Do you know the scientific name of bananas?
These yellow smiley fruits are called worldwide in many different ways. Some of us know them as banano, others, like bananas, plantains, plátanos, …. But formally our bananas have a name and a surname coined centuries ago. This story begins in the 18th century.
Bananas’ scientific denomination has had a long journey. Therefore, current bananas can be known as Cavendish, Musa sapientum, Musa paradisiaca, …. But let’s start at the beginning.
When did it all start?
The great number of plants and animals has led to very complex denominations when naming new species. Names that made it difficult to know the relationship between species. Until a Swedish botanist used for the first time a concise method to name species. He was Carl Linnaeus and popularized the binomial nomenclature. This consists in giving to species a Latinized two-parts name. The first one for the genus, and the second one for the species. So, in 1753, Linnaeus published the first edition of Species Plantarum. It included the first banana named using the binomial terminology: Musa paradisiaca.
Musa paradisica was discovered by Linneaus in a glasshouse from Holland. Even though wild bananas came from Asia and had been domesticated over a thousand year ago. However, when Linneaus named a banana for the first time, he had only access to the bananas he saw in Europe. Not long afterwards, Linnaeus found out a second banana. He named it Musa sapientum. Both of these bananas were cultivated plants named after the system for wild plants. And here lies the complexity in the correct naming of our current banana species. Since Linnaeus did not know the species from which Musa sapientum and Musa paradisiaca came from, he did not classify them as varieties.
How did it evolve the process of naming bananas?
For decades botanists tried to solve the confusion of having named banana hybrids as species. It was not until 1955 when two scientists working at the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture (ICTA) developed the “genome-based system”. These scientists were Normand Simonds and Ken Shepherd. Their new code was based on the genotype of bananas. This means that they classified edible bananas according to their genome group based on visual scoring.
Dessert bananas are among the oldest crops in the world. Growers have been domesticating their wild progenitors for centuries. In fact, “the Musa domestication process started some 7,000 years ago in Southeast Asia. It involved hybridizations between diverse species and subspecies, fostered by human migrations, and selection of diploid and triploid seedless, parthenocarpic hybrids thereafter widely dispersed by vegetative propagation” (Source: The banana (Musa acuminata) genome and the evolution of monocotyledonous plants, Musa Tract Project) .This means that bananas have gone through a long process of selection and crossing.
Therefore, Simonds and Shepherd named bananas after studying which ancestors contributed to their genome. The bananas we consume (all from the family Musaceae) have their origin in two wild species, Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana. Hence the genome codification established the following:
Cultivars with two sets of chromosomes inherited from Musa acuminata subspecies were coded with the AA genome group.
On the other hand, cultivars that have two sets of chromosomes, one donated by Musa acuminata and the other by Musa balbisiana, were coded as the AB genotype.
Also, to the present day, the crossing of different cultivars has led to the most common bananas in western supermarkets. These are derived completely from Musa acuminata, whose genome constitution is AAA (triploid). We commonly know it as Cavendish group bananas (a name coined after the growers Dwarf Cavendish and Grand Nain from Chiquita Banana).
Cavendish group bananas: AAA genotype
However, this nomenclature system is not really appreciated for biological and economic reasons. Although it can be informative, it comprises different kinds of bananas under the same genotype. For instance, “the AAA genome group comprises East African Highland bananas subgroup, whose cultivars are usually cooked and are important for food security in East Africa, as well as the Cavendish subgroup, whose cultivars are typically eaten raw and make up the bulk of the international export trade” (Source: promusa.org).
Consequently, we can also follow the rules of the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants (ICNCP), to name our bananas properly. This code states that hybrids can also be given a scientific name. However, the epithet must carry the prefix X to indicate the hybrid nature of the species. In the case of hybrid banana cultivars, Musa x paradisiaca Linn. should be adopted, as this binomial was published ahead of Musa sapientum and is in fact recognized as the type species for the banana. Musa x paradisiaca Linn is applicable to all hybrids of Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana irrespective of their genome composition (Greuter, 1995; Karamura, 1998).
In a nutshell, the fact that European explorers did not introduce bananas to Europe in the 16th century has caused a lot of confusion with the scientific name of edible bananas. Nevertheless, the most consumed bananas in America and Europe are popularly known as Cavendish bananas. And from a scientific point of view, we can call our bananas Musa x paradisiaca Linn.
Sciencedirect helps us to find it out: “Parthenocarpy refers to the development of fruit without fertilization. The process produces a sterile fruit that lacks seeds”, (Colova-Tsolova et al., 2003).