Did you know that there are over 1,000 varieties of bananas in the world? Banana plants are not actually trees, but are the world’s largest herb! They are native to Indo-Malaysia and southeast Asia, but today can be found growing throughout tropical and sub-tropical climates around the world. There are 2 categories of bananas, those that you can eat immediately, often called “dessert bananas”, and those that need to be cooked called ‘plantains’.
“If sweet bananas are the dessert, then plantain bananas are the mashed potatoes”.1
Plantains are more starchy and lower in sugar than dessert bananas. They are used like a vegetable and in some countries are even preferred over potatoes or pasta. All bananas, regardless of type are in the genus Musa.
Bananas are fast growing plants. The plantains at the Bloedel Conservatory are approximately 18 months old. Once they flower and fruit, the plant dies, however new bananas sprout from underground rhizomes off the parent plant. Bananas shoot up leaves in a spiral arrangement reaching up to 30 feet in height. Leaves range in number from 6 to 20 or more and are fused at their bases to form a pseudostem or false trunk. The flower, sometimes referred to as a ‘bell’ or ‘heart’, grows from the end of the true stem. As the bud opens, each petal or bract lifts to reveal rows of yellow or cream coloured flowers. There are usually between 12-20 flowers per cluster. These are the flowers that develop into the edible fruits!
Plantains cannot be eaten raw, but can be eaten when they are green. They are usually boiled at this stage and then mashed like potatoes. Plantains are actually ripe when the skin becomes nearly black. They are delicious baked, grilled, sautéed, pan-fried or deep-fried. Check out these amazing recipes including Caribbean Black Bean Salad with Sauteed Plantains, Sea Bass with Plantain Crust, and Cinnamon Raisin Ice Cream with Fried Plantains. Some grocery stores in Vancouver sell plantains, why not give them a try?
Birds like tanagers and touracos love to eat bananas too! In fact, bananas are the mainstay of their diets. Maybe you can spot the resident touraco at Bloedel! He loves to run along the high branches of the tall trees at the Conservatory. Touracos range in size from 15 to 25 inches in length (38 to 63.5 cm) and are spectacular in flight.
The Green-crested Touraco has vibrant red on the underside of his wings and tail, a prominent green crest on its head and a red wattle around each eye. Some species of Touracos are also called “Go-away” birds because their loud calls alert other game to run away when hunters are in the area. There are 19 different species of Touracos in the wild. They are part of a larger family that includes cuckoos and roadrunners. Touracos are native to Africa where they live in densely forested areas.
Bananas are very important economic plants for many cultures and are the fourth most important food in the world today2. They are used for food, beverages, medicines, flavorings, and fragrances. The leaves are used for shelter and cooking, while the fibre is used for paper, rope, cordage, fishing line and clothing.
Come for a visit at the Conservatory to check out the beautiful banana blossoms and see if you can spot the elusive touraco! Now that the rains have come and the temperature has dropped, it’s our tropical warm ‘get away’ at the top of Vancouver.
1. Conjecture Corporation (2003 – 2011). What are Plantains? WiseGeek http://www.wisegeek.com/what-are-plantains.htm
2. Nelson, S., Ploetz, R., Kepler, A., (2006). Musa Species (banana and plantain), Musaceae (banana family). Species Profiles for Pacific Iland Agroforestry, ver. 2.2 http://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&q=cache:nZ1C3KgJjb0J:www.agroforestry.net/tti/Musa-banana-plantain.pdf
3. Morton, J., (1987). Banana Musa x paridasiaca Horticulture and Landscape Architecture, Purdue University http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/morton/banana.html – Description