A Brief History of Pineapples
Much loved worldwide, pineapples have gone from a status fruit for the well-to-do, to one with a wide variety of uses across the globe. Piña coladas, anyone?
Hundreds of years ago, any newly encountered fruit tended to be referred to as an “apple.” Some examples: peach = Persian Apple, tomato = love apple, potato (not a fruit) = earth apple, etc. The original “pineapple” was what we now know as the “pinecone.” So it seems that whenever the pineapple was seen for the first time by European explorers, it got the apple moniker by botanical default (and because it kind of looked like a pinecone). If the seed-bearing structures of some pine trees were not so conical in shape, perhaps we’d still be calling them pineapples and we’d know today’s pineapple as something else.
The pineapple plant, Anasus comosus, is a perennial monocot, thus making it a distant relative of corn, wheat, barley, and the grass in your front lawn (assuming you haven’t xeriscaped it). Pineapples are members of Bromeliaceae, the bromeliad family, which becomes obvious if you compare the appearance of the pineapple plant to that of a horticultural bromeliad such as an earth star or — interestingly enough — one of the “pineapple” bromeliads, also of the genus Anasus. The thick leathery leaves emanate in a rosette from a base, with occasional side shoots. The stem grows a flower spike that produces many small flowers that each form a fruit, which then fuses to form a collective or multiple fruit. The little fruitlets grow in a spiral pattern that follows the famed Fibonacci sequence, with eight going in one direction and thirteen going in the opposite direction. A similar pattern can also be seen in the whorled arrangement of florets and seeds in a sunflower head.
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Pineapples originated in the area bordering current day Brazil and Paraguay. From there it was spread by humans throughout the rest of South America and up into Central America. Evidence suggests the pineapple has been cultivated for at least 3,200 years. Explorers introduced pineapples to Europe in the 1400s where it became a symbol of affluence since the only way to get one then was by import from the new world. It is now grown in many tropical countries and has proven to be well-adapted to greenhouse cultivation. Even after greenhouse production was developed it remained a status symbol since it took wealth to construct and operate a greenhouse.
Although the pineapple is associated with Hawaii, where both Dole and Del Monte established plantations starting in around 1900, large-scale production there diminished due to competition and improved shipping methods from other locales.
Pineapples are now only produced for local consumption in the island state. Even so, people still assume a “Hawaiian” pizza will have pineapple slices on top.
As far as world-wide fruit production goes, pineapples come in at around tenth place (tomatoes are number one) but they fare a little better when the category is narrowed to “tropical” fruit, coming in third. About 30 million tons of pineapples are grown yearly with Brazil, Costa Rica, and the Philippines being the biggest producers. About half of the world’s production is shipped to Europe.
So, what can you do with a pineapple besides slice it up and put it on a pizza? Juice is an important product, either alone or mixed with other fruit juices such as orange or mango. In Mexico you’ll find sliced pineapple sold at small stands where is it put on a stick and covered with lime and chili powder. Canned or fresh pineapples find use in smoothies, fruit cocktails, embedded in jello, or for snacking as is. Did I mention piña coladas? The taste is sweet but citrusy with a bit of a sour kick at times. Interestingly, unlike many other fruit, pineapples do not ripen much after they are picked, so the harvest must be pretty well-timed.
From a nutritional standpoint, fresh pineapple is relatively low in calories so you can eat a lot without fear of overdoing it. It’s a good source of vitamin C and the B vitamins, copper, and manganese, but pretty low in everything else. So next time you need a fruity snack, slice up a spiny pineapple for a tropical treat.