If you can tolerate the heat, walking around New Orleans can provide a lovely respite from reality. Little green lizards race over the cracks of the sidewalk, unruly banana trees peek over fences and spill into the street, and the seemingly endless stream of brightly colored houses never ceases to charm. It is easy to forget for a moment that you are still on the mainland. In particular the banana trees contribute to this temporary amnesia. A few days ago as I was scrutinizing a particularly lush tree I began to wonder — Do people eat the bananas they grow? Can I find them at local supermarket? Are they grown commercially? This sent me on a little search through the history of America’s most widely consumed fruit.
The first thing I learned was bananas do not grow on trees, what appears to be the trunk of the tree is actually a starchy stalk called a pseudostem or “false stem.” They can grow up to twenty four feet tall, which justifies the general confusion of their herbaceous status. New Orleans has a long history with banana cultivation. Starting in the 1700s bananas were imported to the Crescent city from the Caribbean Islands. Today most of the bananas we see on shelves are either marked with Chiquita or Dole stickers; turns out both companies got their start in New Orleans. In 1899 Italian immigrants began to import bananas after a winter freeze wiped out most of the local fruit. The company grew quickly and soon New Orleans became the largest banana importer. In 1910, Samuel Zemurray, a Russian immigrant founded Cuyamel Fruit Company. After finding much success he sold it to United Fruit Company, which eventually evolved into Chiquita International. The stronghold of the New Orleans port began to break down in the 1960s after the city failed to make technological improvements and labor disputes increased, eventually causing the companies to take their business elsewhere.
A food and resource economic report from the University of Florida from 2012 reveals that very few bananas are grown commercially in the US. Hawaii is the largest producer and Florida is the second (and only) contender to the crown. Together these states contribute only 0.01% of world production on an estimated 16,000 acres. In contrast Ecuador is the largest exporter and has a 38 percent share of the market. Recently the local/organic food movement has sparked interest among farmers in ramping up US banana production to provide for these niche markets.
Apparently the trend has not caught on in Louisiana, bananas are still predominantly grown here for ornamental purposes. This is primarily due to the challenge of keeping the plants healthy enough through the winter to be able to flower in the spring. Even plants that flower in May are not guaranteed to develop mature fruit by the time cooler fall temperatures hit. Banana cultivation requires a lot of close monitoring, and the reward is often not perceived to be worth the risk. So for now Chiquita and Dole are safe, but who knows maybe #USbananas will be the food movement’s new darling in years to come and we will be able to reach for a banana without all the baggage of international trade. In the meantime I am hoping to score a banana off a neighbor’s tree!
- The Banana Trade – The Times Picayune
- Banana Market – Edward Evans & Freddy Ballen
- Louisiana Bananas – LSU Ag Center