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What Is a Plantain Tree?

Some of a plantain tree's flowers will mature into plantain fruits.
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  • Written By: Greer Hed
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 15 July 2014
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A plantain tree is an herbaceous flowering plant in the banana family that produces starchy fruits called plantains. Despite the fact that plantain plants are commonly referred to as "trees" and can grow to heights up to 20 to 25 feet, they are not actually trees. What appears to be a tree trunk at the base of the plant is actually a pseudostem made up of layers of leaf sheaths. The plantain tree has its origins in India and Southern Asia, and usually grows best in tropical or subtropical climates. Its fruits are cooked and consumed as a starch staple in many parts of the world.

Like banana trees, plantain trees have a food-storing underground stem called a corm. The corm grows upwards, emerging at the top of the plantain stalk about a year after planting. This stem produces a single cluster of flowers before it dies and a new stem begins to grow from the plantain tree's root. Some of the flowers produced by the corm then mature into plantain fruits. The flowers that become fruit are female, while the other flowers produced by the plant are sterile and usually drop off the tree once it begins to bear fruit.

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Plantain fruits are usually sold while still green and unripe, or while black and overripe. The unripe plantains are starchy and not very sweet. Their flesh is firmer than that of a banana and they should be cooked before consumption. Due to their starchy quality, green plantains are used as a staple food in many tropical regions of the world, often replacing potatoes or pasta. Black plantains are sweeter and may be eaten raw, like a banana.

To grow a plantain tree, the would-be cultivator must first purchase a plantain root stock at a nursery. The planting site should be warm and sheltered from the wind with plenty of sunlight, perhaps near a building or an asphalt driveway that generates extra heat. Any frost will damage or kill the foliage of the plantain tree, so it is generally best to plant in the spring when the climate is warmer, or to plant the tree in a climate-controlled greenhouse. Soil for planting should be rich, acidic, and well-drained. Once the root stock is planted, the corm will grow upwards for 10 to 15 months before the tree is ready to begin producing fruit.

As the plantain tree gains height, it may need to be propped up with braces to keep it from falling or being blown over by the wind. Regular watering is necessary, particularly during warmer weather, as the broad, flat leaves of the plantain tree consume a lot of water. A fertilizer consisting of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium may be applied once a month to promote growth. The stem of the plantain tree may break off into smaller shoots, which should be pruned back regularly to increase the growth of fruits on the main stem.

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