Some words about the classification of bananas and their naming

[Last modification/edition: March 4th, 2024]

The classification system referred to at iNaturalist is based upon widely recognized taxonomies such as "Plants Of The World Online" (http://www.plantsoftheworldonline.org/) or "World Flora Online" (http://www.worldfloraonline.org/), formerly "The Plant List". However, for bananas, either cultivated or wild, it is frequently outdated and banana scientists do not rely on them today. Working with Bioversity International, we are in the process of making things evolve. Read it here and there on the Promusa website. In the meantime, here is a short focus on the most common types of cultivated bananas found around the world, and the diversity of wild types. And in the last chapter, we explain how to best deal with the correct botanical classification of bananas inside iNaturalist...

1- Bananas...

1-1 Bananas and plantains? Everything is bananas!

One of the most common mistakes is to set bananas against plantains. These two words are common names that have no hierarchical or classification value. This error is based on the idea that bananas would be dessert/sweet fruits, and plantains would be cooking fruits or vegetables. In fact, all plants in the genus Musa are bananas. Some are cooked, some are sweeter and are eaten raw as fruit, and many can be used in either way! The second error is that plants of composition only acuminata are bananas, and plants of hybrid nature acuminata × balbisiana are plantains. Again, this is not true, as all types of fruits are found in each of these monospecific or interspecific types. Finally, depending on the language, the word banana or plantain is used in different ways, which further complicates understanding and interpretation. In short, from a technical point of view, we should therefore call all these fruits bananas, and reserve the word plantain for the specific group they represent (see below). And above all, not to mix common language and scientific language!

1-2 Monospecific acuminata bananas

Both wild types and cultivated clones belong to Musa acuminata. Wild types are diploid and cultivated clones are diploid (AA) or triploid (AAA), rarely tetraploid. Cultivated forms are often classified into Groups. A Group of varieties of bananas is issued from a single sexual event, followed by a more or less intensive vegetative multiplication across the ages. The intensity of this multiplication depends on the success of the Group. And the higher it is, the most likely it is that natural variations occur, leading to the arousal of numerous varieties within the Group. This has been the case for two important Groups of AAA genomic composition. The most famous is Cavendish, representing nearly all export dessert/sweet bananas around the world (notice the "nearly"...) - also widely used for local consumption. It is also the case of the Mutika Group (East African Highlands beer and cooking bananas), whose varieties are the most important staple crop in this region. Other Groups of interest are Gros-Michel and Red (dessert types) for instance. It is also important to note that numerous types of bananas are not included in any Group. This is the case for less popular types, with a weaker geographical distribution, and which are in fact, the only representative of their own group! This phenomenon is true for any known genomic combination in bananas. Especially, for cultivated diploids, the vast majority are not structured into Groups. [Some rare Groups exist, however: Sucrier, Mchare, and Pisang Jari Buaya]

Hopefully, you may understand now that setting 'Cavendish' as the only common name for all Musa acuminata bananas is absolutely not reflecting the reality and the diversity this name covers at iNaturalist.

Sub-levels of Musa acuminata (Colla)

Different subspecies have been defined within the seminiferous species Musa acuminata (Colla). Specialists sometimes disagree upon the correct classification level of these types. The most well-known ones are:

  • Musa acuminata subsp. banksii (F.Muell.) N.W.Simmonds, sometimes referred to as a species (and it is the case at iNaturalist): Musa banksii F.Muell.
  • Musa acuminata subsp. zebrina (Van Houtte ex Planch.) Nasution
  • Musa acuminata subsp. malaccensis (Ridl.) N.W.Simmonds
  • Musa acuminata subsp. siamea N.W.Simmonds
  • Musa acuminata subsp. burmannica N.W.Simmonds

1-3 Interspecific acuminata × balbisiana bananas

Musa × paradisiaca is the official denomination of all M. acuminata × M. balbisiana hybrids [I personally don't like this name since it's confusing with the old and "should never be used anymore" Musa paradisiaca, but that's a fact.]. All these hybrids are cultivated clones, mainly triploid. Musa × paradisiaca is in no way equivalent to plantain! Two hybrid formulae are defined: AAB and ABB, depending upon the relative importance of M. acuminata and M. balbisiana in these types.

Within AAB, the most common Group is Plantain, which refers only to this particular cooking type, mainly found in Africa. Other examples of Groups are Silk and Prata, which are dessert types originating from India, well-distributed also in South America. Popoulou and Maia Maoli are cooking types spread across the Pacific, sometimes wrongly referred to as Pacific Plantains, which adds to the confusion.

Within ABB, most of the cooking types belong to the Bluggoe Group (widely distributed around the world, often named Orinoco), and dessert types belong to the Pisang Awak Group. Other known Groups are for instance Saba, Ney Mannan, or Monthan.

Of course, many other Groups exist, with lower importance or distribution.

It must be added that in India, there are numerous diploid types, hybrid between Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana. These cultivated AB bananas are included within Musa × paradisiaca. The main known types are Ney Poovan and Kunnan, but a highly wider diversity exists here, and is often still to be clearly categorized.

Recent discoveries suggest that the reality is in fact even more complicated (which is not really a surprise). Particularly, a significant number of natural tetraploid plants are known today, sometimes linked to already existing groups (Pisang Awak for instance), and sometimes not.

1-4 Other species

Musa balbisiana is only a diploid “wild” species. It is a seedy banana, like the “wild” Musa acuminata types, but far more vigorous. I put “wild” between quotes since it is also a resource-plant, sometimes cultivated for its fibers, for instance in the Philippines, sometimes used for cattle feeding, and whose unripe fruits are also sometimes eaten. Although a wide diversity exist, no subspecies are defined within M. balbisiana, whereas subspecies exist within M. acuminata (malaccensis, banksii...).

A bunch of other species exists within the genus Musa, that did not participate – or very marginally – in the elaboration of the cultivated banana species: Musa schizocarpa, Musa itinerans, Musa basjoo, etc. As we gain insight into this marginal diversity, it appears that new combinations of species exist, that are not yet well documented. It is then very likely that new hybrid formulae will flourish in a near future for these plants.

All the plants described so far (seminiferous and cultivated) belong to the ‘Eumusa’ section. Ornamental types exist within the ‘Rhodochlamys’ section: Musa ornata, Musa velutina, and Musa laterita for instance. Recently, it was suggested to gather these two sections in a single one called ‘Musa’ (notice the originality…) but it is still a matter of discussion between specialists.

In the Pacific area, cultivated bananas with a distinctive erect bunch are called Fehi (or Fe’i). They are sometimes referred to as Musa troglodytarum. These plants belong to the ‘Australimusa’ section, which includes also various seminiferous species: Musa textilis and other less known species (Musa boman, Musa jackeyi...).

Here again, Latin names should not be used to identify Fe’i bananas. The old Musa uranoscopus, the often still used Musa troglodytarum, and even sometimes Musa fehi, are names to ban definitely. We may preferably use a Fe’i Group to gather these cultivated types from the Pacific. Moreover, as new studies about these types are arising, it seems that their classification is even more complicated than previously thought. For instance, we now know that triploid types exist also here. It is also known today that natural intersectional hybrids between Eumusa and Australimusa are found, for instance in Papua New-Guinea and which reveal to be tetraploid. This classification is then for sure, on the move!

Another section, ‘Callimusa’, regroups ornamental types such as Musa coccinea, Musa beccarii, or Musa campestris for instance. And here again, a fusion between ‘Australimusa’ and ‘Callimusa’ has been proposed, within a single new ‘Callimusa’ section.

1-5 Genus Ensete

Within the Musaceae family, there is another important genus, Ensete. Plants in this genus are fertile, diploid, and don't produce naturally suckers. They only reproduce the sexual way. Several species have been described, but three of them are the most important. Ensete ventricosum is mainly found in Africa and America. It is even a very important staple crop in Ethiopia, where it is intensively cultivated, and several varieties are described. Ensete glaucum grows essentially in South East Asia and may also be found in India. In this latter area, you may also find Ensete superbum, growing naturally on the West side of Kerala. Other less important species are Ensete giletii in West and Central Africa, the small Ensete homblei, at the crossroads of Zambia, Congo and Angola, and Ensete perrieri (native to Madagascar). And the differences between these last species are often tough to describe.

1-6 Genus Musella

One last species is a botanical matter of discussion among specialists: Musella lasiocarpa. A third genus, Musella has been created especially for it. This small plant, giving erected yellow or orange buds, and known to endure cold weather and even snow, has also sometimes been classified as Ensete lasiocarpum. The discussion is still going on, but the official present naming is Musella.

2- Systematic

2-1 Some naming examples and how to deal with the real botanical classification inside iNaturalist

The main goal of iNaturalist is to record and classify wild organisms, whether they are plants or animals. Classification then relies on Latin binomial specifications with concepts of the genus, species, subspecies, and other infraspecific groupings. Recorded plants should be wild ones, living in natural conditions. But when it comes to bananas, most of the observed types are cultivated ones. They are sterile and only reproduce through vegetative multiplying. In this case, the used scheme of classification should be a horticultural one, as developed by the International Code for the Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants (ICNCP - https://www.ishs.org/news/icncp-international-code-nomenclature-cultivated-plants-9th-edition), but it is not implemented at iNaturalist. Trying to apply, for instance, the concept of species, to a sterile plant, is nonsense. This is why the classification and naming of bananas at iNaturalist is generally non-satisfactory and represents a compromise between what should be done and what is effectively possible. According to the ICNCP, which itself derives from the ICN, here are some naming examples for bananas, following the iNaturalist taxonomy scheme.

  • The Plantain cultivar ‘French Clair’: Musa × paradisiaca, Plantain Group, ‘French Clair’ (AAB)
  • The Cavendish cultivar ‘Grande Naine’: Musa acuminata, Cavendish Group ‘Grande Naine’ (AAA)
  • The ‘Mlali Angaia’ Mchare diploid clone: Musa acuminata (Gp. Mchare) ‘Mlali Angaia’ (AA)
  • The ‘Ney Poovan’ diploid hybrid clone: Musa × paradisiaca ‘Ney Poovan’ (AB)
  • The wild balbisiana variety ‘Klue Tani’: Musa balbisiana var. klue tani OR Musa balbisiana ‘Klue Tani’ (if cultivated)
  • The wild ‘Pahang’ acuminata variety: Musa acuminata subsp. malaccensis var. pahang (wild)

Please remind that this is a (non-satisfactory) compromise between what should be written and how iNaturalist deals with classification. Species names should not appear when speaking of cultivated forms. So here is the same list, strictly following ICNCP standards:

  • The Plantain cultivar ‘French Clair’: Musa, Plantain Group, ‘French Clair’ (AAB)
  • The Cavendish cultivar ‘Grande Naine’: Musa, Cavendish Group ‘Grande Naine’ (AAA)
  • The ‘Mlali Angaia’ Mchare diploid clone: Musa (Gp. Mchare) ‘Mlali Angaia’ (AA)
  • The ‘Ney Poovan’ diploid hybrid clone: Musa ‘Ney Poovan’ (AB)
  • The wild balbisiana variety ‘Klue Tani’: Musa balbisiana var. klue tani OR Musa ‘Klue Tani’ (BB) -if cultivated
  • The wild ‘Pahang’ acuminata variety: Musa acuminata subsp. malaccensis var. pahang (wild)

2-2 Some names, not to be used anymore… at all… (list in progress)

  • Musa paradisiaca
  • Musa × paradisiaca var anything: should only be used alone
  • Musa sapientum
  • Musa Cavendishii
Posted on June 05, 2018 12:30 PM by chris971 chris971

Comments

Well, I'll admit you lost me early on, but I think it might be worthwhile to put you together with Scott @loarie. I seem to recall there are other taxa that iNat has been set up to follow a different naming structure for. (I could be completely wrong, so I'll let him comment further.) I'm very glad to see you bringing your expertise in bananas to iNat.

Posted by kimberlietx over 5 years ago

Hi @kimberlietx ! You don't need to justify anything! Your idea is more than welcome. There are obviously some questions about naming cultivated types at iNaturalist, since it's not the original goal of the site. I didn't find any relevant discussion in the iNat Google Groups though... So, waiting for @loarie !

Posted by chris971 over 5 years ago

Is there any way to see the difference between the cultivated types ... how can i tell a AAA from a AAAB or a AAB banana plant in the field?

Posted by mreith over 4 years ago

Hi @mreith / Martin, there are two questions in your statement, one about ploidy and one about differentiating A from B. Right? The first one is a really tricky one. And Simmonds and Shepherd, when they developed their A vs B recognition system, were saying that it was working "knowing the ploidy..."! With no clue on how to do it; excepted chromosome counting! Experience and knowledge of the basis of Musa diversity distribution around the world will be your best friends here (and precisely, tetraploid are extremely rare in the wild). On the contrary, there are numerous taxonomical characters to help telling acuminata from balbisiana. This is what I use to refine observations posted at iNaturalist to decide between AAA, AAB or ABB (again, along with experience also, of course). You can have a valuable read at Simmonds & Shepherd paper from 1955, based on 15 characters. Still accurate today and an easy good start! (Simmonds NW, Shepherd K. 1955. The taxonomy and origins of the cultivated bananas. J. Linn. Soc. (Bot.) 55: 302–312.). And it will be difficult to write a complete taxonomical course on bananas here...
Regards,
Christophe

Posted by chris971 over 4 years ago

Thanks a lot Christophe, still searching for a download version of the article you recommended, but its an rather old article, so a download is tricky to find.

Posted by mreith over 4 years ago

If you don't find anything, send me an email (christophe.jenny@cirad.fr).

Posted by chris971 over 4 years ago

Thanks, that was an awesome read! We do have Fe'i bananas on island, one of which is loaded with beta carotene. Besides being healthy for adults, that particular banana is also used as baby food. One softens up the ripe fe'i inside the skin, unpeeled. Then one slices off the tip end. The infant can then suck on the end and squeeze the banana with their hands. Good source of vitamin A. On the front page of http://islandfood.org/ a baby can be seen being fed a peeled "karat" ("carrot") banana, further down the page a small bunch of karat can be seen.

Posted by danaleeling over 3 years ago

Hi @danaleeling and thanks for your comment. I really love the baby food story! Feel free to ask if you have any question. We have some very few fe'is in our collection in Guadeloupe, but I know there is a huge diversity here also, that I don't know much. The book about bananas in Hawaii by Angela Kepler is definitely a must have. I also have a copy of an interesting publication about Pohnpei bananas by Englberger & Lorens, in 2004.

Posted by chris971 over 3 years ago

You mentioned that "plantain" is only a specific group, mostly in Africa. So, the cooking bananas in Latin America -- which do look visually different from the dessert bananas, i.e larger and more angular in cross section -- what are they? It is easy enough when speaking in lay terms to use "platano" vs. "guineo," and locals will know which is which; but how to deal with it on iNaturalist?

Posted by jasonhernandez74 over 3 years ago

Hi Jason,
Maybe my "mainly" was too much restrictive... In fact there are true plantains in Latin & Central America. But their diversity is much lower than in Africa. They have been brought there through the slaves trade, so beginning during the XVII century approximatively. And in fact today, you may find two types of cooking bananas in the Americas (at least, the more common ones): true plantains, of AAB genomic composition, and bluggoes (often named locally Orinoco), of ABB composition. You will find some details on the ProMusa website: https://www.promusa.org/Plantain+subgroup?page_ref_id=78 and https://www.promusa.org/Bluggoe+subgroup?page_ref_id=127.

Posted by chris971 over 3 years ago

Thanks, Chris. I have not seen bluggoes, but the "platanos" I am familiar with definitely match the plantain AAB type. "Guineo" means the Cavendish type dessert banana, and I can say "guineo rojo" and be understood to mean the red dessert banana. In the Dominican Republic, I have also heard of another local name that means a different kind, which I have yet to see; but the description sounds like it might be the "apple-banana."

Posted by jasonhernandez74 over 3 years ago

Thank you for this!

Posted by troos about 1 year ago

Dear Chris
Many thanks for this very interesting article on the complex subject of bananas. I have always wondered about the "wild bananas" seen in the Mau Forest in eastern highlands of Kenya when I was a boy in the 1950s. Specifically, there was a banana in the headmistress's garden at school, which (to our pre-teen disgust) had fruits with numerous large seeds which we treated as disapointingly inedible. Could this have been an Ensete? or ???. It's quite likely that this garden conserved plants from the pre-existing forest: probably true for a number of large trees there, too large to have grown in ca. 50y of European settlement. In later life, with my academic zoologist/ecologist hat on, I saw Ensetes in various parts of Kenya but was never clear whether these were introduced or indigenous.

Sorry that this query derives from about 70y memory, but the detail has always stayed with me. Please don't think you have to reply: I have the leasure of retirement while you are doubtless a busy man, but I would certainly be interested in anything you have to say if you have a moment. Anyway, many thanks. @syrrhaptes = David Thomaas

Posted by syrrhaptes about 2 months ago

Dear David @syrrhaptes, and thanks for your kind message. I have time today on this project, and it is always interesting to exchange about these subjects, so here are some rapid thoughts.

I'd say it's highly likely that this plant was an Ensete. The only problem is that the Ensete does not multiply vegetatively, at least not without human help. So the plant grew from those terrible seeds that made it inedible! A new Ensete had to be replanted after each flowering.

But it's a particularly suitable area for Ensete in this region. As you know, this crop is very widespread in Ethiopia. But in fact, it's a very old crop, present in Africa before bananas. From Ethiopia to Kenya and Tanzania, there was a veritable "Ensete belt", which very probably contributed to the adoption of bananas when they arrived in this region. Remnants of this belt remain in the highlands of the region. A few years ago, we wrote an article on East African bananas (not Ensete) which led us to study this history in order to understand the spread and use of these current varieties.

Christophe

Posted by chris971 about 2 months ago

Dear Cristophe
Thank you very much for this most interesting reply, whence I learn that Ensete is indigenous in E Africa. Presumably their fruits were eaten by local people (leading to their ready acceptance of immigrant bananas): there was certainly some pulp around the seeds of the fruits we termed "inedible" to our pampered tastes!
If you could spare me another moment, please could you send me the link to your "article on East African bananas (not Ensete)".
Many thanks for your kindness, @syrrhaptes = David ["Thomaas" in my first note was a typo]

Posted by syrrhaptes about 2 months ago

Dear Chris, many thanks for sending the link to your "East African diploid and triploid bananas...", which opened without problems & immediately seduced me to read it instead of other jobs for the morning. I was particularly interested in your EAB group & the discussion of the dates & possible vectors for its arrival in Africa. Although Arabs were trading down the E. Africa coast from the late 1st millenium CE, I assume they were not involved because I did not think they'd have had a source of bananas, but human colonisation by people who could cross the Indian Ocean from island SE Asia to colonise Madagascar at that sort of period are (I guess) the most likely vectors. Incidentally, Arab dhows were still trading down the E African coast in the 1950s: they were still a common sight during boyhood holidays on the Kenyan coast, and we used to go to Mombasa Old Harbour to see the dhows. Main cargo was mangrovew poles as gold, ivory & slaves were no longer permitted.
That's more than enough of your valuable time taken. It has been a pleasure learning from you. Best wishes. David @syrrhaptes

Posted by syrrhaptes about 2 months ago

@syrrhaptes You're welcome! The hypothesis of an arrival with the Arabs along the coast was indeed a hypothesis, but as you pointed it, they didn't have the necessary source of bananas. Some varieties are known in Oman, for instance, but not the ones found in East Africa. So it isn't an option anymore, even if later, they could have helped in local diffusion. Moreover, we have found in the Comoros some varieties that are only known in Asia, and did not cross the last step to Africa. And there are similar arguments for other crops too. So it is very likely that it was the entry point for these bananas in Africa (not all types, there are still mysteries for true Plantains, and Cavendish arrival is more recent).

Posted by chris971 about 2 months ago

Dear Chris
Again, very interesting, & thanks for this follow-up. Always interesting to hear from a seriously knowledgeable expert. Best wishes. David

Posted by syrrhaptes about 2 months ago

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