Of all fruits, the pineapple is probably one of the most recognisable. You will see it in fruit shops or supermarkets around the world, often far away from its place of origin. I have a confession to make, I am biased in writing this article, as the pineapple is my favourite fruit. I enjoy slurping on the tangy, turpentine flavoured mango; chewing into the exquisitely, fragrant, translucent litchi; and I’m addicted to the rich, custard flesh of the durian; but a good, fully ripe and fragrant pineapple reigns supreme in my books.
Pineapples were once under major production in the suburb where I now live. Only a few years ago, when I moved here, the view from my office up the valley was of hillsides covered in pineapple plantations with a backdrop of forested hilltops. What a wonderful sight for a pineapple connoisseur. Sadly, one last patch now remains, and with that owner now in his 90s, its days are numbered.
Due to cheap imports, these plantations may be disappearing, but they do illustrate that almost all of coastal Queensland, Northern New South Wales, and areas with similar humid tropical and subtropical climates (USDA 11 and 10), are ideal locations to grow this plant in your own garden. If you live in cooler climates, pineapples are very amenable to pot culture and can be moved under cover in winter.
Pineapples were first introduced to Brisbane from India by Lutheran missionaries in 1838. We were probably the last country in the world to start growing this plant, however we soon got our act together. Commercial plantations were established by 1924 and a modern canning facility established in north Brisbane in 1946 to export the fruit around the world. Today the pineapple is the third most important commercial tropical fruit crop in the world.
The great thing about pineapples is that they are so easy to propagate. Simply take the topknot in one hand, the fruit in the other, and twist and pull. The resultant plant can simply be left to dry for a few days and then lightly pressed into a pot of free draining potting media. If you live in the tropics or subtropics and planting occurs over the warmer, wetter months, tops can be planted directly into the garden.
These tops you grow will have fruit identical to the parent plant. This is good news if, like me, you have some favourite cultivars.
As a pineapple afficiendo I have been busy planting my tops and I am now enjoying third generation fruit from my garden. Vigorous, well-grown plants generally fruit within 18 months to 2 years. Once plants produce fruit, they will start to sucker from the base to form aclumps, so you have additional propagation material.
The plants enjoy growing in warm, sunny locations, in free draining organically enriched and mulched soils. Applications of a balanced organic or biological fertilizer containing ground rock mineral trace elements will boost growth. Watering plants during dry periods will ensure growth does not falter, although established plants are fairly resistant to drought.
Plants have a tendency to naturally produce fruit seasonally, although you will get some flowers or fruit at any time of year. Flowering often occurs in spring with fruit ripening in late summer and early autumn. In my neighbourhood we have to wrap maturing fruit in a sleeve of paper as the local crows and bush turkeys have developed a taste for the fruit, and seem to know exactly when they are ripe. Otherwise plants are virtually pest free.
Like most fruit, growing your own allows you to pick them at their peak, when fully coloured, sweet and most flavoursome. A pineapple is a fruit that does not continue to ripen once picked. Unfortunately many store-bought fruit are picked too early. This has prompted some people to avoid fresh fruit and buy canned fruit instead, which is a great shame. When selecting fruit at the shops, pick those with the strongest, sweetest scent – preferably those with orangey-yellow skins.
The pineapple plant is believed to be native to southern Brazil and Paraguay. The delicious seedless fruit we know today was developed by selection over many thousands of years by the Tupi-Guarani people. It is believed to be derived from the wild plant now called Ananas comosus var. ananassioides.
By the time Columbus set foot in the Americas, this fruit was grown throughout Central and Southern America and the Caribbean. It is reported that in the Americas this plant was regarded as being auspicious and was planted beside the entries to houses.
Columbus came across the pineapple on the Island of Guadeloupe in 1493 during his second voyage to the Americas. He returned with fruit as gifts for the Spanish Royal family and the Spanish court.
Coming from a warm climate, pineapple plants required specially heated greenhouses (stovehouses) to produce fruit in northern Europe. Producing home grown fruit became all the fashion with the aristocracy and in turn the pineapple became a symbol of exclusivity – only the richest of families could afford to grow them.
Later, pineapples became more readily available as they began to be exported from plantations in the Azores and Canary Islands to Europe or from the deep south of the USA. They became a novelty to be shared, and a symbol of friendship. Pineapples as a symbol of welcome began to appear as architectural reliefs and atop gateposts.
In Asia pineapples were also regarded as being auspicious and to this day you will see lucky pineapple trinkets for sale and paper pineapples hanging from overhead wires during the Chinese New Year festivities.
While we often think of pineapples as a fresh fruit, they are used in a number of delicious sweet and savory cooked dishes. In their homeland of Brazil, they are used in numerous deserts and cakes. When visiting Brazil some years ago, one of my most memorable dishes was a pineapple and cassava cake that had a delicious caramelised flavor.
Ornamental Pineapple Plants
Don’t think of pineapples as being exclusively productive plants. They can also be features in the garden, particularly when in flower or fruit. They also look great planted in large pots.
Following a recent revision, there are now only two species in the Genus Ananas, the commercial pineapple (Ananas comosus) and Ananas macrodontes (formerly Pseudoananas sargenarius). The latter is grown by a number of bromeliad enthusiasts and notable for producing a pineapple-like fruit without a top knot.
Many former species in the genus Ananas have now been designated as varieties of Ananas comosus. A great favourite of mine is the Pygmy Pineapple. Once known by the memorable name Ananas nanas, it is now more correctly known as Ananas comosus var. ananassoides ‘Nanus’. This is a small plant with miniature pineapples produced atop long and slender stems. It is often available as a pot plant, or seen at florists as either a cut flowers or cut fruit used in floral arrangements. I have a couple of plantings in the garden and I love the elegant mauve flowers that appear from between the pink bracts, followed immediately by the tiny ornamental fruit. Mass planted, the repetition of these ‘vertical exclamation marks’ makes a dramatic planting. This plant originates from the cooler, arid areas of central Brazil, growing in poor skeletal soils at high altitude. It may thus prove itself suited to growing in areas marginal for commercial pineapple cultivation.
Other clones of Ananas comosus var. ananassoides are also grown in Australia. They have narrow leaves that redden in the sun and grow to around 300 to 700 mm (12 to 30 inches) high before flowering. In other respects they resemble the plant above. These are tough plants for the garden.
The most widely grown of these pineapples is the Red Pineapple (Ananas comosus var. bracteatus, formerly Ananas bracteatus). Compared to the commercial pineapple, this plant has darker green leaves in the shade and leaves with a strong reddish cast in the sun. The mauve petalled flowers appear from between the deep red bracts.
The fruit is covered in elongated red bracts which give it a ‘furry’ appearance from a distance. When ripe, the seedy fruit is edible. The weight of the large fruit causes the stem to bend over reminding me a little of the native Spear Lily, Doryanthes palmeri. The fruit can produce multiple topknots as well as multiple suckers from its base.
This is a large plant, growing 1 to 1.2 metres (3 to 4 feet) high and 1.5 to 2 metres (4 to 6 feet) wide. It suckers freely, so it will soon form a clump, which you can divide to provide a dramatic mass display or to share with friends. This variety is a little hardier than the commercial pineapple and can be grown in slightly marginal areas.
Another popular pineapple is Ananas comosus var. erectifolius ‘Chocolat’ (formerly Ananas lucidus), an ornamental plant with shiny, spineless, reddish-brown leaves. The fruit is quite small in comparison to the plant size. The mauve tipped white flowers appear from between the orange bracts and are topped by a chocolate rosette. While not common, it is frequently grown by bromeliad enthusiasts. This is a striking plant when mass planted in the garden. This is another domesticated plant that was developed by the local people for fibre production.
The last of the comosus varieties is Ananas comosus var. parguazensis. It has broad green leaves and a small fruit in comparison to the size of the plant, which can grow quite large. It is rarely grown in Australia.
The Queensland DPI released an interesting ornamental clone a few years ago that resulted from their pineapple breeding progamme. Named 34/76, it is a cross between Ananas comosus var. erectifolius and Ananas comosus var. bracteatus. The spineless leaves are a rich brown colour and more recurving than ‘Chocolat’. The medium sized fruit are also ornamental. I can attest to the fact that the seedless fruit are quite tasty. Although not available commercially it is grown by many bromeliad enthusiasts and gardeners and soon forms a hardy and ornamental clump.
The pineapple has also been crossed with a number of related genera and occasionally you will come across these hybrids. They bear some resemblance to their pineapple parent. X Anamea ‘Scorpio’ and x Anaregelia ’Minibell’ are occasionally grown for their novelty value.
There are also many striking variegated pineapple cultivars. The leaves can have central or marginal longitudinal stripes of white, cream, yellow, pink, brown or ochre depending on the cultivar. These plants can be very striking in the garden.
Ananas comosus var. bracteatus ‘Tricolor’ is the most popular of these variegates and one of my favourite garden plants. Very few plants have such strikingly, shocking-pink margined leaves. However full sun or very bright semi-shade are needed for the strongest colour. If you prefer a paler pink to colour coordinate with pastel flowers, just adjust the shade to your plant until you get the desired colour. Being a cultivar of Ananas comosus var. bracteatus, you also get the bonus of a red fruit – along with a pink striped topknot.
Ananas comosus ‘Variegatus’ is a very old cultivar and has cream margins to the leaves. In sun they develop a slight pink edge. Edible fruit are produced on established plants.
Ananas comosus ‘Porteanus’ has a central cream stripe to its leaves. It was once widely grown, however all plants I have received with this name have turned out to be a clone of Ananas comosus var. bracteatus.
Ananas comosus var. bracteatus ‘Candystripe’ has a broad, cream stripe down the centre of each leaf. In full sun the cream takes on more of an ochre shade. Despite the extent of the variegation, it is quite a vigorous plant. I believe this may be the plant that is widely grown in Australia. It is vigorous and hardy and soon forms a large and attractive clump.
Ananas comosus ‘Golden Rocket’ has spineless leaves with central variegation. This can be cream in the shade but is a warm pink to almost red in full sun.
Ananas comosus ‘Ivory’ has broad white edges to the leaf. As the leaves age the variegated edges become mottled in green.
Ananas comosus var. erectifolius ‘Lava Burst’ has a pinky-red stripe down the centre of each mahogany brown leaf. This plant was a chance mutation found among some tissue cultured plants at Hawaii Sunshine Nursery.
Ananas comosus var. bracteatus ‘Ubatuba’ was wild collected by Rafael Oliveira at Ubatuba in the state of Sao Paulo. It has a very wide central cream stripe. A new introduction to Australia, this plant is becoming popular with bromeliad collecters.
Many other variegated cultivars are grown in Australia. Variegated plants also appear spontaneously out in the pineapple patch. Unfortunately farmers generally remove them, regarding these plants to be diseased. Variegated plants often have a stigma, considered by many as being virused, although this is very rarely the case. If you grow pineapples commercially, or know people who do, keep your eyes peeled for these interesting plants.
Starting the home plantation
If like me, you are a fan of the pineapple fruit, you will be pleased to know that like all other popular fruit, there are many different and delicious cultivars to choose from. Many of the most desirable pineapples aren’t grown commercially, so growing your own can be tantalizing to the taste buds.
The Smooth Cayenne (Cayenne Lisse) is the most widely grown pineapple in Australia, and much of the world. Its fibrous flesh makes it ideally suited for the canning industry and the spineless leafs are preferred by farmers. The large juicy fruit has a rich acidic flavor.
The plant we grow today is almost identical to the plant collected in South Guiana (then known as Cayenne), although this cultivar is believed to have originated in Venezuela. A number of clones are grown – although they are very similar to one another. The Queensland DPI did some breeding work in the 1960s to produce the clones ‘10’ and ‘30’ which along with the more recent ‘34’ make up most of the production in Queensland. ‘F180’ imported from Hawaii is also grown commercially. It is a large vigorous plant with bigger fruit, but production is decreasing as the fruit has recently been downgraded by the canning industry.
Over the last 20 years, a breeding program at the Queensland Department of Agriculture Fisheries and Forestry has produced some new commercial cultivars. One of these, ‘Aus Jubilee’, is now widely grown and the fruit are commonly seen in the market place. The sweet fruit has a slightly drier and crunchier texture, and an aromatic flavor (likened to coconut).
‘Ripley’ is a very old cultivar, first noted by Morren in Belgium Horticole in 1857 (as ‘Vieux Ripley’). It was once a very popular variety but is now rarely seen. The plant is locally known as a ‘roughy’ due to spiny leaves and rough fruit. The fruit is small with a sweet, fragrant flavor. ‘Ripley’ is classed as a Queen type fruit. This was the first cultivar introduced into Australia.
Some of the best pineapples I have eaten have been in Brazil. These pineapples have a sweet, white and aromatic flavor. Apparently this type of fruit is readily damaged during transportation and the plants are said to prefer warmer growing conditions. It is not widely grown outside of Brazil, which is a great pity.
Producing a delicious fruit; providing an ornamental feature in the garden; and being regarded as an auspicious plant down through the centuries, the pineapple certainly has an interesting history. If you live in a warmer climate it is a tough, hardy fruiting plant that requires a minimum of care. If you live in a cooler climate, it makes a great pot plants that can be brought under cover over the cooler months.
Next time you eat a pineapple, don’t throw out that top. Instead pot it up and grow your own pineapple plant. If you keep at it, like me, you will soon have a small plantation.