The cultivation of bananas began in South East Asia in around 500BC. From there they were taken to Africa, via Madagascar, and, during the 6th century became established along the Mediterranean coastline. They reached the Canary Isles from Guinea, via the Portuguese, and it is believed that the Spanish took the banana to America.
The Canary banana varies in looks and taste from the common banana we would more commonly see in the rest of Europe and yet its origins are very similar. Both are varieties of the Cavendish – by far the most cultivated in the world – and the main differences are in growing and ripening techniques linked to consumer markets. The weather in the Canary Islands is not tropical and it can be variable. This means that the banana spends longer on the ´tree´- up to 6 months compared with the typical 3 months on a tropical plantation. This gives the Canary banana a higher level of ripeness, flavour and aroma. It has a higher moisture content, making it tastier that its more floury counterpart and it has higher potassium levels. Canarian bananas are picked just 2 weeks before optimum ripeness compared to a month or more for central American crops; thus the flavour will always be better and the reduced carbon footprint has meant that the Canarian crop is now finding increased markets within Europe.
The banana crop in the Canary Islands is a very important product representing 33% of the agricultural industry. Each year 400 million kilos of bananas are grown providing direct or indirect employment for around 30,000 people. 80% of the banana plantations there are operated by small producers with one hectare, or less, of land.This is in direct competition to the big guys of Central America – companies such as Chiquita/Fyffes, the largest, Dole and Del Monte – who account for more than half of the world´s exports which total some 105 million tonnes annually.
There are believed to be some one thousand varieties of bananas in the world, including plantains, but 95% of banana exports are from one single variety – the Cavendish. The main reason for this is that the Cavendish stores supremely well; it can survive weeks in a ship´s hold. The fruits are also very uniform, roughly the same shape and size, making shipping and processing very simple. All of this makes the banana the most valuable fruit in the world.
This standardisation leads, of course, to a mono-crop of immense numbers and, with that, the dangers of crop annihilation from disease/insect attack. To counter the risks, Central American growers use huge amounts of fungicides and insecticides on their banana crops; the European Community controls are stricter so amounts of chemicals that can be used are limited. So next time you shop for bananas, buy local produce or – better still – why not grow your own!
Musa x paradisiaca, or banana, is actually a perennial herb that belongs to the same family as strelitzias and gingers. Their ideal growing conditions are around 25C – 30C with a preferred altitude below 400m, hence they are a perfect coastal crop. They like good light, sandy ground which drains well and, in summer, plenty of water and organic fertiliser. However, they will grow well as long as there are no vast extremes of temperatures – excess heat of over 40C and excess cold below -5C. Winter temperatures below 12C will stop active growth, as in citrus, and in really cold conditions, the top growth can be killed to the ground but favourable conditions will soon bring new basal shoots. They do not like cold winds, so provide protection. Commercially they are planted in blocks or clumps, not single rows and the most productive are always those on the inside of the clump. If you do not have space for this, do give them the protection of a wall or other trees/plantings.
The roots are weak and are nearly all concentrated in the top 40 cm of soil, though some may reach a maximum depth of 1.5m with a spread of 3m. The ´trunks´ consist of leaf stalks wrapped around each other – the new leaves start growing inside, below the ground, and they push up through the middle emerging from the centre of the crown – large lush and very tropical looking – reaching a length of up to 4m metres in ideal conditions and up to 1.5m wide. In good conditions, the large purple coloured flower will develop around 1 year after planting. As the petals curl back and drop off, they reveal tiny bananas, up to 20 individual fruits known as fingers, with the collective bunch called a hand. One plant will generally carry no more than 4 hands. Male fingers just shrivel and drop off; it is the females that develop into bananas, being ready to pick some 80 days later. They are ready to be picked when they look well rounded and the remains of the flower at the end dry up and drop off. After the plant is finished flowering and fruiting, it will die and one of the young plants forming at the base will develop into the next crop. If you have a surplus of young plants, they can be carefully cut away and replanted to increase your plantation.
Bananas are good for your heart and nerves. They contain a high dose of potassium – an essential ingredient to keep your heart and nervous system in good shape and reduce stroke risk.
Bananas help depression due to the high level of amino acids which help to boost our mood and happiness.
Bananas are good for your blood. They provide major amounts of vitamin B6 boosting your immune system.
Bananas don't make you fat - on the contrary, the high level of potassium in bananas helps to regulate the body fluids counteracting the sodium and eliminating unnecessary liquids.
Bananas are good for your mind and memory. The fruit is rich in vitamins A and C and phosphorus - a perfect combination of vitamins for your brain.
A perfect place to plant bananas is around an outside shower! The excess water during summer months helps them grow strong and lush providing greenness and privacy.
We have Canary Island banana plants in stock at the Garden Centre.
Don´t forget our Summer Sale 21st July until 31st July.
Most plants will be at 50% discount!
Lorraine Cavanagh owns the specialist garden centre Viveros Florena, Competa,Malaga (garden centre, designers & landscapers) and is author of the best-selling Mediterranean Garden Plants and Citrus,The Zest of Life.
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