paradisiaca was the first Linnean name for a banana and is therefore technically the
"type species" for the genus Musa. Musa paradisiaca was
published in the first edition of Linnaeus' Species Plantarum in 1753 the
publication that marks the boundary between pre-Linnean and post-Linnean literature.
When he wrote Species Plantarum Linnaeus was familiar with only one type
of banana but he had had the opportunity of seeing it first hand, growing under glass in
the garden of Mr George Cliffort near Haarlem in Holland. Musa paradisiaca
L. was based on Musa Cliffortiana L. which, being published in 1736, is
technically a "pre-Linnean" Linnean name.
the literature it is possible find other authors' names attached to Musa paradisiaca e.g.
sensu Zollinger, Van Hooten, and Desveaux. I think these forms of the name
simply represent these authors own interpretations of precisely which of the plethora of
cultivated bananas actually belong to this "species".
We owe it to the forensic skills of Ernest Cheesman that the
name Musa paradisiaca L. is referable to an extant banana cultivar, the widely
distributed 'French' plantain. Cheesman thought that Musa paradisiaca was
derived entirely from Musa acuminata in contrast to Musa sapientum,
the new "species" that Linnaeus added to the genus in the tenth edition of Systema
Naturae in 1759. Cheesman thought that Musa sapientum was a hybrid
between Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana. When it was later
realised that Musa paradisiaca was also a hybrid between Musa acuminata and
Musa balbisiana some horticultural as opposed to botanical authors (I think perhaps
dating from Moore 1957) began to use the form Musa x paradisiaca to emphasise the fact.
identification by Cheesman of Musa paradisiaca with a specific
"plantain" and Musa sapientum with a specific "banana"
appeared to reinforce a prevailing tendency to associate the specific names with a
specific type of fruit, respectively either a "cooking" plantain or a
"dessert" banana. In fact this distinction is entirely semantic and
artificial having no botanical basis at all nor indeed any consistent culinary basis.
the years several authors have attempted to base the nomenclature of some Musa
species on Musa paradisiaca and Musa sapientum. Sometimes,
ignoring even botanical priority, Musa paradisiaca was treated as a subspecies of
Musa sapientum. Sometimes Musa sapientum was treated as a subspecies
of Musa paradisiaca. These nomenclature systems were unsuccessful.
was difficult enough coping with the cultivated bananas but since both Musa
paradisiaca and Musa sapientum are rather complex hybrids between two quite
distinct species, authors were forced to adopt ever more excruciating contortions to
accommodate what were actually true species with a taxonomic framework that included
complex hybrids. For example, Musa paradisiaca is seedless. So in
order to accommodate plants that were thought to be wild seeded forms the subspecies seminifera
was created. But sometimes even subspecies were found not to be sufficient and
varietal names had to be added to precisely identify a plant, e.g. Musa paradisiaca subsp.
seminifera var. hookerii. A nomenclature system that gives to a
seed-bearing diploid species (Musa sikkimensis Kurz) the status of a variety of a
subspecies of a seedless triploid is obviously in trouble although, of course, this could
be recognised only in hindsight.
A banana breeding programme was instituted in 1940 (?) at the Imperial
College of Tropical Agriculture in Trinidad to facilitate which a determined effort was
made to sort out banana nomenclature. It was realised that the essential
problem was that earlier workers were attempting to reconcile the unreconcilable.
They were overwhelmed by the plethora of cultivated bananas and the relatively small
number of true banana species were obscured. Although there are a lot of them, it
was eventually recognised that (with certain exceptions including the Fe'i bananas) the
cultivated bananas were derived from just two species. Though economically
important and exhibiting a great variety of form the cultivated bananas are taxonomically
insignificant. As Cheesman noted "the classification of
the cultivated varieties is almost a separate problem from the general taxonomy of the
genus, needing a different technique for its solution, and confusion of the two makes both
The first result of effectively stripping out
cultivated forms from taxonomic consideration was a series of papers by Cheesman starting
in 1947 which established the foundations of modern Musa botany. More
remarkably, for the first time and more than one hundred years after they were named by
Luigi Colla, Cheesman precisely defined the two species, Musa balbisiana and Musa acuminata that are the basis for almost all cultivated bananas.
Another result of the ICTA programme was Norman Simmonds and Ken Shepherd's 1950 (?)
genome-based nomenclature system for the cultivated bananas. In its results, if not
in its application, this is a simple system that eliminates almost all the difficulties
and inconsistencies of the nomenclature systems based on Musa paradisiaca and Musa
sapientum. For a description of
Simmonds and Shepherd's system click here.
However, despite the introduction of Simmonds and Shepherd's valid,
elegant, simple and above all informative system, the use of the binomial Musa
paradisiaca is very common and can be found for example, in Argent's Musaceae
entry in the European Garden Flora and in Mabberley's invaluable Plant-Book. Since Musa
paradisiaca is technically the "type" of the genus Musa there is
an argument that this binomial must be retained under the International Code of Botanical
Nomenclature. Used with precision, the name has some value, not least
historical. Used carelessly, as it is even in recent and, supposedly, authoritative
publications, the name just causes confusion. For example;
desert bananas, [are] form[s] either of Musa x
or Musa troglodytarum ...".
unfortunate confabulation wrought presumably in an attempt to be concise, is from 'The New
Royal Horticultural Society Dictionary of Gardening' (Huxley 1992). Thankfully, it
is not repeated in the RHS Index of Garden Plants (Griffiths 1994) derived from
Huxley, but neither is it properly corrected.
their use has been devalued if not completely discredited, the tendency to cling to
Linnean binomials as the only mechanism with which to fix a cultivated banana in the
botanical or horticultural firmament seems to me to be plain unhelpful. It would be
so much more informative generally to use Simmonds and Shepherds genome-based nomenclature
mentions that a flour prepared from the fruit of this plant, Guiana Arrowroot, is an
excellent invalid food. And somewhat oddly, the plant is listed as a Famine
Food. This may be a reference to the vegetative parts of the plant rather than the
fruit. The terminal (male) part of the inflorescence is cooked and eaten and the
pedicel is also chopped, cooked and eaten e.g. in India.
Ethnobotanical information on bananas can be found at the USDA
ethnobotanical database under this name.