How Many Banana Varieties Are There?

Bananas are one of the most popular and beloved fruits in the world. Their sweet, creamy texture makes them a tasty snack or addition to smoothies and baked goods. But while we may be familiar with the Cavendish banana found in most grocery stores, there are actually over 1,000 varieties of bananas grown worldwide!

From miniature bite-sized bananas to red, pink, and even blue-colored varieties, the diversity of banana cultivars is astonishing. By exploring the many different types of bananas that exist, we gain a deeper appreciation for this nutritious, versatile fruit.

A Brief History of Banana Domestication

The earliest known cultivation of bananas dates back around 7,000-10,000 years ago in Papua New Guinea and Southeast Asia. The diversity of bananas we see today is thanks to generations of farmers domesticating wild banana species and selectively breeding them for desirable traits.

Some of the key ancestral banana species that gave rise to modern cultivated varieties include:

  • Musa acuminata – contributed traits like sweetness
  • Musa balbisiana – contributed hardiness and disease resistance
  • Musa fehi – reddish colored bananas

Thousands of years of cross-breeding these wild banana species has resulted in the vast array of edible banana cultivars we enjoy today.

Going Bananas – Just How Many Varieties Exist?

The staggering number of banana varieties that exist is difficult to pin down. New cultivars are still being discovered and developed. However, experts estimate that there are at least:

  • 500-1000 varieties of bananas grown worldwide
  • 150 banana species in total

The most diversity is found in Southeast Asia and Africa, where bananas are thought to have first been domesticated. Many local cultivars are grown in these tropical regions.

Let’s explore some of the key categories that all these bananas fall into…

Sweet Bananas – The Most Popular Eaten Types

Sweet bananas encompass the varieties most commonly eaten as a fruit. They have a sweet, creamy flavor when ripe and are what you’ll find in your local supermarket.

Some examples of sweet banana cultivars include:

1. Cavendish

The Cavendish is the most widely exported and sold banana type, making up 47% of global production. It is the variety we see in supermarkets – larger and elongate in shape with a creamy yellow interior when ripe.

2. Lady Finger

A thin, sweet variety often used for frying and other cooking. It has a more tart flavor profile than the Cavendish.

3. Apple

As the name suggests, this short, plump variety has a rounder shape like an apple when ripe. It has a tangy sweet flavor.

4. Blue Java

Also known as the “ice cream banana” due to its creamy, melt-in-your-mouth texture. It has blue-silver skin when ripe.

5. Pisang Raja

A popular banana cultivated in Southeast Asia, it is slim in appearance with a sweet aroma and creamy texture.

6. Praying Hands

An unusual, thick-skinned variety that grows in a conjoined, two-banana bunch resembling hands in prayer. It has a mild, sweet flavor when ripe.

7. Manzano

A stout, chunky banana variety native to Central and South America. It has a tangy, tropical fruit flavor.

Plantain Bananas – Starchy and Versatile

Plantains are bananas that contain higher starch content than sweet varieties. They are often cooked before eating and used more like a vegetable in savory dishes.

Some popular plantain cultivars are:

1. French Horn

Distinguished by its curving, horn-like shape. It can be fried, baked, or boiled.

2. Dwarf Cavendish

A miniature version of the Cavendish with thicker skin. It holds up well to cooking methods like frying.

3. Bluggoe

A large, robust cooking banana with angular edges. It is a common Caribbean variety.

4. Saba

A short but chunky cooking banana used in West African cuisine when green. It has a soft, starchy texture.

5. East African Highland

Also known as the “Mutika/Lujugira”. It has a square shape when ripe and makes great banana chips.

Miniature and Ornamental Bananas

Some banana varieties are prized for their compact size, unique flavors, or ornamental appeal. These include:

1. Pisang Mas

Also called “dwarf lady finger”, this is a miniaturized version of the lady finger banana.

2. Dwarf Orinoco

A sturdy, dwarf variety that only grows 5-7 feet tall but produces normal full-sized fruit.

3. Musa Velutina

Also known as the “pink velvet banana”, it has fuzzy pink skin and brilliant magenta-hued flesh.

4. Musa Coccinea

A wild ornamental banana variety with brilliant red leaves that is stunning in tropical gardens.

5. Musa Beccarii

Grown more for its velvety, iridescent silvery-blue leaves than its fruit. A true showstopper plant.

Going Wild – Ancient and Wild Banana Species

Modern banana cultivars are derived from wild banana species, of which there are dozens. Many of these wild banana types are inedible, with large seeds or tough flesh. But they contribute important traits for breeding like pest resistance, drought tolerance, and unique flavors.

Some wild banana species include:

1. Musa Nagensium

A seeded wild banana species used in breeding for disease resistance.

2. Musa Textilis

Also known as the “abaca banana”, its leaves are used to make fiber and traditional Filipino fabrics.

3. Musa Arakere

A wild endangered banana species native to India that is part of ancestral banana diversity.

4. Musa Maclayi

Also called the “red banana” despite having green fruit. It has brilliant red upright bracts.

The rich genetic diversity of wild banana species is crucial for breeding improved cultivars as threats like diseases and climate change intensify. Protecting these wild musa bananas ensures future food security.

Wrapping Up

While we tend to think of bananas as a single fruit, in reality, there are hundreds of different varieties out there! From petite finger bananas to starchy plantains and brilliant red varieties, bananas come in many forms.

However, commercial banana production focuses on uniformity and profitability over diversity. The dominance of the Cavendish puts our banana supply at risk if a disease impacts this single variety.

That’s why efforts to catalog, research, and preserve diverse banana cultivars are so important. Seed banks and banana collections aim to conserve as much banana biodiversity as possible for future breeding efforts and to delight generations to come with the diverse array of banana varieties that exist worldwide!

So next time you go grocery shopping and spot that familiar yellow Cavendish banana, remember that it is just one of hundreds of banana types out there. Seek out new exotic banana varieties at specialty grocers and farmers markets to taste and experience the incredible diversity within this beloved fruit. There’s a whole world of banana flavors out there waiting to be discovered!

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