IN AMERICAN TROPICS. Figs. 285, 286.
The rapidly attained popularity of the banana in the United States offers a striking example of a recent addition to our traditional list of foods. Thirty years ago the banana was practi cally unknown outside the tropics, yet to-day it must be classed as one of our staple articles of diet. This rapid growth in favor is doubtless due to the peculiar character of the fruit, which is entirely unlike any of the temperate and sub tropical products in use previously. It is, perhaps, the best adapted of fruits for handling in large quantities. One stroke of the machete gathers 75 to 150 individual bananas, compactly united into a cluster convenient for handling, comparable to an entire crate of any of our northern fruits. The structure of the individual fruits is equally con venient, since they are protected perfectly by a tough skin which is removed readily without the use of any instrument, while the pulp is luscious without being juicy.
Throughout tropical America the banana is con sidered a vegetable rather than a fruit. Indeed, as a fruit the banana is taking a relatively more im portant place in the United States than in the regions in which it is grown. Thus, in Porto Rico, it would be classed fourth or fifth in a list of the mogt popular fruits, while as a vegetable it would rank second or perhaps first.
The banana plant, or tree, as it is often called, is a large herb with a perennial rootstock. The part above the base, which reaches a height of ten to thirty feet, consists entirely of the leaves and their clasping, sheath-like petioles. The inflorescence forces its way through this stem-like growth and appears as a large raceme, which soon becomes pendent. The flowers are borne in clusters of eight to fifteen, which when mature are known as "hands." Each cluster is enclosed in a large subtending bract, purple in most species, that rolls back and drops as the flowers open. The basal flowers, which open first, are pistillate, with only aborted stamens. Toward the apex the stamens become larger and more perfect, while the pistil is gradually reduced, until at the apex the flowers are entirely staminate.
Usually less than half of the flower-clusters de velop as fruit, though the opening of the staminate flowers toward the apex continues until the fruit at the base is mature. The closely packed clusters of unopened flowers at the end of the fruit-stalk are known as the "navel." (For accounts of the botanical characters, see Cyclopedia of American Horticulture, under Banana and Musa.) Varieties.
The almost countless varieties of bananas and plantains are all classified under species of the genus Musa, which, with five other genera, com prises the family Musacete. In the latest revision by Schumann the genus is divided into forty-two species. The various varieties of edible bananas are usually all included under the two species if. paradisiaca and M. Carendishii. The latter is the dwarf banana, grown in the Canary islands for the English market and also in Hawaii. M. para disiaca has two sub-species : normalis, comprising the plantains or cooking bananas, which are of coarse texture and only slightly sweet, and sapicn tum, comprising the majority of the varieties of sweet-fruited bananas that may be eaten raw. By many writers the plantain (normalis) and the common banana (sapientuut) are regarded as dis tinct botanical species. Practically the only va riety that appears in the northern markets is the Martinique or Jamaica, also known as Gros Michel and Bluefields. The chief advantage of this va riety is the superior shipping quality of the fruit. It is to be regretted that this one desirable char acter has been allowed to exclude all the other varieties, many of which are decidedly superior as table fruit.
The plantains or cooking bananas are worthy of greater consideration than they receive in this country. Throughout all tropical countries they are preferred for cooking, and it would seem only a question of time until they will be added to our list of vegetables. In New Orleans the population is sufficiently in touch with the tropics to afford a limited market for plantains, and about 6,000,000 individual plantains are annually shipped to that city from British Honduras.