Gardens of the Crosstimbers: Be a pineapple
Behold the mighty pineapple. ‘Ananas comosus’ is represented in over 2,700 species and 30 cultivars. A stocky plant with thick, long leaves where some species grow over six feet tall and others may live twenty years.
This tropical/semi-tropical perennial with 30 inch-long strap leaves from the Brazil-Paraguay region in South America will grow strong for 1 to 2 years. It then sends up from the center a floral spike inflorescence on a thick stem with as many as 200 flowers, each supported by a thick bract and all bloom consecutively in spiral fashion. The flowers turn into berries which eventually fuse together to form a multiple fruit topped by a little crown of waxy leaves. The joined hexagonal fruits are organized in the pattern of two interlocking but opposing circling paths. Usually there are eight rows curving upward in one direction and 13 rows twisting the opposite way.
The 8 and 13 are part of the Fibonacci number series: 0,1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34, 55 and so on. The previous two numbers are added together to give the next sum (beginning with 0 and 1). Thus, 0+1=1, 1+1=2, 1+2=3, 2+3=5, 3+5=8 and so on. What is so cool about the Fibonacci sequence is it is found in the branching of trees, leaves on stems, petals on daisies, arrangement of bracts on a pine cone, florets on a sunflower, fruits on a pineapple, flowers of an artichoke and even the pedigree of bees and people.
When the pineapple is blooming, it indeed looks like colorful pine cone. No seed is the desired trait since seed production diminishes fruit quality. In the wild, hummingbirds and bats are pollinators, but this encourages seed production. Cultivated pineapples will develop without fertilization of flowers. Sometimes the occasional tiny black seed can be found just underneath the fruit peel and even planted. Very time consuming. Pineapple growers use suckers, the small plantlets that form between the leaves.
Pineapples are grouped into four classes: Red Spanish, Queen, Smooth Cayenne and Pernambuco. Mayans and Aztecs were first to cultivate pineapples. Columbus brought the plant back to Spain in the late 1400s and called it ‘Pine of the Indians’. The Portuguese took pineapple from Brazil to India in 1550. The Spanish transported pineapple to the Philippines in the 1600s. Europeans had trouble growing pineapple until 1658 when Pieter de la Court of Leyden, the Netherlands, succeeded in cultivating plants in greenhouses. In 1677 King Charles II posed for a portrait showing him receiving a pineapple as a gift. It may have been the first pineapple grown in England. The special fruit owed its life to the huge ‘pineapple stove’ that heated the greenhouse. Wealthy aristocrats not only imported pineapples but funded the propagation of pineapples. The pineapple soon became associated with royal bearing and became a symbol of wealth.
The tropical fruit was expensive. Low supply translated into high prices. Pineapple parties were held to impress others. Often the pineapple was rented from confectionary stores and returned after the party to be sold to a more affluent customer! Ships loaded with fresh and preserved pineapple left Caribbean ports in route to Europe and other destinations. The faster they went, the better the condition of the fruit upon arrival. Sea captains in the southern US would bring back pineapples which were placed outside their doors to show hospitality. The pineapple transitioned from a status symbol to a sign of welcome and good luck.
Today pineapples are grown in large plantations. Cultivation is global, under the control of multinational corporations, and is quite commercialized. Costa Rica is #1 producer with 3 million tons per year. Other top producers are Brazil and the Philippines. The US and Europe buy most of the fresh Costa Rican and Brazilian fruit, but Japan and Korea rely on fresh Philippine pineapples.
Vast monocultures of pineapples require large amounts of pesticides. Up to 50 different types are used in Costa Rica. Hormone disruptors/organophosphates (Roundup) and organochlorines (Paraquat) have compromised worker health by increasing cancer and birth defect rates. The chemicals have contaminated ground water and local water reservoirs. Combined with erosion, the effect has been severe environmental damage, especially in Costa Rica. The country has doubled its pineapple production the past decade. 70% of workers in Costa Rica come from Nicaragua and are afraid to say anything. Average salary is $83/week for 80 hours work. Keeps down the prices in supermarkets. In Costa Rica the pineapple is the #2 export, composing 50% of the world market. In 2019, pineapple numbers dropped and prices fell for the first time in 3 years. The country is currently trying to find a balance between economic and ecological sustainability.
My homegrown pineapple is very organic. It originated from a crown cut from a mature commercial pineapple that was allowed to dry before being placed in the large 2’x1’x1’ wood planter with no bottom. Leaves, dirt, pine needles and cones washed onto the walkway in front of the house had filled the planter. The little pineapple loved growing in the leaf litter mixture under the persimmon tree and enjoyed the surprise attacks of heavy rain. Pineapples are surprisingly drought tolerant and can even endure temps below 30 degrees, but don’t press your luck.
Only when November frosts threatened the tropical did I buy a large green pot, fill it with actual potting soil and transplanted the pineapple into new digs. It spent one winter in the greenhouse and was moved outdoors early spring. Out of the blue emerged this small pine cone from the center of the pineapple. It kept getting larger before small blossoms soon appeared. In the autumn the pineapple with its growing baby were taken back into greenhouse. I let the little pineapple do its thing. Once baby reached the size it wanted to be, the outside turned from green to yellow. The entire fruit became a golden nugget which smelled heavenly. The last week in March I took my snips and cut the fruit from the thick stem of the mother plant. She won’t send up another baby, but will probably produce side suckers. Although it took a year, the harvested small pineapple was super sweet. Turns out higher temperatures increase the sweetness. Glad I kept the radiators going.
Ripe pineapple fruits can be eaten raw, cooked, grilled, juiced, dried or canned. They contain the proteolytic enzyme bromelain, a protein tenderizer as well as good amounts of manganese, vitamins C and B1. Ninety-five percent of canned pineapple is the ‘Smooth Cayenne’ cultivar. It has smooth leaves, unlike other varieties with sharp, upcurved spines along the leaf edges. Pineapple leaves themselves may be pounded and applied to bruises, made into paper, boiled and taken as a medicinal tea, and used in handicraft projects. Pineapple peels anyone? These can be boiled for an hour, sugar added and voila, you have tasty pineapple tea.
“Be a pineapple. Stand tall, wear a crown, and be sweet on the inside.” Kat Gaskin
Becky Emerson Carlberg, graduate of Oklahoma State (Plant Pathology) is a teacher, artist, writer as well as certified Oklahoma Master Gardener and Master Naturalist. Contact her at Becscience@att.net.