As part of our Discovering Wild Edible series, we bring you a cameo by the cultivated - gasp! - banana plant (Musa acuminata or Musa balbisiana).
In the original Five Contemplations as they were recited during the Buddha's time, food was considered to be medicine. Aside from the sensory pleasure and community building that food fosters, plants, each with their unique phyto-chemical make-up, can indeed be thought of as medicine. I am reminded of the time I was travelling in Thailand 12 years ago, suffering from a bad case of diarrhea on my 3rd or 4th day in the country.
Already weak, and feeling desperate, I had a faint recollection of hearing how bananas could help in such a situation, so I cautiously set about walking/running to a local café where I found banana pancakes on the menu. Still adjusting to the culture and language of the tiny inland town, I managed to communicate what I wanted and, in hopes of a quick cure, inhaled the banana-packed flap-jacks down as soon as they were placed in front of me.
Though I did not know it at the time, I was travelling very near the banana's birthplace, for the banana plant is a native species of Asia, with evidence of banana cultivation going way back -- to at least 5000 BCE. The yellow-skinned fruit is now cultivated in approximately 120 countries; it's found in Africa, South America, Australia, The Canary Islands, and in various parts of Asia, with India producing 23% of bananas worldwide, most of which stay in the country for domestic use. Bananas, and their sister cultivar plantains, are a very important crop for developing countries, both because of their high starch content, and because of their year-round growing season, which provides valuable calories between harvests of other staple crops. Bananas also function as an export crop for countries such as The French Caribbean, Ecuador, Costa Rica, and Columbia, but I was surprised to learn that only 15% of bananas grown globally are exported, with most from the Caribbean headed to Europe, and those from South and Central America headed to North America.
Of the bananas that do leave their country of origin, apparently all are considered desert varieties, with the famed "Cavendish" being the most popular. Today's banana tree is actually the largest herbaceous flowering plant in the world, and is usually between 20-25 ft. tall, on average. As you probably already know, bananas destined for export are picked unripened, green bananas being more resistant to bruising and spoiling along the way. Once at their destination they're placed in rooms filled with ethylene gas, a hormone that the banana produces itself already, which ripens them. (This is also why you can ripen an avacado in a day or two by placing it in a closed paperbag with a banana peel - the ultimate life hack.)
The history of the banana is fascinating, but I won't go into too much detail here. Fast-forward to 1936, England, and William Cavendish cultivates his namesake then distributes it to many locations in the South Pacific: by 1855 the palm-like cultivar has taken root in Tahiti, Hawaii, Australia, and Papua New Guinea. Another interesting tid-bit to chew on, and one that contributed to its popularity in the western world in the early 1900's, has to do with its innate design. In a time of increasing awareness of bacteria, viruses, and disease transmission, bananas came sealed in a perfect peel that ensured sterility, offering people a nutritious and germ-free food! Mother Nature deserves a design award and a TED Talk for this one.
This brings us to the properties of the banana fruit, which, interestingly, is botanically classified as a berry; what about its phyto-chemical constitution qualifies it as medicine? No doubt you've heard about the high potassium content of bananas, a near-urban myth that indeed holds true. Potassium is a vital mineral which normalizes the heartbeat - muy importante! Potassium is also integral in regulating the body's water balance, working in tandem with sodium. Bananas are high in vitamin C, A, B6, B12 and the mineral Magnesium. Along with Potassium, Magnesium can help the body recover from nicotine withdrawal. Perhaps a banana "patch" will be the next innovation. The yellow fruit, shaped somewhat like a smile if you think about it, also contains a protein called serotonin, the happy hormone, which can be helpful when we are feeling down.
In my research, I was keen to discover why it was that eating banana pancakes allowed me to get on the next tuk-tuk and continue my Thailand travels (because they did, thankfully)! Apparently they regulate bowel movement, whether the issue be constipation or diarrhea, although green bananas in particular are said to be affective in treating diarrhea. In other digestive news, bananas have been found to protect the stomach lining from aspirin-induced erosions, which seem to be so common these days with the frequent use of aspirin as a blood-thinner.
I don't eat too many bananas anymore, perhaps I find that they are too sweet, or too starchy, or that they leave a weird film in my mouth (now that I'm thinking about it...), but knowing that each plant on the planet has something unique to offer us is a lovely way to view our food. The next time I eat a banana (this opportunity may present itself soon as I am in Costa Rica), I will notice whether it puts a smile on my face, or whether my heart feels more at ease. I hope you will too.
Please note that the information above is not intended as Medical advice. Sources are available upon request.
Téana David apprenticed in Herbal Medicine under Susun Weed in The Wise Woman Tradition. She is also a Pilates Teacher and Physiotherapist Assistant at FIX Healthcare in Victoria, BC, Canada.