Fruit of the month: the banana

If the banana really were a republic it would be a global power. No other variety of fruit is more popular and more universally available. After wheat, rice and milk, it is the fourth-most important food item worldwide.

As familiar and popular as it is, the banana still has a few surprises up its skin. For instance, in botanical terms it is actually a berry, just like lemons and oranges, melons and papayas.

There are roughly 1000 different varieties of banana, but only one is a global player: the Cavendish dessert banana, which takes its name from the British aristocracy. William Cavendish, the sixth Earl of Devonshire, was an ardent amateur botanist, the president of the Royal Horticultural Society for over twenty years and the founder of the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew (just outside London). Around 1830, he planted bananas from Asia in his greenhouse – the cultivar that now accounts for 95% of the global market.  Because the banana plant is propagated with cuttings that are simply pushed into the soil, all Cavendish bananas in the world are not just related, they are genetically identical: they are clones.

The term Banana Republic was originally used to describe the small states in Central America where the major U.S. banana producers had greater economic and political power than the actual governments. It comes from a literary source: the term was invented in 1904 by the U.S. writer O. Henry, who used it in his story “Cabbages and Kings”.