How do bananas reproduce? What you need to know

From pudding to splits, there’s nothing quite like a banana. The trees are beautiful, too, and the leaves have their own uses, as well. If you’ve ever eaten a banana, though, you may have noticed that they don’t have seeds like an apple or orange.

So how do banana trees reproduce? Do they have seeds at all, or are they grown through some other method? Can you grow them at home, or do you have to be content with getting bunches of bananas from a grocery store? We’re going to break down everything you need to know about banana reproduction and answer all your questions!

A banana with banana slices stacked next to it
Ajale/Pixabay

Do bananas have seeds?

Well, yes and no. If you’ve ever eaten a banana and noticed the little black dots in the center, those are actually the seeds. If you’re thinking that those dots are too small to be functional seeds, you’d be correct. They’re immature seeds, but, unlike other fruit seeds, these seeds won’t develop into full, functional seeds. This means that you can’t just plant a banana and grow a banana tree.

Of course, most fruit trees don’t naturally produce fruit with seeds that won’t mature. Wild banana trees still exist, and they have plenty of seeds. So many seeds, in fact, that they’re nearly completely inedible. Wild bananas are also much smaller than the fruit we enjoy today. Over the course of centuries, bananas were domesticated and bred to have bigger fruit with smaller seeds until we eventually reached the varieties grown today.

How are commercial bananas grown?

So, if bananas don’t have mature seeds, how are they grown? Banana trees mainly reproduce through suckers, also called pups. These pups appear to be separate, smaller trees growing next to the adult tree, but they are actually an offshoot from the roots of that tree. This means they are actually the same plant attached at the roots. Banana trees produce pups as part of reproduction but also to increase the general surface area of the plant so they can absorb more light and water.

Once these pups are three to four feet tall, they can be separated from the adult plant. After separation, the pups can be planted on their own. They’ll continue to grow into mature plants, producing fruit and, eventually, pups of their own.

This method has benefits and drawbacks. It is generally faster and more reliable than growing from seed, and takes less overall work than grafting. However, since each pup is a clone of the mature plant it came from, it decreases the overall genetic diversity of the larger banana population. This leaves bananas vulnerable to diseases, since it takes much longer for the species to develop disease resistances.

Banana tree with small pup or sucker next to it
Gheorghe Mindru/Shutterstock

Can you grow bananas at home?

Most of the bananas that produce edible fruit are cold hardy up to USDA zone 9. In colder regions, they thrive indoors during the cold seasons. In fact, the Dwarf Cavendish banana was developed in English greenhouses in the mid-1800s. But they need six or more hours of sunlight daily and a long, warm growing season to set and ripen their fruit.

On the other hand, Musa basjoo, or Japanese banana, is recognized as the most cold-hardy banana. It can withstand temperatures as low as -10° F., and grows to nearly 15 feet tall. Mature plants may even flower and produce fruit, but the fruit is inedible. In temperate landscapes these plants die back each winter, and then regain their full height by the middle of the growing season.

You can get banana pups at some nurseries or specialty stores, although, depending on your location, you may have better luck online. There are even some dwarf varieties that can be grown in containers for an extended length of time and more cold tolerant varieties in case you don’t live in a tropical location.

Banana plants need full sun and do best when planted in rich, well-draining soil. Most varieties prefer slightly acidic soil and are susceptible to wind damage, so take that into consideration when choosing a planting location. Bananas also need lots of water and thrive in humid conditions.

Eventually, your banana plant will put out pups, which you can either leave attached or separate them when the pup grows to at least three feet tall. Some banana trees will produce pups when distressed to help the plant take in more water and light, so check that your plant is getting everything it needs when you first begin seeing pups.

Getting your hands on banana seeds

Unfortunately, you can’t save seeds from your breakfast banana and grow a banana plant. Banana seeds are contained inside the flesh — the edible part of the fruit. But because the cavendish subgroup is a hybrid plant, its minuscule seeds are not fertile. So, that’s why our bananas don’t have seeds.

Farmers propagate banana plants through vegetative reproduction rather than seeds. These plants grow from thick, underground stems called rhizomes. The rhizome spreads and grows new buds and shoots near the base of the mature plant. The farmer removes these pups and plants them elsewhere on the farm. In an ideal climate, the pup can grow up and produce fruit in about nine months.

Other bananas do grow from seeds, as well as vegetative reproduction. Start them in a protected garden area or in containers indoors. Soak the seeds in water for a day or two to break the seed dormancy. Sow them a quarter-inch deep in moist soil. Depending on the variety, the seeds may sprout in as little as two weeks or it could take several months. 

So growing your own banana plant is indeed possible. If you just want the lush, tropical foliage and maybe some flowers or edible fruit, buying a plant could be a great choice. But if you want to grow edible bananas from seeds, you won’t be able to save them from those that you find in the store. It’s a bit of an adventure in horticulture, but the reward will be worth the effort.

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