Bad Banana: Beautiful plant going bad?

Friday, June 12, 2015
Caroline Chaboo

The banana family, scientifically called Musaceae, comprises two genera and about 80 species from Africa and Asia.  Edible bananas and plantains both belong to the genus Musa.  The bananas we eat do not grow on a banana "tree".  Rather, the plant is an herb, with an underground rhizome, a "stem" made of tightly-packed stems of the large showy leaves, and the inflorescence where each flower produces one edible banana.  Bananas are thought to have been domesticated about 8000 BC in southeast Asia; those soft tiny black specks at the center of the banana fruit are sterile - they cannot be planted for new plants.  The plant forms suckers (root sprouts) that help create a clump of banana plants or that are separable for new plants.  While bananas are eaten raw, plantains must be cooked.  Both are delicious and of immense value in the tropical larder.  Scientists believe that these edible bananas are actually hybrids from two wild species, Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana.  Costa Rica is a major exporter of bananas; forests have been cut to grow large monocultures and high pesticide use is implicated as a threat to caiman populations.

Banana plants are beautiful!  It is not surprising that we see ornamental bananas commonly planted along roads and in gardens -  those big showy leaves and big colorful infloresences bring that lush "tropical" touch.  One spectacular introduced ornamental banana is Musa velutina.  I noted this beauty commonly grown on our route and I am wondering if native arthropods on native Zingiberales can expand their host range to this exotic.  I also wonder if the viable seeds of M. velutina can grow - perhaps spread in bird droppings.  It is not uncommon for beautiful garden plants to break free, run rampant, and become scourges, no matter how "pretty" they appear.

Musa velutina, an introduced ornamental banana growing in Costa Rica
Musa velutina seeds are viable, unlike the bananas we eat
Bird food!