Nomenclature system for cultivated bananas

Illustration of Musa Paradisiaca

The nomenclature system used to classify banana cultivars was developed by Norman Simmonds and Kenneth Shepherd in 1955[1]. It classifies cultivated bananas into genome groups, according to the relative contribution of their ancestral wild species, and into subgroups, sets of closely related cultivars. This system eliminates almost all the difficulties and inconsistencies of a taxonomy based on Musa paradisiaca and Musa sapientum. However, due to difficulties in assigning certain cultivars to a subgroup, and to a lesser extent to a group, there are inconsistencies in the way the system has been applied. Adding to the confusion is the continued use of Latin binomials to classify cultivated bananas. Cultivated bananas are unusual in not having a Latin scientific name.

Simmonds and Shepherd's genome-based system

In this system, bananas, at least the ones that are related to Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana, are classified according to the relative contribution of these species designated by the letter A, for acuminata, and B, for balbisiana. A cultivar is assigned to a genome group according to the number of chromosome sets in its genome (its ploidy) and the species that donated them (see Domestication of the banana). Diploid cultivars can belong to the AA or AB genome group, while triploid cultivars fall into three genome groups: AAA, AAB and ABB (see the cultivar diversity portal).

Some taxonomists recognize a BBB genome group, but its existence has not been conclusively demonstrated. Tetraploid cultivars are mostly hybrids produced by breeders.

Genome groups are further divided into subgroups usually defined as a set of cultivars derived from each other through somatic mutations. On the basis of this system, cultivar names are put between inverted commas and preceded by the name of the genus and when known, the name of the group and subgroup. For example: Musa (AAA group Cavendish subgroup) 'Robusta'[2]

Scoring system

The system is based on 15 characters that were chosen because they are different in Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana[1]. Each character is scored on a scale from one (typical Musa acuminata) to five (typical Musa balbisiana). The possible total scores range from a minimum of 15 to a maximum of 75. The expected scores are 15 for AA and AAA, 35 for AAB, 45 for AB, 55 for ABB and 75 for BB.

Photos courtesy of Angela Kepler
Character Musa acuminata Musa balbisiana
Pseudostem colour More or less heavily marked with brown or black blotches Blotches very slight or absent
Petiole canal Margin erect or spreading, with scarious wings below, not clasping pseudostem Margin inclosed, not winged but clasping pseudostem
Peduncle Usually downy or hairy Glabrous
Pedicels Short Long
Ovules Two regular rows in each loculus Four irregular rows in each loculus
Bract shoulder* Usually high (ratio<0.28) Usually low (ratio>0.30)
Bract curling Bracts reflex and roll back after opening Bracts do not reflex
Bract shape Lanceolate or narrowly ovate, tapering sharply from the shoulder Broadly ovate, not tapering sharply
Bract apex Acute Obtuse
Bract colour Red, dull purple or yellow outside; pink, dull purple or yellow inside Distinctive brownish-purple outside; bright crimson inside
Colour fading Inside bract colour usually fades to yellow towards the base Inside bract colour usually continuous to base
Bract scars Prominent Scarcely prominent
Free tepal of male flower Variably corrugated below tip Rarely corrugated
Male flower colour Creamy white Variably flushed with pink
Stigma colour Orange or rich yellow Cream, pale yellow or pale pink
*x/y Bract Shoulder Ratio

Latin binomials nomenclature system

Before Simmonds and Shepherd's system, cultivated bananas were classified using the binomial nomenclature system developed by Carl Linneaus that is used to this day to name species. In fact Linneaus is the one who gave the name Musa paradisiaca to the banana. Being the first Linnean name given to a banana, Musa paradisiaca is technically the "type species" for the genus Musa. Except that Musa paradisiaca, and Musa sapientum which  Linnaeus later added to the genus, had been modeled after a Plantain and a Silk cultivar, respectively, and as such did not represent species in any reasonable sense of the word. Nevertheless, these names, and others that were proposed in their wake, continue to be used to designate cultivars despite the existence of the nomenclature system developed by Simmonds and Shepherd (see previous section).

Over the years several authors based the taxonomy of bananas on Musa paradisiaca and Musa sapientum. Sometimes Musa sapientum was treated as a subspecies of Musa paradisiaca, but at other times botanical priority was ignored and Musa paradisiaca was treated as a subspecies of Musa sapientum. Moreover, since Musa paradisiaca is seedless, the subspecies seminifera was created in order to accommodate the wild seeded forms. Giving a seed-bearing wild species the status of subspecies to a seedless cultivar is a good example of the stultifying effect formal nomenclature has had on the crop's taxonomy.

As Ernest Cheesman noted in 1948, "Some botanists have regarded the seedless forms as ranking with the fertile species and have bestowed Latin binomials upon them. Others have preferred to regard them as varieties of one mythical “ species” (usually called Musa sapientum) which is supposed to exist somewhere in the wild and fertile condition … Such mistakes... are not peculiar to the genus Musa, but they are unusually conspicuous in this group"[3].

By then, it was known that the vast majority of edible bananas were derived from either Musa acuminata alone or hybridized with Musa balbisiana. However, their origin  proved to be more complicated than mere hybridisation. Whereas some cultivars were, like their wild ancestors, diploid, most edible bananas were found to be triploid, that is they had three sets of chromosomes instead of two. In some cultivars all three sets seemed to come from Musa acuminata, whereas in others, sometimes one set seemed to come from Musa balbisiana, sometimes two sets. This complexity made it difficult to devise a concise nomenclature system based on Latin names that could cope with all possible permutations[4].

As Cheesman argued, "the classification of the cultivated varieties is almost a separate problem from the general taxonomy of the genus, needing a different technique for its solution, and confusion of the two makes both almost impossible"[5]. He realised that the use of Latin names for cultivars would have to be abandoned. The challenge of coming up with an alternative was taken up by two of his young colleagues, Norman Simmonds and Kenneth Shepherd[1].


1. Simmonds, N.W. and Shepherd, K. 1955. The taxonomy and origins of the cultivated bananas. Journal of the Linnean Society of London. Botany 55:302-312.
2. Page 95 in Stover, R.H. and Simmonds, N.W. 1987. Bananas. 3 ed., Tropical Agricultural Series. Longman, New York, USA. 468 Pp.
4. The genus Musa by David Constatine. Retrieved 5 July 2017.

See also on this website

Musapedia page on the domestication of the banana
Navigate the taxonomy of edible bananas on the cultivar diversity portal
Banana cultivar checklist of local names and synonyms
Where bananas come from in Under the peel, the blog of the ProMusa community, published on 7 October 2015
Portal on wild species of bananas

Further reading

Perrier, X. et al. 2011. Multidisciplinary perspectives on banana (Musa spp.) domestication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 108(28).