A Visit to a Banana Plantation
BY AWAKE! WRITER IN SOUTH AFRICA
I HAVE always loved eating bananas. I suppose most people do. Bananas are not only delicious but also rich in vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Would you like to know more about this nutritious fruit? Recently a farmer and his wife showed me the amazing way in which bananas regenerate themselves.
Tony and Marie (shown above) farm in South Africa’s Limpopo Province, in an area called Levubu. They grow a variety of crops on their 140-acre [55-ha] farm. Their main crop, however, is the banana. Tony would like to tell us more about this popular fruit.
Growing and Climatic Conditions
“The best soil type,” explains Tony, “has a reasonably high clay content and is not sandy or rocky. It must also be deep and well drained. Bananas flourish in frost-free areas. In fact, they enjoy high temperatures. Levubu’s average annual temperatures range from 55 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit [12°-35°C].” When I ask about rainfall, Tony responds: “Bananas require either regular rainfall or weekly irrigation.”
A banana plant may look like a tree, but the trunk is made, not of wood, but of compact leaf stalks. The banana is actually a giant herb, not a tree. The real stem lies underground and is called a rhizome. Roots descend from the rhizome, and leaves and eventually a large purple flower grow from it. Shoots also sprout from the rhizome to become new plants.
Banana plants have three basic stages of development, which local farmers refer to as “the grandmother, the daughter, and the granddaughter.” (See photo.) The “grandmother” will bear fruit this year, the “daughter” next year, and the “granddaughter” the third year. “Granddaughters” appear in fairly large numbers next to their “mother.” When these “babies” reach about knee height, all are pruned away except for the most promising shoot.
The huge purple flower, which eventually becomes a bunch of bananas, grows upward from the hidden rhizome through the center of the plant. It finally emerges between the two top leaves and hangs down. As the flower petals drop off, the 10 to 15 undeveloped hands making up the bunch are exposed—growing upside down to the inexperienced eye! A hand can be composed of 20 or more individual developing bananas, referred to as fingers.
The time from the emergence of the purple flower to the banana harvest can vary from three to six months, depending on the time of the year. The fruit is harvested green, but only after the fingers have filled out to a roundish shape. The average weight of a marketable bunch is about 75 pounds [35 kg]. At harvest a plastic slip is pulled over the bunch to prevent bruising while it is being conveyed to the packinghouse on a wagon. In this facility the hands are cut to small groupings of between three and six fingers and are then treated in a solution of fungicide for the control of what is called collar rot.
In South Africa the fruit is then packed into wax-treated, ventilated cardboard cartons and moved into a ripening room. Here a gas, ethylene, triggers the ripening process.* The cartons are kept here at a controlled temperature for a day or two and are then shipped off to the consumer.
“Perhaps I’m prejudiced,” says Tony, with a twinkle in his eye, “but I think Levubu bananas have an exceptional flavor, likely because of our soil. Regrettably, because we are so far from any export city, they are enjoyed in this country only.”
Good for Your Health
Bananas are rich in potassium. “Numerous studies indicate that this nutrient can help strengthen your bones and lower your risk of high blood pressure and stroke,” states Health magazine in an article about bananas. “Bananas,” the magazine adds, “contain birth-defect-fighting folate, a B vitamin crucial for anyone who is pregnant or of childbearing age.” Bananas contain other vital minerals, such as magnesium, which helps bones absorb calcium and thus remain strong.
The protein in a banana is made up of 18 amino acids, including all the essential ones that your body cannot make in sufficient quantity or at all. The fruit is 22 percent carbohydrate, which provides quick energy because bananas are so easy to digest. Marie is pleased to add: “Bananas are a good source of vitamins A, B, and C. Also, they appear to suppress the appetite, since one never seems inclined to eat too many at once.” So why not have one—it will be good for you and so delicious!
When bananas ripen naturally, they discharge the same gas, which furthers the ripening process. Thus, another way to ripen green bananas is to place a few ripe ones among them.
[Diagram/Picture on page 16]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
Sketch: Based on drawing from The Complete Encyclopedia of Illustration/J. G. Heck
[Diagram/Picture on page 17]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
[Pictures on page 17]
The huge purple flower eventually becomes a bunch of bananas
Photo by Kazuo Yamasaki
[Pictures on page 18]
Harvesttime (at left); a fresh crop on the way (above)