banana, name for several species of the genus Musa and for the fruits these produce. The banana plant—one of the largest herbaceous plants—is native to tropical Asia but now cultivated throughout the tropics. Used to a minor degree for its leaf fiber, the banana is of the same genus as the extremely valuable fiber plant Manila hemp, or abaca, and is also related to the bird-of-paradise flower. Along with the banana, these are economically the most important plants of the banana family (the Musaceae), a group of large monocotyledonous tropical herbs. The banana is of palmlike aspect and has very large leaves, the overlapping bases of which form the so-called false trunk. As the plant reaches maturity its true stem rises from the ground and pushes through the center of the false trunk to emerge from the top of the plant, there becoming pendent and bearing the male and female flowers. The female flowers develop into bananas, the clusters of upturned fruits being called "hands" and each banana a "finger." The plants are cut down to harvest the fruit, since they bear only once. Their seeds are sterile; shoots from the rhizomes are used for propagation. The banana fruit (botanically a berry) is a staple food in the tropics and is used in many forms, raw or cooked, and grown in many varieties; sweeter fruits are often known as bananas, and starchier ones as plantains. Dried bananas are eaten as "banana figs" and inferior fruits serve as a stock feed. Banana oil is a synthetic product, so named because of its odor. Although the banana has long been cultivated in Asia—Alexander the Great encountered it in India—the large international traffic began only in the late 19th cent. with the development of refrigerated transport. Bananas are classified in the division Magnoliophyta, class Liliopsida, order Zingiberales, family Musaceae.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.