By Wendy Hughes


I don’t know about you, but I am passionate about bananas, especially when my sugar levels are low, because they are an ideal quick source of energy, and can easily be carried or obtained anywhere. But I am not the only one who likes a banana or two, and it is estimated that over 100 billion bananas are eaten around the world every year, and 51% of these are eaten at breakfast time.


Bananas have been part of our diet for thousands of years, with written references of the fruit dating back to around 500BC.  Some horticulturists even believe that bananas were the first fruit on earth and were originally found in Southeast Asia, the jungles of Malaysis, in Indonesia, and the Philippines where many varieties of wild bananas are still grown today. Africans are credited to have given the present name, since the word banana derives from the Arab for ‘finger’. A cluster of bananas is called a hand because the bunch looks similar to a hand, and consists of 10 to 20 bananas. As bananas ripen, the starch in the fruit turns to sugar, therefore, the riper the banana the sweeter the taste and they are a good source of vitamin C, potassium and dietary fibre.

However until 10th April 1633 AD bananas were unknown in England until an enterprising herbalist, botanist, and merchant Thomas Johnson somehow managed to obtain some and put them on display in his Snow Hill shop window. Johnson included a woodcut of a large bunch of the fruit in his 1633 edition of John Gerard’s “The herball or generall historie of plantes.” It is believed that Johnson’s bananas came from Bermuda, though how they managed to reach this country in a fit state for display is not known, and remains one of nature’s little mysteries.
Thomas Johnson was born in Selby and baptised at Selby Abbey on 7 September 1600 according to the now lost Selby Abbey records. No accounts have survived of his early life and times, nor how he came to settle in London, but by 1626, he is recorded as living and practising as an apothecary in Snow Hill, near the Barbican in the capital. From a description of the plant he called Throatwort, and now known as Canterbury Bells, it is clear that by 1626 Johnson had begun his travels around the country studying plants. This plant was regarded as a rarity in London, but Johnson writes ‘I found it in great plenty growing wilde upon the bankes of the Ouse as I went from York to visite Selby whereat I was born.’”From 1629, until the beginning of the Civil War, his life was exceedingly active, combining his practice as an apothecary with botanical excursions, drawing and describing the specimens collected, editing previously published herbals and undertaking translations. Being an active member of the Society of Apothecaries brought him a place in Society and the company of Tradescant and Parkinson, along with many other famous gardeners of the time.   He described the bananas as: ‘each of the fruits was not ripe, being green, each of them the bignesse of a large beane some 5 inches long and an inch and a half in breadth. The stalk is short and like ones little finger. They hang with their heads down, but if you turn them up, they look like a boat. The husk is easily removed. The pulp is white, soft and tender and ate somewhat like a musk melon

When the Civil War began, London was staunchly Parliamentarian, but Johnson was a Royalist. His high reputation saved him from suspicion, but by early 1643 he had moved to Oxford, a Royalist town. There he was created Doctor of Physic by King Charles ‘in consideration of his merit and learning.’  He enlisted for the King, and held the rank of lieutenant colonel and there are several reports of his dashing bravery and his ability to lead men successfully. By late 1643 he had become part of the King’s forces at the siege of Basing House, near Basingstoke in Hampshire. On 14 September 1644 there was a fatal skirmish, and Johnson’s men were beaten back by fellow country man Richard Norton.  Johnson was shot in the shoulder and a fever set in and he died two weeks later. He was buried at Basingstoke, but his grave is now lost.  In Selby, he has been honoured by having a street named after him.   Oddly, Johnson is also celebrated in 20th century English culture, Viz’ magazine, where the strip Tommy Johnson and his big banana is clearly modelled on him.

.People often assume that the banana fruit grows on trees, but the banana is a high herb which can grow up to 15 metres and there are over 1000 different varieties of bananas grown around the world, subdivided into 50 groups. Some are sweet, like the Cavendish variety, which is the most common and most widely exported and is named after William Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire, and although not the first known banana specimen in Europe, in around 1834 Cavendish received a shipment of bananas  courtesy of the chaplain of Alton Towers, then the seat of the Earls of Shrewsbury.  His gardener Sir Joseph Paxton cultivated them in the greenhouse and botanically described them as Musa cavendishii, after the Duke.

The Chatsworth bananas were shipped off to various places around the 1850s and it is  believed that some of them ended up in the Canary Islands though other authors believe that the bananas in the Canary Islands had been there since the fifteenth century and had been introduced through other means, namely by early Portuguese explorers who obtained them from West Africa and were later responsible for spreading them to the Caribbean. African bananas in turn were introduced from Southeast Asia into Madagascar by early sailors and in 1888, bananas from the Canary Islands were imported into England by Thomas Fyffe

Some interesting Facts and Bananas

Based on written references discovered in Sanskrit around the year 500 BC, some horticulturalists believe that bananas were the first fruit on earth. They are one of the most important tropical fruits, an important cash crop grown on large plantations for export, and an essential staple food for many developing countries.

In Britain, we eat over five billion bananas every year

The scientific name for banana is ‘musa sapientum’ which translates as ‘fruit of the wise man’

The word banana comes from the Arabic word “banan”, meaning finger

The “trunk” of a banana plant is not made of wood, but is made of tightly overlapping leaves

Bananas could help you to feel happier, as they contain tryptophan, a type of protein that the body converts into serotonin, known to promote relaxation and improve mood

The inside of a banana skin can be used to calm an itchy mosquito bite – many people find that rubbing the bite with the skin helps to reduce irritation

A medium-sized banana contains only 95 calories, and provides a quick-but-sustained energy boost in a natural, nutritious and easily digestible form with no fat, cholesterol or sodium

British Banana supplier, Fyffes, received its first consignment of bananas in September 1888.

The inside of a banana skin can be used to polish shoes!

British public consume around 12 kg – around two bananas per head per week.  In fact we spend more on the fruit than on any other item on our supermarket shelves.

Bananas come in various shapes and forms. In fact, there are over 1 000 banana varieties. The most common one, which the commercial banana industry relies on, is the sweet and seedless Cavendish banana. The Cavendish banana variety, which accounts for 95 percent of all bananas sold commercially, is seedless, making it extremely convenient to eat. However, seedless also means sterile – unable to reproduce through normal seeding processes. Today’s commercial banana industry relies almost totally on the Cavendish because marketing only one variety makes harvesting, packaging and transport more cost-effective and delivers a uniform product.

Bananas can help athletes increase their performance. Besides high potassium content, they provide a quick boost of energy and are a source of vitamins C and B6.

Often used as a natural remedy, banana peel can soothe an itchy mosquito bite. Rubbing the area with the inside of a banana skin can give immediate relief as its sugars help to draw fluid out of the bite.

Bananas are grown and harvested all year round and are ready to be harvested 8 to 10 months after planting. They are more likely to fruit in warm weather. It is highly efficient to cultivate bananas to cover the human requirements for a wide range of nutrients. Per hectare and year, bananas and potatoes produce nine important nutrients (energy, protein, dietary fiber, Fe, Zn, Ca, vitamin A, vitamin C and foliate), more than cereals or any other food.

Bananas are produced in over 135 countries and territories across the tropics and subtropics. India ranks number one with 29.7 million tonnes per year, followed by Uganda (11.1 million tonnes per year) and China (10.7 million tonnes per year).

Despite predicted temperature increases of 3°C by 2070, increasing annual temperatures will make conditions more favorable for banana production in the subtropics and in tropical highlands. Land area suitable for bananas will increase 50% by 2070.

And finally…  A recent find by archaeologists excavating a pit in London made an intriguing addendum to Johnson’s commercializing of the banana. A banana skin, dated at about 1500 was unearthed, tossed into what seems to have been a fish pond. The date probably means it came from West Africa, as the plant was only being introduced into the Caribbean at that time.