The banana is the largest flowering herbaceous plant in the world. Its stem is made of tightly overlapping leaves. Each plant normally produces a single flower cluster known as a “heart”. The fruits develop from the banana heart in a large hanging cluster. After fruiting, the plant dies with new offshoots emerging from its base.
Banana fruits are variable in size, color, and firmness, and the rind (peel) may be green, yellow, red, blue, purple, or brown when ripe. There are over 1000 varieties that vary in color, size, texture and taste. The flesh is creamy with different levels of sugar and starch depending on the variety.
One of the best varieties in Hawaii is ‘Dwarf Apple’ which is smaller, sweeter, creamier and more aromatic than the common, Cavendish variety. ‘Dwarf Apple’ bananas are excellent for dehydrating as they do not brown in the process.
Apple bananas – Apple bananas are relatively low growing (6-15 feet) with solid root system providing good stability in windy areas. Plants also have good tolerance to drought, pests, and diseases. Fruits average from 4 to 8 inches in length and ripen from golden yellow to almost black. The dark markings are a sign of the fruit sweetening and developing a creamy consistency. Apple bananas are aromatic with tropical floral notes and subtle nuances of strawberry and apple.
Dwarf Chinese bananas – The Chinese banana is a naturally occurring mutant from taller members of the Cavendish group. The dwarf Chinese cultivar reaches 3 to 6 feet in height which makes it the shortest banana plant in Hawaii. It produces large and heavy bunches, low to the ground. Plants are susceptible to banana bunchy top virus and other pests so it’s important not to grow it in pest prone areas. The fruits are 6-9 inches long and the flesh is cream colored, tender and sweet with no tartness.
Dwarf Cuban Red bananas – A relatively recent mutation from “Cuban Red”, the dwarf Cuban Red bananas reach 7-8 feet in height. They have many different local names, depending on the region. The peel is thick and tough, ripening from green to orange-red, to dark red with maroon hues. The flesh is golden with pink nuances. Cuban Red bananas are considered a dessert variety and are becoming highly desired for their creamy consistency and fruity notes, reminiscent of raspberries and mangoes. They also have a lower glycemic index than yellow bananas.
Dwarf Iholena bananas – The Iholena group is among the most ancient Pacific bananas and historically important in ancient Hawaiian traditions and medicine. The leaves have bronzy, coppery, or maroon hues which is a signature trait to the Iholena group. Bunches are small to medium size. Fruits are slightly curved, and the pulp is bright salmon pink color. Cooking the fruit brings out the richness in flavor. The fruits are edible raw when fully ripe. The flesh has a firm texture and rich, semi-sweet flavor with lemony notes.
Dwarf Kahiki bananas – Dwarf Kahiki is a fine choice for homeowners wishing to grow dual-purpose plantain and dessert banana. This cultivar is remarkably resistant to pests and diseases including the bunchy top virus. The bunch is compact, medium size and the fruits have angles along the sides. The flesh has a soft and fluffy texture when ripe.
Dwarf Puerto Rican plantains – This group belongs to the true plantains which must be cooked for palatability. Bunches bear one to a few hands of rather large and pointy fruits which are noticeably long, slender and curved with darkish yellow pulp. The Puerto-Rican plantains are considered the best tasting of all tropical American plantains. The dwarf cultivar is 6-9 feet tall. The bunch has fewer fruits of excellent quality, especially when boiled. The pulp is very tasty when boiled or fried at any stage, especially when ripe.
Hawaiian Variegated Manini – Manini is unique to Hawaii and perhaps the world’s most striking banana cultivar. It is magnificent looking with its variegated leaves of green, white, and creamy yellow colors. Every leaf is differently patterned. The trunk reaches 10- 12 feet. The fruits are beautifully variegated as well with green and white stripes when immature, turning to yellow and white when mature. The flesh is yellow-orange, more deeply colored in the center and very tasty when cooked. This cultivar could be difficult to grow due to the reduced chlorophyll in the leaves and it needs extremely well drained soils, part shade, wind protection and frequent fertilizing.
Ice Cream bananas – Ice Cream bananas have a silvery-blue color when young and golden yellow hue when ripe. They are small and plump and have prominent edges along the sides. The peel is delicate and bruises easily. When fully ripe the flesh has a smooth texture similar to ice cream. The flavor resembles honey-vanilla custard.
Lady Finger bananas – Lady finger bananas are up to 5 inches long and have thin, bright yellow skin and pointy ends. The fruit has a creamy consistency. One unique characteristic of the Lady Finger banana is that the fruit doesn’t turn brown when cut, making it a good choice for fresh applications such as fruit salads and desert decorations.
Nam Wah bananas – Nam Wah bananas mature from green to yellow to almost black when fully ripe. The flesh is aromatic with dense consistency. Nam Wah bananas can be used raw but are most often cooked. They are usually picked when still green and may have an astringent taste. Unripe Nam Wah bananas are used like a vegetable. When fully ripe, they are peeled, smashed, battered, and fried. They can be boiled and used to make puddings and creams or added to baked goods.
Saba bananas – Saba bananas originated in the Philippines and were brought to Hawaii 100 years ago. The plants are tall and robust, reaching 12 to 20 feet. They are drought, wind, and disease resistant. Although slower producers, they produce bountifully on less fertilizer, water, and additional micronutrients. The bunches are large with up to 200 fruits, evenly packed. Fruits are 4 – 5 inches long, fairly fat with prominent edges along the sides. They are dual purpose and have a rich flavor profile, cooked or raw (when ripe). The flesh is deep yellow, creamy, and dense, resembling the taste of a sweet potato when cooked.
Silk Fig bananas – This is the true “apple banana”, and different from the Hawaiian “apple banana”. It originated in India and is a very popular cultivar internationally, with many different names depending on the region. The plant is 8 to 16 feet tall. The fruits are 3 to 6 inches long and split along the length of the fruit before ripeness, which is a signature characteristic of this cultivar. This is not a cooking banana as cooking tends to increase its astringency. The fruits have white pulp and are slightly drier than most of the desert bananas, so they need to be fully ripe or over ripe. This cultivar is susceptible to pests and diseases and needs to be grown in well-drained, fertilized soil. It does better in dryer areas, protected from the wind.