Scientific name of the banana

The banana is unusual in having two nomenclature systems. The naming of wild species of bananas follows the formal scientific system of giving each species a two-part Latin name (the first part identifies the genus to which the species belongs — Musa in the case of bananas — and the second part the species).  

The classification of cultivated bananas, on the other hand, presents "a separate problem from the general taxonomy of the genus, needing a different technique for its solution", argued the British botanist Ernest Cheesman in 1948[1]. The challenge of coming up with an alternative was taken up by two of his young colleagues, Norman Simmonds and Kenneth Shepherd. In 1995, they proposed a nomenclature system that foregoes Latin names[2]. The new system eliminated the difficulties and inconsistencies of a taxonomy based on Musa paradisiaca and Musa sapientum. As the authors concluded, "the results given in this paper show that both are of hybrid origin and the way is therefore clear for complete rejection of the Linnaean epithets from the taxonomic literature of the wild bananas"[2].

The genome-based system uses the letters A and B to classify cultivars according to the relative contribution of the two wild species from which the majority of edible bananas are derived — Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana — and their ploidy: whether they have 2 (diploid), 3 (triploid) or 4 (tetraploid) copies of each chromosome. The main genome groups are AA, AB, AAA, AAB and ABB.

Genome groups are further subdivided into subgroups of cultivars that are closely related to each other and as a result share a number of defining traits. Examples are the Cavendish, Plantain and East African highland bananas subgroups. This system allows people who are not familiar with a given cultivar — many of which have different names — to infer information about the cultivar based on its subgroup and genome group.

The recommendation is to put the name of the cultivar in single quotes. It should preceded by the genus (Musa), as well as the genome group and the subgroup when the latter are known. Example: Musa AAA (Cavendish subgroup) 'Robusta'.

Nevertheless the appeal of Latin binomials is still strong. A relatively common practice is to use the Latin name of the wild ancestors (e. g.  Musa acuminata or Musa acuminata x Musa balbisiana for interspecific hybrids) .

The genome-base nomenclature system proved very useful to scientists, but not all cultivars have been identified to their group and subgroup levels. It also has not been applied to the cultivated bananas that are derived from other wild species. In the case of Fe'i bananas, this would require identifying the wild ancestors of this unusual group.

2. 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.

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