Wednesday, February 28, 2024
Pineapple (Image: Security, Pixabay)
Plant Palette

Pineapple – A dinosaur of a fruit

By Clive Larkman

Our modern world is made up of fruits from all parts of the world that have undergone a range of breeding from nil to full-blown commercialised and targeted selection. Western nations have the widest range due to their wealth and the resultant ability to transport fruit around the world and/or develop the complex growing conditions many of these fruits need.

Every year we learn of a ‘new’ fruit that has been grown in far parts of the world for hundreds of years or even thousands of years. Most of those living in temperate Australia grew up with a standard palette of fruit including apples, oranges, bananas, melons, strawberries, and many others. Some are tropical and came down from the northern states and many are suited to the temperate climates. We never really knew, understood, nor cared where they came from. They just tasted good and were good for us.

One of the really odd ones is the good old pineapple. For some of us, the usual form was the canned version served in fruit salads and used in cooking. It was even a standard item in the local fish shop. We would eat it grilled on our burgers or as a dessert with our Friday night fish ’n’ chips – deep fried with sugar and salt. As the Australian industry grew and rapid transport improved, we were able to see more and more fresh fruit in the marketplace.

Most of our conventional fruits were smooth skinned and looked like a ‘piece of fruit’. Along came this thing that looked like a prehistoric refugee from a dinosaur film – large rough sides with lots of eyes, topped with a spikey crown of small prickly leaves. It was hard to relate this ugly thing to those lovely gold rings of sweet juicy fruit. However, once the skin was removed and we could get our mouths around the sweet chunky pieces of fruit, it was soon apparent that this was that delicious fruit.

Pineapples are a medium sized herbaceous perennial that originates in the river flats of southern Brazil and Paraguay. It was a healthy fruit that became a major part of the indigenous diet, and by the 15th century it was a staple food of most of the native peoples of Southern and Central America. Like so many other food products of the region, it travelled around the world as part of the Columbian Revolution. However, unlike tomatoes, chillies, and many of the other plants from Central and South America, it was slow to take off in Europe and Asia. This is probably due to the particular climatic conditions needed for optimum growth.

The name is as odd as the fruit itself. The Latin comes from Nanas (meaning excellent fruit in the local dialect) and comosus (Latin for ‘tufted’) referring to the spikey growth on top of the fruit. The ‘pine apple’ has nothing to do with pine trees or apples but the ripe fruit does look like a large pine cone. However, the name pineapple is mostly used in English-speaking countries. Most of Europe and Asia use the name Ananas or Nanas to refer to the fruit/plant.

The pineapple is unusual in many other ways as well. It is a member of the Bromeliaceae, and is a monocot that is more closely related to the grasses than other common fruit. The genus Ananas has as many as six species although there is some debate about whether they are all variants or species. Ananas comosus var. bracteatus is the main fruit form and some botanists class it as a separate species – A. bracteatus. There are dozens of cultivars that have been selected for colour, flavour, growing requirements, and the usual characteristics that determine fruit selection.

The plant is a herbaceous perennial growing to 2m tall with a short, stocky stem with tough, waxy leaves. It produces lots of fleshy, spear-shaped leaves with toothed margins. The foliage has been used to produce fibres which in turn, have been used to produce a range of textiles and clothing.  It produces a large inflorescence of up to 200 flowers. This in turns produces a complex fruit formed by the fusing of fruits produced by the individual flowers. After the first fruit is finished, side shoots will grow in the leaf axils of the main stem which in turn produce additional fruits.  

The fruit is usually harvested in the summer months but under the right conditions it can fruit all year. Each plant will produce three or four fruits over its life but again in non-commercial conditions it can produce many more fruit. The fruit should be harvested when it is around 30% yellow and care should be taken not to harvest too early. It will become more yellow once picked but will not sweeten further as all the sugars are produced in the stem.

The flowers are pollinated by hummingbirds in its home range but pollinated fruit produces seeds and an inferior fruit. Propagation is done by offcuts and divisions, and the flowers are generally only allowed to set seed for breeding purposes. This has given a range of cultivars that are now grown in most tropical and subtropical regions of the world. The mass cultivation of pineapples has grown and waned in different parts of the world in line with world demand, automated production, and land values. World production is around 27 million tonnes, with the three largest producers being Philippines, Costa Rica, and Brazil. There are more than 70 countries producing over 1000 tonnes on an annual basis.

Next time you are eating some of this yummy but common fruit (canned or fresh), just remember it is a little on the weird side.

Main photo: Pineapple (Image: Security, Pixabay)

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