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Pineapples
Nature Bulletin No. 631-A   March 5, 1977
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

PINEAPPLES
It would be appropriate if the official seal of our 50th state included a picture of a pineapple. Hawaii is as famous for its pineapples as for its hospitality and for centuries that fruit has been a symbol of hospitality. In Virginia and neighboring states you may frequently see carved pineapples on the gateposts and over the doorways of old Colonial homes.

In 1493, on his second voyage to the West Indies, Columbus discovered the Guadeloupe Islands and found the Carib natives cultivating a luscious fruit which the Spaniards named pina because of its resemblance to a giant-size pine cone. The Caribs would place some of it at the entrances to their villages and huts to indicate friendship and hospitality. This custom was adopted to some extent in Spain and later in England from where -- like the potato and the turkey -- it was brought back to America.

Apparently in Central or perhaps in South America, originally, the pineapple was cultivated and developed from a wild ancestor with a hard inedible fruit. From the pineapples represented in their pottery we know that, later, the pre-Incans cultivated this fruit, probably in the warm valleys and lowlands of Peru. The Incans developed a new variety, with a small, almost black fruit, that is still grown there and has a unique flavor.

No one knows when the pineapple was introduced into islands of the West Indies but the finest varieties have been developed there, including the popular Red Spanish, the Puerto Rican Big Head that sometimes weighs 30 pounds, and the Smooth Cayenne -- the kind most widely cultivated in Hawaii.

The pineapple is a queer plant and it has queer relatives, all with the same peculiar kind of flowers and all restricted to tropical or sub- tropical regions in this hemisphere. Most of them are air plants -- epiphytes, not parasites -- such as the so-called Spanish Moss that festoons the trees in our coastal plains from Virginia to Texas.

The pineapple plant has a rosette of long swordlike leaves, stiff and fibrous, on a thick upright stem. It reminds you of a cactus and, like a cactus, those leaves have specialized tissues for storing water. It can be kept out of the ground for months and yet grow when set in moist soil. That is why, even though cultivated varieties rarely produce seed, it could be taken to Africa and Asia by early navigators and missionaries. It can survive long periods without rain and, in Hawaii, thrives on the rich but semiarid volcanic soils more than 2000 feet above sea level.

The flower stalk bears a mass of lavender flowers. Originally separate, they consolidate and form the pineapple fruit which is really an aggregation of several hundred fruits -- each with its own core and spiny bracts -- at the spots where the flowers were. It is relatively low in vitamin A but high in sugars, especially when fully ripe. In addition to acid and volatile oil flavorings it contains small amounts of a sulfur compound found in no other fruit and chiefly responsible for its distinctive flavor.

Unfortunately, when ripe, the finest varieties cannot withstand long shipments. In Hawaii, which produces 75 percent of the world's crop, they are canned or converted into juice. Our fresh pineapples, mostly from Puerto Rico and Cuba, are gathered before they ripen. A "ruddy- ripe" pineapple is far more delicious and can be eaten with a spoon.

A remarkable fact about this "symbol of hospitality" is that, when decayed, it is extremely poisonous.


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