Pineapple: A Bit of the Tropics in Iowa—by Pat McGivern

Do you like fresh pineapple?  Do you feel confident in picking the best from the fruit stand?   A January trip to Costa Rica by this author taught me that everything I thought I knew about pineapple selection was wrong!

First, a bit of history.  The pineapple originated in the area of Brazil and Paraguay and was spread throughout Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean by natives. The Aztecs and the Mayans cultivated it.  Columbus “discovered” the pineapple on the island of Guadeloupe in 1493 and brought it back to Spain calling it the “pina de Indes” or “pinecone of the Indians.”   Renaissance Europe at this time was largely bereft of sweets, and sugar refined from cane was a rare commodity.  Reports and later samples of the New World’s sweet pineapple made the fruit a celebrity item.  Despite the best efforts of European gardeners, it was nearly two centuries before they were able to perfect a hothouse method to grow the pineapple.  Dutchman Pieter de la Court may have successfully cultivated the first European pineapple in 1658.  In 1723 the English Chelsea Physic Garden built a huge “pineapple stove” to grow the plants, and in 1733 French King Louis XV was presented a pineapple grown at Versailles. Catherine the Great ate pineapples on her estate before her death in 1796.

Across the ocean in our early American colonies, ships brought preserved pineapple from the Caribbean islands in the form of candied chunks packed in sugar.  Whole fruit was costly and difficult to obtain from only the speediest ships.  An American hostess who could produce a whole pineapple for her dining party was highly regarded.  So sought after was a pineapple, they were sometimes rented out by the confectioner and then used solely as a decoration.  After return, the pineapple could be sold to a more affluent client to actually eat.  Prices rose up to $8,000 (in current monetary worth) for a single fruit.  It was common for food displays to be used as a table decoration, and if a hostess could top this display with a pineapple, that indicated she had spared no expense to ensure her guests’ dining pleasure.  Thus this fruit came to express the sense of welcome, good cheer, and hospitality.

In the early 1900s, industrialist James Dole started a pineapple plantation in Hawaii, and Del Monte followed in 1917.  For over seven decades Hawaii produced more than 75% of the world’s pineapples.  This greatly contributed to the pineapple’s evolution from an overpriced expensive commodity to a reasonably accessible treat.  Hawaii now only grows pineapples for local and tourist use, and the tiny country of Costa Rica leads the production of pineapples for the world market!  (2.9 million tons in 2016).

What is a pineapple?  The pineapple (Ananas comosus) is a tropical herbaceous perennial, and the most economically important plant in the bromeliad family.  It is the only bromeliad that produces edible fruit to be grown commercially.  The green leaves are long and waxy with small spines on the margins, growing three to five feet tall.  Each plant produces up to two hundred flowers, the fruits of which join together to make the pineapple.

This author was fortunate to visit an organic pineapple farm in Costa Rica in January 2018.   Citizen “homesteaders” can be granted an area from the government, and here have joined together with other homesteaders to grow, harvest, and market.

pinapple 1

The owner’s son harvesting for us.

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Here are the flowers, which ultimately join to become the fruit (photo taken on my knees, to give you an idea of size):

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Looking down on the maturing pineapples growing in the field.  It can take a year to produce a pineapple from a planted slip or sucker.

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Our guide explaining that after the first pineapple is harvested, the primary “sucker” (to the right of the pineapple fruit in his hand) will be kept on the plant for a second harvest, and all other smaller ones removed.  Only two harvests are made from one plant, then the entire area is replanted with fresh starts (usually from new suckers).  These organic fields are all planted by hand, and an organic gas can be used to cause the field to all flower at the same time.  Ladybugs (all female) in 50,000 lots are used to control mealybugs. Manual weeding would be difficult and expensive; the plastic mulch helps to control competitive weeds.  Fertilizers are applied by spray to the leaves, as bromeliads have a very small root system.

pinapple 5

How to choose your pineapple at the grocery store:  We learned that all Costa Rican pineapples are of the “Golden” variety, and growers do not harvest until they are ripe.  This means that the sugar levels of the pineapples in the field are tested, and when it reaches 10-12% they are ready for harvest, even though the outside of the fruit is still primarily green.  They are picked, immediately refrigerated to be packed and shipped at 45 degrees Fahrenheit to maintain their freshness, and ideally should be kept at that temperature until eaten.  However, stores in the United States commonly accept the refrigerated delivery and put out the pineapples at room temperature.  They DO NOT ripen further after they have been picked, although they will immediately start to ferment at room temperature and will turn more golden.  Thus, if you find a pineapple for sale from Costa Rica (I found one immediately upon my return at a local Walmart), the sooner you can buy it after it has been delivered to the store, the better.  It is also ready to immediately clean and eat without further delay.  If you wish to store the fruit, refrigerate.  Thus the color, scent, and softness of the pineapple are NO way to choose!

If you are intrigued by pineapple growth and wish to try raising your own pineapple plant, you can fairly easily do so using the crown of the pineapple you purchased to eat.  Detailed instructions are contained in the links below on tropical permaculture and bromeliads. However, be forewarned that it may take up to two years to obtain a fruit, and although it can be outside in summer months, in Iowa you must keep the plant potted warm inside with lots of sun the rest of the year.

So, in the midst of this icy, snowy, Iowa winter, as you see those green pineapples that came from Costa Rica, you can be secure in knowing that they should be already ripe and golden inside and ready to eat.  Also, as we find them at less than $5 per pineapple ($2.48 at Walmart this week), consider their current price in light of their historical costliness, and the extent of hand labor now taken to produce and harvest!  Enjoy!


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