Musa x paradisiaca

Musa x paradisiaca L., Species Plantarum : 1043 (1753).

Accepted name Musa (AAB group) 'French' plantain
Synonyms Musa cliffortiana L.

During the history of banana taxonomy a very large number of cultivated, edible bananas have been given Linnean names.  Using the name Musa paradisiaca, not as Linnaeus intended, but as an umbrella name for all (well, not quite all) edible cultivated bananas brings a large number of names into "synonymy".  These "synonyms" of Musa paradisiaca are listed here.

Authorities The accepted name is from Cheesman 1948c and from Stover & Simmonds 1987. However, it must be said that most authorities (e.g. WCM) give Musa paradisiaca L. or Musa x paradisiaca L. as the accepted name.  The "x" is included by some authors to indicate that Musa paradisiaca is a hybrid and not a species.

The "pre-Linnean synonym" is from Linnaeus 1753.
References Argent 1984, Backer & Bakhuizen 1968, Burkill 1935, Cheesman 1948c, Flora Guandong, Graf Exotica, Griffiths 1994, GRIN, Huxley 1992, Riffle 1998, Sagot 1887 : 329, Saw & Sulaiman 1991, Stover & Simmonds 1987, Mabberley 1997, Mobot Tropicos, Moore 1957: 170 - 171, RHS 1956, Uphof 1968.
Comments Musa 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. The original 1753 publication of Musa paradisiaca by Linnaeus is at     

When he wrote Species Plantarum Linnaeus was familiar with only one type of banana (Linnaeus' Musa bihai is a Heliconia) 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.

In the literature it is possible find other authors' names attached to Musa paradisiaca e.g. sensu Zollinger, Van Hooten, and Desveaux.  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 or Musa (AAB group) 'French' plantain. Cheesman thought that Musa paradisiaca was derived entirely from Musa acuminata in contrast to Musa sapientum, the second "species" that Linnaeus added to the genus in the tenth edition of Systema Naturae in 1759 (at 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 authors began to use the form Musa x paradisiaca to emphasise the fact.  There is anyway no difference between Musa paradisiaca and Musa x paradisiaca.

The identification by Cheesman of Musa paradisiaca with a specific "plantain" and Musa sapientum with a specific "banana" appeared to reinforce a tendency then prevailing 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.

Over 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.

It 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 within 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. hookeri. 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 1922 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 irreconcilable. 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 almost impossible".

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 paradisiacum (sic) or Musa troglodytarum ...".

This 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.

Where 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 system.  It is disappointing therefore that the World Checklist of Monocotyledons uses Musa x paradisiaca as the "accepted name" for most of the cultivated bananas.

Musa sapientum image at

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last updated 20/10/2008