Once again Alan has provided me with a story that I have been looking for some time. Even though I have read many works on tropical plants, this is very interesting.
A Tree That Grows As You Wait
By A. Hyatt Verrill
From St. Nicholas Magazine, October 1915, courtesy Alan Schenker, digitized by Doug Frizzle, August 2011
How many boys and girls have ever seen a plant grow? Not the kind of plant which springs from the seed planted by a magician or an East Indian fakir, but a real, bona-fide plant with green leaves, stout stalk, and roots embedded in old mother earth. It sounds like a fairy tale, and reminds one of Jack and his bean-stalk to think of such a thing; but, nevertheless, if the readers of St. Nicholas should visit the West Indies, they could actually watch a tree grow. The name of this tree which grows while you wait is familiar to every one, and its fruit may be seen in nearly every grocery store and at every fruit-stand, for this tropical "hustler" is the banana.
The banana-tree is a very interesting tree in many ways, but the rapidity with which it grows, under certain conditions, is its most remarkable peculiarity.
Even under ordinary conditions the banana-tree grows very rapidly, and in less than a year from the time that the tiny "sucker" is planted a tall, banner-leaved tree develops and bears its great bunch of luscious fruit; but even this marvelous growth (which would be like planting an apple-seed in the spring and in autumn of the same year picking apples from the tree produced by this seed) is slow and commonplace compared to that which the tree can attain under certain conditions.
If a good-sized, healthy banana-tree is cut off a few feet above the ground during the wet season, the tree will not die, but, nine times out of ten, will send up a new shoot from the centre of the trunk and will grow fast enough to make up for lost time, for within forty-eight hours it will rear waving green leaves triumphantly above the severed trunk.
It is when first starting this new growth that the tree can actually be seen growing, however, and the accompanying photographs were taken in order to show how rapidly the tree recovers from an injury and the manner in which the remarkable feat is accomplished.
In the first picture the big fleshy stalk, or trunk, is shown as it appeared when freshly cut at ten o'clock in the morning. Twenty minutes later, the centre of the trunk had pushed itself above the smooth surface of the cut and had grown nearly an inch in height, as shown in the second picture. Owing to a heavy tropical shower, no more pictures could be obtained for several hours, and I was obliged to seek shelter and leave the tree unobserved. At five in the afternoon the tree was again visited, when, lo and behold! a green shoot several feet in height rose proudly from the centre of the stalk, as shown in the third photograph. By the following afternoon the smooth, green shoot had unrolled, and four broad and perfect leaves waved above the old trunk as if in defiance of our efforts to check the upward growth of this ambitious tree. Thus, in thirty-one hours the plant had overcome an injury that would prove fatal to most trees, and had developed to a fairly respectable height, as shown by the fourth picture. A month later the new tree was as large and flourishing as before it was mutilated, and it was impossible to discover where the old trunk had been cut off.
Perhaps you wonder how it is that the banana-tree can thus produce a new growth from the centre of its trunk. The secret lies in the fact that the trunk of the banana-tree is not hard and woody like other trees, but is really composed of undeveloped leaves wrapped tightly together in a spiral form. When the tree grows, these rolled-up leaves push upward and merely unroll; thus no time is lost in forming buds and growing leaves as do ordinary trees. When the trunk is cut off, it doesn't interfere with the growth of the leaves, because they are always pushing up from the centre of the stalk. If you will roll a sheet of paper tightly and push against one end, you will see exactly how the leaves are pushed up from the trunk of the banana-tree, and, if you cut the roll in two, you will find that it doesn't prevent you from pushing out the centre of the roll as before.
Although the banana-tree repairs an injury so rapidly and well, the shoot formed from the cut stalk seldom bears fruit or flowers. As these shoots are taller and stronger than the original trees, however, they are much better adapted to withstand wind and storms, and the natives frequently cut off the banana-trees in order to force them to produce the strong, fruitless growth and to serve as wind-breaks for other crops.
Perhaps, now that I have told you about the rapid growth of this interesting tree, you may be anxious to learn more of the banana and its uses.
In the north we think only of the banana as a fruit, but, by the natives of the countries where it grows, it is used for a great many other purposes. The broad leaves, before they are torn and frayed by the wind, are often cut and used as umbrellas, and it is a funny sight to see a long line of natives walking along the road, each carrying a big, green banana-leaf above his head. After being dried, the leaves are made into thatch for houses and buildings, they are used as padding for harness and saddles, for packing about fruit and fragile articles, as bedding for horses and cattle, for chafing-gear on vessels' rigging, and for many other purposes. The fleshy trunks of the trees form a rich fertilizer for gardens and fields, and the fibres are made into ropes, lines, and cordage. In fact, the famous Manilla hemp is really the fibre of a species of banana. The fruit is eaten raw when ripe and cooked while green, and, in addition, it is dried and made into excellent flour. When fermented, bananas produce excellent vinegar, and a fiery liquor is also distilled from them.
We seldom see more than two varieties of bananas in the north,—the common yellow fruit and the red variety. Unfortunately these are two of the most inferior kinds. No one knows just how many varieties of bananas exist; but over three hundred occur in the West Indies, and among these may be found kinds to suit every taste and use. The most highly esteemed for eating when ripe are the tiny "fig bananas" or "lady-fingers'' a dainty variety scarcely four inches in length, with a skin as thin as paper and with sugary, highly-flavored pulp. There are also orange bananas, green bananas speckled with brown and red, bananas with streaks and spots of black, bananas with rough, warty skins, and scores of varieties of red and yellow bananas of every imaginable shape and size. The natives laugh at the idea of eating red bananas and think them the coarsest and most worthless of all, using them only as vegetables, when green, or as food for cattle and pigs. Unlike the ordinary banana, the red variety requires two years to mature, and, for this reason, they are not so widely grown and command a higher price than the yellow fruit.
Bananas have been cultivated for so many ages that they are now found throughout the tropics of the whole world, and, like many other cultivated fruits, the banana has almost lost the power of producing seeds. If you look carefully at the central part of the banana, you will find traces of tiny seeds, but these will not grow if planted, and nowadays bananas are all grown from the shoots, or "suckers," which spring from about the roots of the trees.
In planting a banana-tree, one of these shoots is placed in a hole in the earth, and, within a few months, it becomes a stout tree ten or twelve feet in height and six inches or more in diameter. Very soon a big conical pink bud appears among the leaves. Daily the bud expands and the flower-stalk grows outward, while the petals curve back and drop off, leaving behind each one a tiny "hand" of young and undeveloped fruit. Within nine to twelve months after the sucker is set out, the tree is fully grown and the big bunch of fruit is ready to cut. But, instead of cutting off the fruit, the entire tree is felled, for the banana bears but once in its lifetime. Long before the tree is cut, however, new stalks have sprung up around the base of the trunk, and each of these, if left undisturbed, would grow into a tree, bear its fruit and die down, while around each parent-stalk other suckers would spring up. As this would go on indefinitely until the soil was exhausted and the trees formed a veritable jungle, the banana-planters remove all but four or five of the shoots in each group. In thinning out the suckers, care is taken that those left are of various sizes and ages so that, while one is in fruit, another will be blossoming, another will be half grown, and still another will be just sprouting from the ground. In this way, the planter keeps a continual succession of bearing trees, which makes bananas a very profitable crop—even though each tree bears but once.
Bananas have many advantages over other trees and fruits aside from the rapidity of their growth and the fact that a crop may be gathered every month in the year. They are wonderfully free from disease and insect enemies, and a worm-eaten banana is rare indeed. Locusts are almost the only insects which injure the trees, and even these pests rarely cause serious damage. Weeds affect bananas very little, and, among the parasitic creepers, plants, and choking vines of the tropics, the banana-tree is able to hold its own, and flaunts its broad leaves and bears its bunches of golden fruit in defiance of its enemies.
Few people realize the enormous numbers of bananas which are brought into the United States, for we seldom see more than one or two bunches hanging in a shop at one time, and the price remains about the same at all seasons. If we visit the docks at Boston, New Orleans, Philadelphia, or New York, where the banana ships unload, we will be filled with wonder and surprise at the number of bunches which fill the holds of the ships. Each year there are some fifty million bunches brought into the United States, and, allowing one hundred bananas to the bunch, this means that over five billion bananas are consumed in our country each year. Most of these bananas are brought from Central America and Jamaica, but great quantities come from South America, Mexico, Cuba, San Domingo, and the other West Indian islands, and great fleets of steamships, thousands of miles of railways, countless river steamboats, enormous wharves, armies of men, and even entire towns and villages are devoted exclusively to the banana industry.
So abundant are bananas in their native lands that they form the chief article of food for many of the natives, and practically all the inhabitants of lands where the fruit grows eat bananas in one form or another at least once a day throughout their lives. A native must be poverty-stricken indeed to be so poor that he cannot afford a few banana-trees, and nearly every dooryard or garden contains at least one banana- or plantain-tree.
Plaintains are species of bananas which lack the sweet, delicate taste, and are eaten as vegetables either boiled, fried, baked, or mashed like potatoes; and as plantains and bananas may be purchased in their native lands at ten cents a bunch, the wolf finds few doors at which to knock in banana-land.