|Banana plant photo @Blueshade under CC|
There are more than 300 varieties, but only a few are cultivated commercially.
They thrive in moist, warm conditions in rich soil with good drainage but can also be successfully grown in arid regions under irrigation. An important food, they are an export crop in many tropical countries. A large flower spike emerges from the center of the leaves and curves downwards. It can carry up to 150 yellowish flowers, which soon develop into fruit; the bunch is called a 'hand', and the individual bananas are called 'fingers'. After fruiting, the plant dies and is replaced by another growing from the same rhizome.
Bananas are propagated by dividing the root stem, and the first crop is usually produced within 10-15 months. Natural regeneration provides continuous cropping for several years. Bananas are one of Man's oldest foods and are mentioned in early Greek, Latin and Arab writings.
They are always harvested while green, even when they are not to be shipped afar. The reason behind this is if they are allowed to ripen on the plant they will burst and spoil before they can be picked.
In Asian countries, varieties known as plantains are grown as cooking bananas. The fruit is not as sweet and is more starchy than the popular eating varieties.
Although most bananas are grown for their edible fruit, some species are cultivated commercially as a source of fiber known as abaca, which is very strong and flexible and highly resistant to saltwater. It is used in the manufacture of ships' hawsers, marine cables and fishing nets. Some species of dwarf banana plants are grown as ornamental garden specimens.
Bananas are an excellent source of potassium