Ananas comosus (L.) Merr. (Bromeliaceae)



Illustration of pineapple inflorescence from  Curtis's Botanical Magazine (1813, t.1554). Mature commercial pineapple from Brazil.

One-upmanship, the desire to outdo one's neighbours, is a familiar foible and few plants have inspired Europeans to show-off more than the pineapple. In 1758, writer James Ralph summarised the British pineapple obsession: 'all must have their Fooleries as well as their Pinaries'.

Columbus introduced the pineapple to Europe, and impressed King Ferdinand with the fruit's flavour. With this royal imprimatur, the pineapple became associated with those who thought themselves the best in society. Pineapples were first seen in England when some were presented to Oliver Cromwell, although their absence had not prevented English authors illustrating and describing them. When diarist John Evelyn finally tasted pineapple, in 1668, he was disappointed; the reality of its flavour did not live up to the literary descriptions.

Pineapple is apparently native to southern Brazil and Paraguay but domestication and widespread use by the peoples of pre-Columbian South America and Caribbean has obscured its native distribution. Botanically, pineapple is a compound fruit, made up of fused, fleshy berries produced by individual flowers; the armoured outside comprises the remnants of flower parts and bracts. Pineapples are propagated vegetatively from the crown of leaves surmounting the fruit or shoots from the basal rosette of leaves. Pineapple cultivation spread rapidly as Portuguese hegemony extended into tropical Africa and Asia. By the mid 1600s, pineapples were frequent enough for the Polish explorer Michael Boym to consider them Chinese plants.

In about 1714, Dutch gardener Henry Telende, using the vast wealth of Matthew Decker, succeeded in growing pineapples in England. Telende's 'trick' was to use the heat generated by the fermentation of dung and tanner's bark, and was described in detail by the horticultural enthusiast, Richard Bradley. Even the universities of Oxford and Cambridge were not immune to the eighteenth-century pineapple craze; pineapples fruited in the Oxford Physic Garden in 1744 and Trinity College, Cambridge in 1748. Pineapple husbandry blossomed into the nineteenth century as Victorians took over the Georgian obsession. Pineries became the playthings of vastly wealthy and the ability to deliver ripe, home-grown pineapples to banqueting tables became a mark of social and intellectual distinction. By the Edwardian period, developments in technology and transport were making pineapples less socially exclusive, and home-grown pineapples were becoming an anachronism.

During the twentieth century, advances in preservation technologies have made pineapples commonplace. Canning, in particular, democratised pineapple consumption but changed the fruit's appearance; pineapples needed to fit conveniently into tins!

Further reading

Beauman F 2005. The pineapple. King of fruits. Chatto & Windus.

Clement CR et al. 2010. Origin and domestication of native Amazonian crops. Diversity 2: 72-106.

Stephen Harris