The Debunker: Do Bananas Grow On Trees?

by Ken Jennings

August 27, 1912 saw the first appearance of a new fictional hero: Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. “A crackerjack!” enthused the magazine. “Zowie! but things happen!” In honor of the ape-man’s 101st birthday this month, Jeopardy! know-it-all Ken Jennings swings in on his vine to debunk four longstanding misconceptions about the jungles of the world. Ungawa!

Jungle Myth #3: Bananas Grow on Trees.

What do bananas have in common with money? (Besides the fact that I have huge piles of them in a bowl on my kitchen counter, I mean.) Contrary to popular belief, and probably a bunch of Harry Belafonte songs, bananas don’t grow on trees.

Even though banana plants can grow to be 30 feet in height, they’re not technically trees: their stems are sturdy, but contain no woody tissue. They’re not trunks, but “pseudostems,” made of densely packed leaves. So a banana plant is actually a perennial herb, like a lily or an orchid. Technically, the banana fruit is the berry of the plant—it may not look much like one, but it contains seeds and pulp from a single ovary, so it’s often classified as an “epigynous berry.”

If you’ve ever seen one of those 200-banana mega-clusters straight off the tree perennial herb, you probably imagined them hanging down from the stem, right? Not so. Banana bunches actually grow upward, a phenomenon called “negative geotropism.” They’re not growing towards the sun—they’re actually confounding gravity by seeking “up.” That’s also why the fruit ends up curved. So does this mean that bananas grown in zero-gravity might be as straight as pencils? I’m no space scientist but I’m going to say yes. Yes they would.

Quick Quiz: The term “banana republic” was originally coined by what American short story writer, who holed up in Honduras in 1896 while wanted back in the U.S. for bank embezzlement?

Ken Jennings is the author of Because I Said So!, Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.

Photo by Marian Szengel. Used under a Creative Commons License.