Some words about the classification of bananas and their naming

Classification system referred to here is of course based upon widely recognized taxonomies including "The Plant List", and "World Checklist of Selected Plants". However, for bananas, either cultivated or wild, it is frequently outdated and banana scientists do not rely on them today.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 the real 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 fruits, and plantains would be cooking fruits, or vegetables. In fact, all plants in the genus Musa are bananas. Some are cooked, others, sweeter, are eaten like fruit, and many can be used in one or the other of these ways! 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 because all types of fruit 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. Within AAA, you find several Groups and the most famous is Cavendish, representing nearly all export dessert bananas around the world (notice the "nearly"...). Other Groups of interest are Gros-Michel and Red (dessert types) or Mutika (East African Highlands beer and cooking bananas). As for cultivated diploids, the vast majority are not structured into Groups. Some rare Groups exist, however: Sucrier, Mchare and Pisang Jari Buaya.

1-3 Interspecific acuminata × balbisiana bananas

Musa × paradisiaca is the official denomination of all M. acuminata × M. balbisiana hybrids [I personnaly 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), and dessert types belong to the Pisang Awak Group.

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

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 sometimes cultivated for its fibres, for instance in the Philippines. No subspecies are defined within M. balbisiana, whereas subspecies exist within M. acuminata (malaccensis, banksii...).

A bunch of other species exist within the genus Musa, that did not participate – or very marginally – to the elaboration of the cultivated banana species: Musa schizocarpa, Musa itinerans, Musa basjoo etc.

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, 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 (to be discussed later...). These diploid plants belong to the ‘Australimusa’ section, which includes also Musa textilis and other less known species (Musa boman, Musa jackeyi...). Another section, ‘Callimusa’, regroups ornamental types such as Musa coccinea 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 only one other 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 in America. It is even a very important staple crop in Ethiopia where it is intensively cultivated. Ensete glaucum grows essentially in South East Asia and may also be found in India. In this area, you may also find Ensete superbum. Other less important species are Ensete giletii, Ensete homblei or Ensete perrieri (native to Madagascar). And the differences between these last species is often tough to describe.

One last species is a botanical matter of discussion among specialists: Ensete lasiocarpum. This small plant, giving erected yellow buds, and known to endure cold weather and even snow, has first been classified as Musella lasiocarpa. A third genus had been created specially for it. Recent discussions among specialists lead to classify it within Ensete... The discussion is still going on. The fact that this species can be vegetatively propagated by suckers is one of the problems for its classification.


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

According to the International Code for the Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants (ICNCP -, which itself derives from the ICN, here are some naming examples for banana, following 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 by chris971 chris971, June 05, 2018 12:30



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 1 year ago (Flag)

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 1 year ago (Flag)

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 5 months ago (Flag)

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...

Posted by chris971 5 months ago (Flag)

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 5 months ago (Flag)

If you don't find anything, send me an email (

Posted by chris971 5 months ago (Flag)

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