From the 1988 "Journal" of the California Rare Fruit Growers


Brian Lievens

San Diego, California


The edible banana is native to Southeast Asia, traveling from there east with the Polynesians, and west with the Arabs, Portuguese, and Spanish. Bananas are among the earliest plants cultivated by man, and presently rank as the most popular fresh fruit, grown in all tropical and subtropical countries for both domestic use and export.

The banana plant is an herbaceous perennial made up of an underground rhizome and clusters of tightly rolled petioles and leaves above ground. The rhizome extends outwards in all directions, forming a "mat" of trunk-like stalks. At maturity a flower bud emerges above the leaf canopy forming "hands" of fruit which continue to swell in size until they are filled out and ready for harvest. The mat of trunks should be kept to three or four healthy, mature stalks, cutting down each in turn after its fruit has been harvested. A successor is then allowed to grow up in its place.

While bananas are all subject to frost damage, some cultivars have a greater resistance to cold and recover more quickly from such damage. There are three basic groups of temperature tolerance in subtropical cultivation:

TENDER — Clones that will suffer damage to both plant and fruit at temperatures below 35 deg F.

AVERAGE — Plants with damage to fruit at temperatures below 35 deg F.

SEMI-HARDY — Varieties that suffer little or no damage all the way down to freezing.

Bananas will thrive in any soil that is high in organic matter. The root system is shallow, (less than three feet), but pervasive, spreading out in all directions to absorb water and nutrients. The plant’s soft, cord-like roots can cover an area 6’-8’ beyond the pseudostems. Bananas should be fertilized in small doses on a regular basis during the warm growing season. Over-fertilizing will cause leaf-margin burn, and entanglement of newly emerging leaves. Thoroughly composted pseudostems and leaves have proven to be the most effective way for plants to obtain the necessary NPK as well as all other micronutrients.

Bananas are surprisingly drought-tolerant, relying on water stored within their rhizomes. However, optimum fruit production requires a steady, moist soil profile. Water-logged, perpetually soggy conditions should be avoided. Such an environment is conducive to rots, especially during winter months, and particularly for young plants.

In the subtropics there are few pests that are fatal to the banana. The most serious damage is done by gophers, which devour both roots and rhizome, causing the plant to wilt and finally collapse. This can be prevented by lining the planting hole with galvanized wire mesh. Rats will feast on the ripening fruit, unless the bunches are covered with burlap, wire, or plastic. Snails and slugs have been known to mass in the leaf petioles, feeding on the emergent growth. Aphids will infest the unfurling leaves, but cause little damage.

Several banana clones are subject to a fungal infection called "cigar end rot" which attacks the tip of the fruit during cold, wet weather, turning it black and slowly working its way upwards like the burning ash of a cigar. One can reduce the chances of infection by removing desiccated floral parts, and by covering the "hands" with an opaque, open-ended plastic bag. In addition to keeping the fruit dry, bagging hastens ripening, and minimizes damage from cold and wind.


TRIPLOID ACUMINATA SPP. (AAA) {see end of article for explanation}




Almost all of the following cultivars have been successfully grown in this climate, and under proper conditions will produce the same number, quality and size of fruit as they do in those countries that export them commercially to North America.

GROS MICHEL/Bluefields — The standard cultivar for the banana industry for 70 years, Its fruits are very large and of outstanding quality. Furthermore, because of the symmetry of the bunches and upward curve of the individual fingers the entire stalk could be transported directly to distant markets. Because of its susceptibility to Panama disease, Gros Michel’s dominance of the banana industry has been eclipsed by the Cavendish cultivars. The plant itself ranges in size from 12-22", is somewhat slender in stature requiring propping and sensitive to cold. At present it is not known whether it has been successfully fruited in California. In Florida, however, it is considered marginal.

COCOS/Highgate — A shorter mutation of Gros Michel, less susceptible to wind damage and slightly more productive. In our subtropical climate It has produced very large fruits of excellent quality. The plant is tender, and somewhat fragile, with flower buds emerging at 10-15’.

GRANDE NAINE — Currently the most important commercial clone in the world. It is vigorous, productive (bunches of fruit weighing over 100 lbs.). Sturdy and semi-hardy. Grows 6-10’.

VALERY — A preferred export variety in both tropical and subtropical countries. Like the Grande Naine, it has a very high-quality fruit and is resistant to stress. Productive, semi-hardy, it is also a bit taller and less stout requiring some support when in fruit. Grows 7-12’.

LACATAN/Hamakua/Bungulan — A common producer of export fruit from Jamaica. High-quality, semi-hardy, requires propping of stems while fruiting. Grows 8-10’.

DEL MONTE — Exact name unknown. Brought directly to Southern California from a commercial Del Monte plantation in Costa Rica. Average cold tolerance, slender trunks, fruiting height unknown.

SAN JOSE — Another clone taken from outside the Costa Rican capital. To date it has performed very well in this climate, growing 6-8’ and producing large bunches of high-quality fruit. It has an average resistance to cold.

ARGENTENO — Like San Jose and Del Monte, introduced to San Diego directly from a plantation in Central America. With slender trunks mottled in patches of dark brown, it is an attractive plant of average cold hardiness. It requires some support while fruiting.

ZANMORENO/Extra Dwarf Cavendish — At 4-6’, one of the smallest fruiting bananas. Productive and sturdy, it has good-quality fruit and is an excellent plant for a raised bed or large container. Average hardiness.

DWARF CAVENDISH/Dwarf Chinese/Enano — Commercial banana in the Canary islands for export to Europe. Fruit is of good quality, and has performed well in many areas of California, but suffers from cigar end rot in the winter. Average hardiness, sturdy. Grows 6-8’.

GIANT CAVENDISH/Tumok — Commercial producer for Egypt, Brazil, Martinique, and the Philippines. Average hardiness, sturdy and productive growing 8-10’.

ENANO GIGANTE — A commercial clone of Mexico. High-quality fruit of large size under ideal conditions. Tender, often needing support when bearing, subject to cigar end rot in cold wet weather. 8-10’.


HONEY/Sucrier/Nino, Diploid Acuminata (AA) — One of the world’s most popular local bananas that has remained outside the international marketplace because of low productivity and poor shipping qualities. It is very sweet, with tiny hands of petite fruit born on a fragile slender plant. Best grown in part shade or morning sun. 6-8’, tender.

NEY POOVAN/Lady Finger, Diploid Hybrid (AB) — An excellent fruit for Southern California, having medium bunches of small delicious fruit. Large plant of 20-25’, semi-hardy.

APPLE/Hawaiian Apple/Brazilian/Pome, Triploid Hybrid (AAB) — Another universally grown cultivar that is difficult to ship. Its common name is derived from the fruit’s slightly acid apple-like flavor. Currently the premier plantation banana in Hawaii, it is sturdy, productive, vigorous, and semi-hardy. 15-25’.

MANZANO/Mexican Apple/Semi-Dwarf Apple/Silk Fig — Somewhat shorter than STD Apple (10-15’), with fruit of similar shape and size, but poorer quality. Semi-hardy.

DWARF APPLE/Dwarf Brazilian/Santa Catarina Prata — Vigorous. Reputed to have fruit quality comparable to its namesake. New to California. 6-8’.




RED BANANA/Cuban Red/Jamaican Red — Highly ornamental plant with much red and purple in the pseudostem and leaves. Tall in stature (10-25'). The mature fruit can range in color from blood to scarlet red. Tender.

GREEN REDS/Kru — Mutation of Red banana with greener foliage, and fruits that yellow upon ripening. Untried in California.

DWARF JAMAICAN RED — Plant and its fruits retain all of the features found on the STD red, but bear on a 6-8’ pseudostem. Tender.

COLORADO BLANCO — A large strikingly beautiful plant with the reddish trunk of a STD red culminating into a white crown and leaf bases. The fruit is yellow, the plant is 20-25’. Tender.





Iholena Group (AAA)

WHITE IHOLENA — The fastest growing banana from planting to harvest, (less than one year). The fruit has a distinctive pink flesh. Maximum height tends to be between 8-15'. The skin of the fruit turns yellow long before they are ready to harvest, and should be left on the bunch until they are soft. Average hardiness, requires propping.

RED IHOLENA — A stunning mutation of the above with a combination of pinks and purples in the psuedostems and leaves otherwise identical.

HAA HAA — A dwarf form of White lholena, 6-8’, very stout, with fruit similar to the others. Average hardiness.

Popoulu Group (AAB)

POPOULU — Can be eaten raw, but is commonly cooked. Bears good-sized bunches of short plump fruits with pink flesh. 12-14' in height, temperature range unknown.

HUA MOA — One of the finest cooking bananas, it is also very palatable eaten raw. In contrast to the Popoulu it bears far fewer fruits, but they are considerably larger. The plant is very slender and elegant with long narrow leaves. 8-12'. Tender.

Maia Maoli Group (AAB)

MAIA MAOLI — Untested in California.

KAULAU — A fine cooking banana, large bunches, vigorous, growing to 16’. Average hardiness.

AE AE — The banana of the ancient Hawaiian royalty because of its spectacular white and green variegation covering the entire plant. Still quite rare, slow to pup, it is semi-hardy. The fruit is best cooked, but is palatable raw.

ELEELE/Seychelles Plantain — Has the distinction of being larger in girth than any banana. Fruit of this clone is best eaten cooked. 15-20'. Average hardiness, attractive brown to black coloration.

DOUBLING BANANA (AAA) — Dichotomous fruiting head. From a single trunk this mutation of a triploid Acuminata produces two flower buds. The plant resembles a dwarf Cavendish, growing a single bud for the first generation, then doubling as it reaches its full size. 4-8'. Tender.


MYSORE — Represents 70 % of the bananas produced in India. The fruit is of the highest quality, sweet with a good texture. The plant is vigorous, semi-hardy with large bunches of small fruit. Its leaves and trunk are ornamental, with splashes of red, black, and purple. 8-15'.

WALHA — 6-8' with a very stout pseudostem. This durable plant delivers small hands of petite fruit that are slightly crunchy. Semi-hardy. Will produce well in the shade.

RAJA PURl — Another dwarf (6-8'). Semi-hardy, producing short, good-quality fruits.

PYSANG RAJA — Has unusual, orange-fleshed fruit. The plant is vigorous, reaching 15-20', producing many large flavorful fruit. Semi-hardy.


ORINOCO/Better Select/Burro/Bluggoe (ABB) — The most common banana in Southern California, having been grown in this area for over one hundred years. It is semi-hardy, drought-resistant, tolerant of many soil types, and under suitable conditions reaches a height of 10-15'. The fruit is very plump, with a distinct angular shape. While it has a good flavor, the texture suffers from a pithy core.

DWARF ORINOCO — Same description as the above, but plant fruits at 4-6' and is quite shade-tolerant.

ICE CREAM/Blue Java — A mutation of Orinoco (or possible Saba), with attractive silver/blue skin. The fruit is quite pudding-like and can be eaten with a spoon, but suffers from the same spongy core.

AFRICAN RHINO HORN (AAB) — The name of this clone is derived from the unusual length of the fruit, which has been known to reach 2'. An excellent cooking banana, it also can be eaten raw. The plant itself is visually appealing, with a wine-colored trunk and purple mottling on the leaves. Very slender, requires propping. 10-12'. Tender.

MACHO PLANTAIN (AAB) — A popular Latin staple that should be eaten cooked. The plant itself is attractive when young with purple colorations in the leaves. Fruiting height undocumented in this area. Tender.




LAKATAN (of the Philippines) (AAA) or (AA)

SABA, or Saba group (ABB) or (BBB) FEHI, Musa Fehi, possibly too tender for this climate.



GOLDEN BEAUTY/1C2, man-made hybrid (AAAA)



RIPPING/Praying hands (ABB)



PITOGO/UgIy Banana (ABB) 300 (Tres Cientos), possibly Mysore (AAB)





Many of the numbered clones from the Honduras breeding program (SH series).


WEEPING JAMAICA and PINK JAMAICA — Both forms of Gros Michel

VARIEGATED LACATAN/Pisang masak hijau


DICHOTOMOUS, i.e., Doubling/Gros Michel


{Meaning of (AA, AAA, AB, etc.}

Musa acuminata (A)

Musa balbisiana (B)

Hybridized cultivars are diploid ( AA, AB), triploid ( AAA, AAB, ABB), and tetraploid ( AAAA, ABBB)