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The Mystery of Banana – Do They Have Seeds or Grow on Trees?

seeds in bananas

Bananas are one of the world’s most popular fruits. But if you’ve ever wondered how these ubiquitous yellow treats grow, you’re not alone. Do seeds in bananas? Do they grow on trees or some other kind of plant? Let’s unravel the mysteries of banana botany.

Bananas are Seedless Fruits

First and foremost – no, bananas do not contain seeds. The creamy yellow bananas we enjoy today are sterile triploids that have been specially cultivated over centuries to be seedless. 

What Makes Bananas Seedless? 

Triploid means bananas have three sets of chromosomes instead of the usual two, a key factor in the curious case of seeds in bananas. Most edible banana varieties are derived from two ancestor species, Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana. These wild banana species contain seeds, which are typically absent in the commercial varieties we consume.

However, during the early stages of banana domestication, cultivators discovered mutant sterile banana plants with three sets of chromosomes—triploids. These triploids were unable to produce viable seeds, including the hard, black seeds in bananas that are characteristic of their wild ancestors.

This odd number of chromosomes, however, bestowed other desirable qualities upon the plants. Triploids grew faster and produced bigger, plumper bananas. Notably, these bananas were seedless and sweeter, making them ideal for large-scale tropical cultivation.

Over many generations, these seedless triploids were carefully propagated and crossed to create the perfect seedless banana. While fertile seeded bananas still exist in the wild, the modern dessert bananas we enjoy today are sterile triploid clones, a testament to the fascinating journey of bananas from seeded wild fruits to the seedless varieties on our tables.

Bananas Don’t Grow on Trees

Another banana fact sure to surprise many is that bananas do not grow on trees at all! They are not woody or tree-like. Bananas are giant herbaceous plants that can reach 9-30 feet tall.

The Banana Plant Structure

The main stem of a banana plant is a pseudostem made up of tightly packed layers of leaves wrapped around each other. This pseudostem gives structural support so the plant can grow tall.

seeds in bananas

The pseudostem sprouts from an underground corm or rhizome that stores nutrients and moisture. Leaves unfurl in a spiral pattern up from the pseudostem’s top. The hanging purple banana flowers that later develop into fruit emerge from the core.

Under ideal tropical conditions, new shoots called suckers continually sprout from the base and underground rhizome. These suckers can be divided and replanted to propagate new plants.

How Bananas Propagate without Seeds

Seedless triploid bananas, including those varieties where you might occasionally find tiny seeds in bananas, cannot propagate through traditional seeds. Commercial banana growers use two main propagation methods to preserve the seedless quality and ensure a consistent crop:

  • Suckers: These shoots sprout from the base and rhizomes of the plant. They are divided and replanted to grow new plants, creating a genetically identical clone. This method ensures that the seedless nature of the bananas, a trait often appreciated by consumers, is maintained.
  • Tissue culture: In this sophisticated approach, banana plantlets are produced by culturing small pieces of tissue in a laboratory setting. These plantlets are then transplanted and nurtured into mature plants. This method not only produces identical clones but also allows for the mass production of seedless bananas.

By propagating using these methods rather than relying on unreliable seeds in bananas, growers ensure the continuation of the desirable seedless triploid characteristics. This approach guarantees the production of high-quality, seedless bananas that consumers enjoy.

Ideal Growing Conditions for Bananas 

Bananas require very specific tropical conditions to flourish. Commercial banana plantations are located in tropical regions near the equator ideal for banana cultivation.

Warmth 

Bananas crave heat. They thrive best at temperatures around 80°F. Cooler temperatures negatively impact growth and inhibit fruit production. Consistent tropical warmth from sun exposure is essential.

Greenhouses are often used in marginal climates to provide extra heat and humidity. But greenhouses cannot fully replicate tropical growing conditions. This limits large-scale commercial banana production to tropical regions.

Rich Soil

Ideal banana soil is deep, rich, and well-drained. Bananas are heavy feeders that demand lots of nutrients and moisture. Soil should be packed with organic matter to retain water and provide constant nutrients.

Banana plants lack deep root structures. The bulk of their feeder roots grows in the top 12 inches of soil, necessitating very fertile topsoil. Growers often amend the soil with compost or manure.

Plentiful Rainfall 

Loving heat means bananas also have a very high water demand. Ample rainfall and irrigation is required to provide the 3-4 inches of water needed each week. Drought causes serious declines in banana growth and production.

Shelter from Wind

Bananas lack a woody trunk and are prone to toppling over in high winds when the large fruit bunches form. Plantations are situated to provide natural windbreaks or windbreak hedges are planted.

The Banana Plant Growth Cycle

Under optimal tropical conditions, the banana plant progresses through several growth phases:

Planting the Rhizome 

Banana plants start when a rhizome shoot is planted. This rhizome section contains growth buds that sprout the main pseudostem and leaves. Rhizomes are planted 1-2 feet deep in the soil.

Leaf Growth

The pseudostem rapidly grows taller, unfurling new leaves in a spiral fashion every 8-12 days. The leaf sheaths wrap tightly around each other forming the support pseudostem. Leaves can grow to be 9 feet long.

Flowering 

After 8-15 months, pinkish-purple banana flowers emerge from the core of the pseudostem on a large purplish bud protruding down on a stem. Wax covers the developing flower and bud as protection.

Fruit Development

Flowers mature into clusters of green bananas wrapped around the purple bud. Over 3-4 months, the individual bananas plump and fill out, eventually ripening from green to yellow.

Harvesting 

It takes 9-15 months after planting for the banana bunch to fully develop and ripen. Each banana hand is cut down from the stalk and carefully removed from the plant. Plant stems are cut down after harvest.

Ratoon Crops

New banana suckers sprout from the remaining plant base, producing ratoon crop cycles. These cycles repeat for future harvests from the same plant. Ratooning continues for several cycles before replanting.

How Bananas Grow Commercially

The vast majority of bananas are grown on large commercial plantations for export markets. Here’s an inside look at commercial banana cultivation:

Plantation Growing 

Bananas are grown on tropical plantations typically ranging from 150 – 3,000 acres in size. Ecuador, the Philippines, Costa Rica, Colombia, and Guatemala lead global exports.

Plant spacing is arranged to best suit local conditions. Plant density averages from 800 to 2,000 plants per cultivated acre. Wider plant spacing allows sunlight penetration.

Grown in Monocultures

Bananas are grown in monocultures, with acre upon acre of the same banana variety. Cavendish is by far the leading commercial cultivar, making up 47% of all exports.

Monocultures allow for optimized growing conditions and protect against disease spread. But crops are more susceptible to devastating pest and disease outbreaks.

Bunch Size

A mature banana bunch is called a tandan. Tandans weigh an average of 50 kilograms but can reach weights of 60-70 kg. Each tandem contains 5-20 “hands” of bananas wrapped around the core stem.

Bunch Size

Time from Flowering to Harvest 

It takes about 9 months after the emergence of the flower for bananas to fully develop and ripen for harvest. During this time, minerals and sugars concentrate inside the fruit.

The individual hands don’t all ripen simultaneously. Growers often cut down entire unripe bunches to control ripening. Each hand ripens over 1-2 weeks after harvest. 

Yield Per Acre

The average yield is 2,000 – 2,500 kilograms per acre. Some intensive growing operations can produce over 15,000 kg per acre. Higher density spacing and fertilization boost per-acre production.

Growing Cycles and Rotation

Banana plants crop best in their first 2 to 5 ratoon cycles. After harvest, the pseudostem is cut down but new shoots sprout for the next crop. Replanting happens after several ratoon cycles.

Plantations are divided into smaller sections for rotation planting. This prevents disease buildup and maintains soil health. Sections are left fallow between plantings.

From Plantation to Produce Aisle

Thanks to their seedless, non-tree-growing nature, bananas are perfectly designed for commercial export and worldwide distribution:

Exporting Climate Controlled Bananas

After harvest, packed bananas enter a sophisticated global supply chain designed to control ripening until market delivery. The climate is carefully controlled during transport.

Green bananas are shipped at 14° C. As bananas near markets, temperatures are raised to 18° C to initiate ripening. Precise temperature controls time-perfect yellowing for delivery.

Major Exporting Countries 

The top banana-exporting countries are Ecuador (33% of global exports), the Philippines, Costa Rica, Colombia and Guatemala. Africa and Asia lead production for domestic and regional consumption.

Global Distribution Network

Major banana companies like Chiquita and Dole operate massive distribution networks spanning over 150 countries. Bananas are shipped to both regional and intercontinental markets.

Retail Ripening Chambers

Once bananas complete the 5,000 – 8,000 mile journey to market, they enter ripening chambers at distribution centers and supermarkets. Ethylene gas applied inside initiates uniform ripening.

This patented banana ripening process takes about 4 days. It allows retailers to receive mature green bananas and sell perfectly ripe yellow fruit.

100 Billion Eaten Annually

Thanks to global networks perfected over decades, bananas have become the world’s most exported fruit crop. People today consume over 100 billion bananas each year. That’s a lot of seedless banana goodness!

FAQs

Do all bananas lack seeds?

Most commercial bananas are seedless, but wild varieties and some cultivated types do contain seeds.

Can I grow a banana plant at home?

Yes, with the right conditions, you can grow a banana plant from a sucker, not from seed.

Why are bananas considered berries?

Scientifically, bananas meet all the criteria of a berry, including the development from a single ovary and having multiple seeds in their natural form.

What are the main threats to banana cultivation?

Diseases like Panama disease and pests pose significant threats due to the lack of genetic diversity in commercial bananas.

How can I help support sustainable banana farming?

Look for certifications on bananas you purchase and support organizations working towards sustainable agriculture.

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