Is a banana an herb? That depends on whom you ask. In culinary circles, herbs are generally defined as edible plant parts that do not produce seeds. In botany, herbs are delicate plants that do not form woody structures like trunks or bark. By either of these definitions, a banana would most certainly not be considered an herb. Among herbalists, however, the definition is slightly different.
Herb Society of America's Definition of Herbs
The Herb Society of America defines herbs as "trees, shrubs, annuals, vines ... ferns, mosses, algae, lichens, and fungi. They [herbs] are valued for their flavor, fragrance, medicinal and healthful qualities, economic and industrial uses, pesticidal properties, and coloring materials (dyes)." By this definition, herbs are distinguished not by their botanical characteristics, but rather by their functional uses. To determine whether a banana falls under this definition requires a bit more analysis.
Analyzing Whether Bananas Could Be Herbs
Bananas are undoubtedly a food plant. To determine whether the species can be categorized as a herb, you need to evaluate its other uses. Do banana plants have ethnobotanical uses beyond that of a food crop? Evaluating each category of herbs as outlined by the Herb Society of America will give a better indication of whether bananas should be considered herbs.
Flavor or Fragrance Uses
Perdue University's Banana page outlines a wide variety of uses for bananas around the world. The site does not report any use of bananas as either a flavoring or fragrance agent. The chemical makeup of bananas makes them highly perishable and difficult to process. As a result, any extraction of essential oils or other compounds is prohibitively difficult.
Bananas are a highly nutritious fruit, but do they have any medicinal properties beyond their nutritive value? While it may come as a surprise to those of us accustomed to using bananas for baking and banana splits and little else, Perdue University boldly states that every part of the banana plant has medicinal properties. Among the properties cited:
- Flowers: Used to treat dysentery, ulcers, and bronchitis. Cooked, flowers are considered a good food for diabetics.
- Sap: Chemically, banana sap has astringent qualities. In traditional medicine, the sap is used to treat a wide variety of ailments, including leprosy, hysteria, fever, digestive disorders, hemorrhage, epilepsy, hemorrhoids, and insect bites.
- Roots and Seeds: Treat digestive disorders
- Peel and Pulp: Scientifically shown to have both antifungal and antibiotic components. These structures have also been identified as containing the neurotransmitters norepinephrine, serotonin and dopamine.
The aforementioned antifungal properties of banana pulp and peel have been successfully used to treat tomato fungus in an agricultural setting. In their home countries, locals use banana leaves for everything from umbrellas to construction materials. Banana and plantain fibers are used throughout the world to weave ropes, mats and other textiles. Tannins present in ripe banana peel act as tanning agents in leather processing.
Bananas Considered an Herb Under Certain Circumstances
Clearly, the definition of a herb is a subjective one, and it is not entirely clear whether a banana should be included in the category or not. What is certain is that the banana plant and all its constituent parts have medical and practical applications far beyond the scope of the standard Western idea of bananas. If you are using your banana as the main ingredient of a banana split, it is fair to say that in that capacity a banana is not a herb. If, however, the serotonin present in banana peel is isolated and used therapeutically, or the sap is used to treat insect bites, then the banana appears to fall more naturally into the category of herb than food. This is not uncommon. Cinnamon, chamomile, garlic and sage have a similar dual nature. If these common food crops have achieved popular acceptance as herbs, there is no reason why a banana should not be given similar status.