(This is Part I of the Ananas comosus profile, which has all the good jokes and historical information but nothing about how to grow one indoors. If you're interested in care information, and want to skip over all the jokes and culture and jokes about culture, jump to Part II.)
I've had second thoughts about going with Carmen Miranda for this profile. I mean, I've done profiles involving other old-movie stars nobody knows anymore (Greta Garbo, Clara Bow), but it's getting to the point where I'm worried that maybe it's becoming a tic. Maybe I should be looking at more modern people, say maybe Carmen Electra instead of Carmen Miranda, I was thinking.
Also it seems a little disrespectful. Kinda. Miranda was, among other things, a serious person, who had serious thoughts (I assume) and did serious work. She was at one point the highest-earning woman in the United States, says Wikipedia. She sang, she danced, she was on Broadway, she was in movies. Carmen Miranda was an extremely big deal at one time. However, her cultural legacy appears to be, in most people's minds, that she was a silly lady who wore large piles of fruit on her head.
Maybe she was asking for this: wearing fruit on your head once is forgivable, but do it six or seven times and you're tempting history. There's an argument to make there. I don't know. What I do know is that she was considerably more complex than just Ol' Fruit-Head Lady. She had a drug problem (amphetamines and barbiturates), she was beaten by her husband, she started working at the age of 14 to help pay for her sister's tuberculosis-related hospital bills. I mean, you wouldn't necessarily call it a tragic life overall: highest-earning woman in the United States, remember. But there was more to her than just wearing fruit baskets.
On the other hand, when faced with a Brazilian plant that grows a large, strange, extremely tropical fruit on a stalk above the rest of the plant and has a few dark eccentricities, there's a certain rightness to choosing a person for the profile who was Brazilian,1 famous mostly for wearing fruit on her head, and had a complicated and occasionally unpleasant life. So it's not like I could think of a better person to go with. And so here we are.
Pineapples and humans first met in South America, in Paraguay and Southern Brazil. The Native Americans at the time (the Tupi and Guaraní) domesticated it and introduced it throughout South America and the Caribbean. The botanical name, Ananas, comes from the Tupi anana, said to mean "excellent fruit."2, 3 There are a handful of other Ananas species,4 some of which are also cultivated,5 though as far as I can tell they're mainly useful as ornamentals, and the fruits are infrequently eaten.
Europeans first encountered the pineapple in November 1493, when Columbus ran into some on the island of Guadeloupe during his second voyage, and he brought them back to Spain because that's what you do when you're a Spanish explorer and you find new foods, especially if they're foods that help prevent scurvy.
The English-speaking part of Europe, which didn't meet Ananas comosus until 1660, was apparently pretty confused about the whole thing, and named them "pineapples," a word they were already using for what we now call "pine cones." This seems kind of stupid in retrospect (obviously pine cones and pineapples are not the same thing, or useful in the same ways), but I suppose it's not that much sillier than calling a peace lily a lily so we'll let it slide. In any case, as time progressed, the fruit held on to the name, and the alternate name "pine cone" was invented for the strobilus6 of pines.
And presumably the pedants of the day were really upset about the name change, too, because life is just generally really upsetting, when you're a pedant.
Botanically, Ananas is different, but not shockingly so. They're a terrestrial bromeliad, which is a little unusual -- virtually all the other bromeliads familiar to indoor gardeners are total or partial epiphytes (growing on tree branches).7 They're one of very few economically important plants using CAM photosynthesis, which PATSP readers may remember from the Cryptanthus cvv. profile. There are some triploid and tetraploid varieties of pineapple, which tend to have bigger fruits that develop later, compared to the usual diploid variety.8
Some Ananas species are pollinated by bats, and have flowers which open at night, but A. comosus is hummingbird-pollinated, and flowers are open during the day. Plants do not have to be pollinated in order to form fruit, and in fact almost everyone would prefer that they not be pollinated, because pollinated flowers produce seeds, which ruin the plant's commercial value. The seeds are described by one Davesgarden.com commenter as being smallish, brown, and resembling apple or pear seeds. Pineapple fruits are technically 100-200 individual, small fruits which are fused together,9 so that means a fruit full of 100-200 of these little, hard, brown seeds. Pineapple plants are self-incompatible: a particular individual cannot pollinate itself, nor will it produce seeds if it receives pollen from a genetically identical plant. Because of all this, Hawaii (which has no native hummingbirds of its own) bans the importation of hummingbirds, so as to protect the pineapple crop from being cross-pollinated and thereby worthless. I don't know how pineapple producers in areas like Costa Rica or Florida get around the hummingbird thing.10, 11
Anyway. An individual pineapple syncarp (fruit) is usually about a foot (30 cm) long and weighs something like 4 to 9 pounds (1.8-4.1 kg), though 20-lb. fruits (9.1 kg) have happened. The plants as a whole run about 3.3-4.9 feet tall (1-1.5 m) and about as wide, particularly in locations without frost, planted in soil. Container-grown plants, or plants in cooler areas, are smaller. Some (most?) varieties have sharp spines along the leaf margins. Like most bromeliads, plants are typically single rosettes of leaves, though occasionally two heads will form, and plants that have flowered and fruited will die slowly while producing offsets around the outside of the plant's base.
I took a bunch of notes about the history of which pineapple tycoons set up in which areas, but I'm leaving that out because it bores me and also because I'm trying to keep this profile under 60,000 words long. I'm also going to skip over the exact process by which pineapples are planted, grown, and harvested: it's more interesting than the tycoon thing, and I apologize to the one reader who was hoping to get full instructions on how to become a pineapple farmer, but we have to draw the line somewhere. (See the references at the end of the post, though, for some referrals to pages that will have the answers you seek.)
Culturally, the pineapple is associated with hospitality, for reasons I've never been clear on, and I had hoped to find out the explanation for that while writing this profile. It turns out that there are two related but different answers to the question, which are both right.
The first is that New England sea captains, after being off at sea for long periods of time, would announce their safe return by impaling a pineapple on a fence post outside their home. Because, I guess, everybody made a stop to pick up pineapples no matter what the trip, or something. This seems to me like a waste of a perfectly good pineapple (especially in context of the second explanation: wait for it), but I suppose it's fast. I mean, it'd be a lot more work for them to have to paint a sign, or sew a flag, or take out an "I have returned from my voyage. Come to my home and listen to my seafaring stories." ad in the paper or something. So having a pineapple outside the home was a signal that you were receiving guests, and then people who received guests professionally (hoteliers, e.g.) co-opted this personal signal and made it commercial, as businesspeople do, and eventually everybody was putting pineapples on everything but nobody knew exactly why. Even today, pineapple finials are occasionally seen, for example:
Though the signal has lost some of its strength over time. Now, if you see a pineapple finial at somebody's house and walk in and ask to hear their stories about wenching and sea-monsters, they just call the cops on you and act like you're the crazy one when you try to explain that the pineapple was an invitation, and then your husband has to come bail you out of jail just because some rich asshole doesn't know about the history of New England sea captaining.
I mean, like it's my fault that somebody's a hospitality tease.
Anyway. The second explanation is that pineapples, because there were only just so many of them in 17th and 18th-Century America, and they were expensive when you could find them, came to be the item to have at your party to show everybody how fabulously wealthy and cool you were. I watched a lot of rap videos to try to determine what the equivalent item would be in 2010, and my best guess is stripper poles.12
So, naturally, people who wanted to appear wealthy but weren't had a problem.13 This problem was neatly solved by the bakers or confectioners who imported the pineapples, in the form of -- and this time I am not shitting you at all -- pineapple rentals. People who were having a party could rent a pineapple, which was usually placed high up, as part of a centerpiece, so it would still be visible but nobody could reach it to eat it. Then the host would return the pineapple to the store the following day, where it would either be rented out again, or sold to someone who was wealthy enough to eat it for real.
This absolutely blows my mind. Of all the things a person could rent for a party, they were renting pineapples.14 And this sort of thing continued for a long time. I mean, it wasn't like they did it for a couple years and then everybody got tired of it. This went on for decades.
But anyway. So the hospitality association came about because, obviously, the best hosts would spare no expense in producing a great party, and so if one saw a pineapple at a party, that indicated that it was going to be an awesome party. Hence hospitality.
This all sounds very warm and cuddly so far: parties! Story-telling! Friends and family! There are, however, some less-cuddly aspects to the species. Like with Cissus quadrangularis, Ananas comosus has been tried as a cure for basically every malady known to humankind, and so no matter what you have, there will be someone, somewhere, telling you that pineapples are the perfect cure for it.15 Some problems seem to have more backing than others -- scurvy, obviously, we know works (pineapples are high in vitamin C; you can get 94% of your recommended daily allowance from one cup of pineapple). Likewise, it really is probably effective at expelling intestinal worms, and its purgative/laxative/emetic effects on the digestive system (particularly from unripe fruit, the descriptions of which sound damned unpleasant) are mentioned often enough that I think that's probably true as well. I'd also be surprised if science didn't eventually back up the female reproductive uses (inducing labor, miscarriage, or menstruation), because they're mentioned pretty consistently, and also because there's at least a little research showing that large amounts of pineapple juice can induce uterine contractions. In mice, granted. But still. This might still be just a folk myth with no basis in reality -- some folk myths are like that -- but it's a really persistent one.
On the negative side, it interferes with blood clotting, and consequently should not be eaten by people with certain kinds of kidney or liver disease, or hemophilia.16 The sharp marginal spines can inflict serious wounds, which can become infected; this is apparently (?) an occupational hazard for people who work with pineapples. Overconsumption of pineapple can cause the mouth to swell, lips or the corners of the mouth to bleed, and the whole digestive system to get unsettled (nausea, vomiting, etc.). Also some people's skin is easily irritated by pineapple juice or leaves, even if it's not being eaten.
The most interesting thing about pineapple's defense system, though, is bromelain. Bromelain is a mixture of two enzymes with the ability to break proteins into smaller pieces. Enzymes with this ability are called proteases, and all organisms have them. In the human body, they're used in the digestive system to break down the proteins we eat and in the blood to initiate blood clotting, as well as other, harder-to-explain things. Bromelain happens to be a particularly economical protease to extract, and most of the world's production comes from the flowering stalks after the fruits are cut off, which are both fairly high in bromelain and would otherwise be thrown away. Most of us have encountered bromelain in the form of meat tenderizer: sprinkled on uncooked meat, or added to a marinade, the bromelain softens the meat by cutting meat proteins into smaller pieces, essentially pre-digesting it and thereby making it more tender. Pineapple-based marinades work the same way.17
This all sounds great, but of course skin is made of proteins too. One of the occupational hazards of working with pineapple fruit continually is, I'm told, that your fingerprints dissolve away. They'll come back if you avoid contact with bromelain for long enough -- it's not permanent -- but still. Unsettling. (Though good for crime, I suppose: there's always a silver lining!) Also made of protein: gelatin, which is the reason why you can't add chunks of fresh pineapple to Jell-O and get it to set up properly. In order to set up, the individual molecules of protein in gelatin have to tangle around one another and stick together, in sort of the same way that throwing a bunch of long pieces of yarn together in a dryer and letting it run for a couple hours is eventually going to give you a big wad of knotted yarn. If, on the other hand, there's something in the mix that's cutting these long protein molecules into smaller pieces as they try to tangle up in one another (imagine there's a fairy inside the dryer with a pair of scissors, cutting the yarn into smaller and smaller pieces as it tumbles), then they'll never tangle properly, and the mix remains watery. You can read a somewhat longer explanation for all of this here, though my explanation is better. They don't have the yarn analogy.
But, some of you may be saying, I've eaten gelatin that had pineapple chunks in it before, and it was solid and everything, so you must be wrong.
Oh ye of little faith.
Cooking and canning both denature18 bromelain, so canned or cooked pineapple can be used in Jell-O just fine, if you really have to have pineapple in your gelatin. You just can't use it fresh from the pineapple itself. In the same way, you can't use canned or cooked pineapple to tenderize meat.
And now you know.
Bromelain is also used medically, especially in fighting inflammation, treating burns, and following surgery, though obviously you don't want to throw an enzyme that can dissolve your body just anywhere.
Random little tidbit of information I couldn't fit in anywhere else: the fibers in pineapple leaves are strong enough to be used to make cloth. Supposedly it's also really good-quality, comfortable, silky-feeling cloth, too, but of course that's just what they would want you to think.
So that's it for Part I of the plant profile, the trivia portion. To sum up: Carmen Miranda, Brazil/Paraguay, pine cones, life is hard for pedants, CAM photosynthesis, hummingbirds, wenching, being arrested for trespassing, pineapple rental, stripper poles, purgative, uterine contractions, proteases, fingerprints, Jell-O, cloth.
And now, I'll cover how to care for one as a houseplant, in Part II.
Pages consulted for this post, though not necessarily used:
- RECOMMENDED: Pineapples - Marietta College (large-scale commercial fruit production in Costa Rica)
- Abortifacient effect of steroids from Ananas comosus and their analogues on mice (.pdf; exactly what the title says)
- Pineapple - Wikipedia (various and sundry)
- Ananas comosus (Purdue.edu) (medical, large-scale production, ploidy, toxicity, cultivars)
- Ananas comosus (Davesgarden.com) (description of seeds, some personal medical anecdotes, outdoor growing, propagation)
- Botany Photo of the Day: Ananas comosus (history, medical anecdote)
- Ananas comosus (Stokes Tropicals) (history)
- RECOMMENDED: ITA's Study Portal: Pineapple (Ananas comosus L.) (botany, cultivars, history, medical, use as fiber)
- Poisonous plants: Ananas comosus (toxicology, medical)
- Heart Diseases as related to Ananas comosus (basically worthless)
- Pineapple Fruit History (history)
- Pineapple Fruit Facts (botany, a little about large-scale production)
- Floridata: Ananas comosus (outdoor growing, a little botany)
- The Pineapple as a Symbol of Hospitality (hospitality; nearly worthless)
- RECOMMENDED: The Story of the Pineapple, a Symbol of Hospitality (hospitality)
- Pineapple as Symbol of Hospitality (hospitality)
- Pineapple, Princess of Fruits and Symbol of Hospitality (hospitality, history of production)
- WikiAnswers (hospitality)
- Social History of the Pineapple (history)
B/W picture of Carmen Miranda - Wikipedia
Color picture of Carmen Miranda - Wikimedia Commons
John Rose and Charles II - Wikipedia entry for pineapple
clump of plants in soil - Bouba, from Wikimedia Commons page for Ananas comosus
close-up of flower - Anonymous, at Wikipedia
fruit on black background - my own
field of cultivated pineapples - hiyori13 at Wikimedia Commons
finial - my own (photo, not my own finial)
stripper pole - Themaven, at Wikipedia page for Pole dance
fruit at market - David at Wikimedia Commons (public domain)
plant with bright red fruit, close-up of fruit - both H. Zell at Wikimedia Commons
1 Carmen Miranda was born in Portugal, but her family relocated to Brazil when she was very young. So, less Brazilian than I would like, but still Brazilian by any measure that counts.
2 (Ref.) Though Wikipedia is currently crediting the Guaraní for the name. And some sources say the name was "nana," not "anana." Either way, the Tupi and/or Guaraní would have interpreted a significant percentage of doo-wop music as being about pineapples. ("Sha-na-na-na-na")
3 Comosus, the species name, is from the Latin for "tufted."
4 I found one site in my searching that was sort of confused on this point, and had gotten pineapples, a single genus, mixed up with the whole bromeliad family, and made reference to "2000 species of pineapple," which is certainly incorrect.
5 Specifically, these are the red pineapple, Ananas bracteatus, and the delightfully repetitive dwarf pineapple, Ananas nanus. Red pineapples are alleged to taste similar to A. comosus, but less juicy. I couldn't find any reviews of the dwarf pineapple.
If you live in the sort of family where grandmothers are called "Nana," find a dwarf pineapple plant to give to your grandmother immediately: the joy of being able to refer to "Nana's Ananas nanus" will surely be worth whatever it costs to obtain the plant.
And actually, as far as it goes, if one grandmother is named Anna, and there's another grandmother from whom she must be distinguished, and Anna's big into baking, and willing to use nearly inedible fruits in said baking, then one could, in theory, someday, refer to "Nana Anna's anise 'n' Ananas nanus cookies." It is my understanding that if a person ever gets to say something like that in a context where it actually refers to a real, non-hypothetical thing, and the reference makes sense to everyone in the conversation, then you win at life forever.
6 There's that word again!
7 And, again, I need to correct some misinformation I found: one site said that since pineapples were bromeliads, they don't get nutrition through their roots and therefore the quality of the potting mix they're in is irrelevant. This is really not true at all for pineapples, and it's only sort of true for most of the other bromeliads grown as houseplants.
8 I've covered triploidy, tetraploidy, etc., at some length in the Phalaenopsis profile, which you can see if you're interested in the subject, but the short explanation is: most plants have two copies of each chromosome, but triploids have three, and tetraploids have four.
9 The botanical term for this is syncarp, which you should try to remember because later there's going to be a quiz. Other syncarps you may be familiar with: raspberries (Rubus sp.), blackberries (also Rubus sp.), mulberries (Morus sp.).
10 Hummingbirds are strictly New World species, so pineapple producers elsewhere, like Thailand, don't have to worry about pollination from native birds. I suspect, but could not confirm, that Asian countries probably prohibit importation of hummingbirds in the same way Hawaii does. Be interesting to know, if anybody happens to.
11 This page says that the sheer scale of the Costa Rican plantations, as well as the fact that plantations generally only grow a single variety at a time, keeps hummingbird pollination from being a problem.
12 It's pretty much my only guess, actually. So yeah, pineapples were the stripper poles of the 1700s. Why not?
13 Those people never have a good time, actually. They're like pedants.
14 One of the husband's suggestions when I asked for suggestions for the Ananas comosus "person" besides Carmen Miranda was "harpist," on the grounds that hiring a harpist to play at your party served the same sort of purpose: it shows you have money, and you're classy. Carmen won out in the end because of the Brazil and fruit-on-the-head parallels, and because the mental image of a harpist with a stripper pole was just too bizarre (yet tempting) to work into the post, but I do like this analogy.
15 A partial list of the conditions pineapples supposedly fix: pain relief, treatment for warts/corns/tumors, to induce labor/miscarriage/menstruation, to increase sweating, as a laxative and/or purgative, to kill intestinal parasites (particularly worms of various types), bladder ailments, scarlet fever, sprains, diuretic, to cure venereal disease, respiratory ailments, seasickness, sore throat, scurvy, and hemorrhoids. (Apparently everything cures hemorrhoids; Cissus quadrangularis and Euphorbia tirucalli will also, supposedly, fix you right up. I do not recommend you try any of these, especially the Euphorbia.)
16 Wikiposedly. I have my doubts on this one, because the main component of pineapple juice that would affect blood clotting, bromelain, which I'll talk about in just a second, wouldn't get into the blood stream on its own just from ingestion. If there's anything else in pineapples that would affect blood clotting, nobody has anything specific to say about what it is. So if this is you, ask your doctor about pineapple consumption. And then come back and tell me what s/he said.
17 Papayas (Carica papaya) contain a similar enzyme, papain, which is also used in meat tenderizers. I don't know which, bromelain or papain, is more common in such products, but both have been used at one time or another. Figs, kiwi fruit, and a handful of other edibles also contain proteases which make them problematic for the great gelatin-oriented chefs of the world.
18 Proteins, in order to function properly and do whatever they're supposed to do, have to be folded in specific ways. Certain treatments, like adding salt, alcohol, acid, or heat, can cause proteins to misfold, making them no longer able to do whatever enzymatic function they're supposed to do. When you cook an egg white, and it changes from clear to white, that's the result of its proteins being denatured by the heat; instead of being compact little globs that float around one another in water, they get stretched out and tangle in one another, leaving a solid (or at least solider) cooked egg instead of a watery raw egg. This is also why cooking food makes it safer to eat: any pathogenic organisms that might be present also contain proteins, and if their proteins become denatured, then they die and can't hurt you.