Geography and distribution
Plantains are native to Southeast Asia where their inedible, seed-bearing, diploid (containing two sets of chromosomes) ancestors can still be found today.
Edible banana first occurred through the natural crossing of various inedible diploid species of Musa acuminata resulting in sterile hybrids which were seedless (parthenocarpic) and triploid, containing three sets of chromosomes. Local people soon discovered that these hybrids had edible fruits and they began to propagate the plants vegetatively by suckers. Before long the crosses that produced the tastiest fruits were selected, cultivated, propagated and distributed as a food crop.
Plantain resulted from the introduction of genes from Musa balbisiana to Musa acuminata clones, which conferred hardiness and drought tolerance and disease resistance to the hybrids. It also improved nutritional value and increased their suitability for cooking (plantains need to be cooked before being eaten). Musa balbisiana is found mainly on the margins of tropical rainforests.
Overview: There is a huge amount of morphological variability in the cultivated banana. Musa spp. - which include banana and plantain - are not trees but giant herbs with a pseudostem (formed from the bases of leaves rolled tightly around each other). Members of this genus can grow up to 15 m tall making them the largest perennial herb in the world.
Roots: Plantain plants cultivated vegetatively do not have one main taproot. Instead they have a root system that is fleshy and adventitious.
Leaves: Leaves are arranged spirally and are up to 2.7 metres long and 60 cm wide.
Flowers and fruits: Male flowers are borne at the tip of the inflorescence and, beneath them, separated by several sterile flowers, are the female flowers which develop into fruits. In the case of the cultivated plantain, the fruits develop parthenocarpically and are seedless. The fruits are arranged in hands, each formed of 10-20 bananas (fingers).
Plantain can be prepared in a number of different ways. Unlike dessert bananas, which derive mainly from Musa acuminata, plantain is much starchier and less sweet and needs to be cooked to be fully enjoyed.
- In Latin America they are commonly sliced diagonally and fried in olive oil and eaten as an accompaniment to the daily meal.
- In the Dominican Republic ripe plantains are mashed and mixed with beaten eggs, flour, butter, milk and clovers and layered in a casserole with beef, piccalilli and raisins, topped with grated cheese and baked in the oven.
- In Guatemala, a delicious sweet dish is made by boiling plantains and serving them with honey.
Plantains can be deep-fried until crisp and then seasoned and eaten as a snack. In Ghana, pancakes (called ‘fatale’) are made by mixing in ripe plantains with fermented wholemeal dough of maize which is then seasoned with onions, ginger, salt and pepper and fried in palm oil.
When there is a surplus of plantains in the summer they can be dried and stored so that they can be consumed out of season. They can also be ground into flour and used to bake cakes and pastries. In Southeast Asia the terminal male bud of Musa balbisiana is soaked in salty water and then eaten as a vegetable prepared in curries. Dried green plantains which are ground and roasted can also be used as a substitute for coffee.
Beyond its use as a food crop, plantain fibre is used to make ropes, tablemats, handbags and paper.
Crop wild relatives of plantain
The Millennium Seed Bank and the Global Crop Diversity Trust are engaged in a ten-year project, called 'Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change'. The project aims to protect, collect and prepare the wild relatives of 29 key food crops, including plantain, so that they are available to pre-breeders for the development of new varieties that are more resilient to the effects of climate change.
Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage
The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plants worldwide, focusing on those plants which are under threat and those which are of most use in the future. Once seeds have been collected they are dried, packaged and stored at -20°C in Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank vault.
Number of seed collections stored in the Millennium Seed Bank: One
Seed storage behaviour: Intermediate (meaning that the seeds are more tolerant of desiccation than recalcitrants, though that tolerance is much more limited than is the case with orthodox seeds)
This species at Kew
Pressed and dried specimens of plantain are held in Kew's Herbarium, where they are available to researchers by appointment. Details and images of some of these specimens can be seen online in Kew's Herbarium Catalogue.