prosperity of the times, with lush fruit and flower displays and depictions of dessert tables set with fine crystal, silver, and linen. These still-life paintings carried a variety of symbolic meanings, representing abundance, fertility, and the riches of America. It is interesting that bananas were a relatively rare subject for still-life painters. Pineapples—another tropical, imported fruit—were used more frequently, symbolic of hospitality. A few paintings included a single banana, perhaps an indication of the rarity or cost of the fruit. Most of these pictures represented local, seasonal fruits and nuts that perhaps were considered more patriotic than images of foreign fruits.

    For those who could not afford an original oil painting, after the Civil War there were still-life lithographs by Currier and Ives, Louis Prang, and many other American lithographers. Louis Prang's chromolithographs were extremely popular and reflected popular taste. Jay Gould and others also published chromolithographs that included a number of still-life dining room pictures, but there is no indication in their catalogs that bananas were included in the subject matter.

    Young ladies in the Victorian era learned to model and paint wax fruit and flowers and to decorate their dining rooms with wax fruit arrangements. One manual noted that "in a basket of fruit, lady apples are beautiful, crab apples, Seckel pears, Bartlett pears, a lemon, an orange or two, California plums, two peaches, and grapes are desirable. Two pounds of wax will make this elegant variety." Bananas were not included in such instructions, perhaps because the form was considered indelicate or inappropriate for young women to make.

    As bananas became more familiar, less expensive, and more widely available, inhibitions about using bananas as decorative motifs in the dining room apparently disappeared. By the mid-1880s, bananas were being included in table centerpiece arrangements of fresh fruit and flowers. Readers of The Cook were instructed that "fruit should always make the centre display on the luncheon table. The variety is so large at present, red and yellow bananas, oranges, peaches, apricots, cherries, and grapes, that with a little taste, a very attractive pyramid may be formed." Bananas may have been irresistible for their shape and the bright yellow and red colors for those attempting to create stable pyramid centerpieces. The fruit could be arranged using a large flat dish with a tumbler in the center to give the fruit some height, draped with ferns or moss. A pineapple might be placed on top of the tumbler, and then oranges, bananas, pears, two or three colors of grapes, and plums be arranged around it. Beginners were warned that "the dish must look light and rather carelessly arranged, but the fruit must be placed that there shall be no danger of its falling." Fruit might also grace the breakfast table and, readers were admonished "should be your table decoration instead of flowers, which refined taste begins to find out of place among meats and vegetables."

    By the mid-1880s, housewives could find red and yellow bananas in the East Coast ports of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. In addition, fig bananas and plantains were generally available in New York and Philadelphia. Fig bananas were described as "small, golden yellow and very sweet. They are simply delicious." Readers of The Cook: A Weekly Handbook of Domestic Culinary Art for All Housekeepers learned that

there are a number of different kinds of bananas grown in the tropics, but the choicest are seldom or never brought to New York; first, because the lazy and ignorant people who live where the bananas grow do not take any trouble to cultivate enough of the best kinds to make their shipment anything of a business; second, because the fine bananas are too delicate for long transportation. The "strawberry" and "apple" varieties are the choicest; the "fig" next."

Despite the many delicious varieties of banana, American fruit importers first concentrated on the Gros Michel (Big Mike), and later the Cavendish, because they were large and easy to ship. Both varieties have thick skins that do not bruise easily. Another important factor in the decision to concentrate on these two varieties was that all the fingers on these stalks ripen at once, about three weeks after they are harvested, making them easier to handle.

    Bananas were familiar to many Americans by the end of the nineteenth century, although as late as 1899 an article in Scientific American included directions for peeling them ("the fruit is peeled by slitting the skin longitudinally and giving it a rotary motion with the hands"). Bananas were available in many parts of the country, although still expensive and considered a luxury outside the port cities on the East Coast. Fruit-importing companies knew they had a profitable item if they could only procure a consistent supply of the fruit abroad and expand their markets at home.

    Just six years later, in 1905, an article on bananas in Scientific American pointed out that "only a few years ago the banana was a luxury in many northern families. Although fairly common on the city markets, it was too expensive to be generally used by most families living in and near the small towns; but now so abundant and cheap as to be a common article of commerce in every corner grocery store, while in the cities it is frequently referred to as the poor man's fruit." The twentieth century was to see a phenomenal growth in the banana-importing industry with the rise of giant multinational corporations. Bananas became the cheapest fruit in the grocery store throughout the year, taken for granted by consumers. The banana lost its exotic image and disappeared from the formal dinner table as it became the most widely eaten fruit in the United States.