Few Americans know what a really good fresh pineapple tastes like. Only those who have traveled or lived in the Tropics where they are grown know the soft, sweet, juicy fruit as it comes fully ripened from the plant. We can get just an inkling of the flavor by comparing sweet canned pineapple juice, made from ripe fruit without adding sugar, with the hand, tart fresh pineapples sold in grocery stores.
Why this great difference? A large quantity of starch is stored in the plant stem. Just before ripening, this starch turns to sugar and is carried into the fruit; the sugar content sometimes increased 100 percent in this last stage. Unfortunately, fresh pineapples cannot be shipped very far after they are fully ripe. For this reason, and because raw pineapple is troublesome to prepare, Americans eat most of theirs out of cans.
Columbus found the pineapple, Anas comosus, on the island of Guadeloupe during his second voyage in 1493. The pineapple apparently had been brought to the West Indies by the Indians. Its native home is South America, in Brazil and probably Paraguay. Its European name anana, derives from the Guaraní Indian language, in which a signified fruit in general and nana meant excelling. This tribe, native to Paraguay, overran the country's north to Panama and is believed to have spread the “excellent fruit” throughout northern South America long before Spanish explorers found the fruit in the West Indies and in Mexico.
The Spaniards called the fruit “pina de Indias” because of the general resemblance to the pinecone. The English called it pineapple, although it bears no resemblance to the apple. Other European tongues retained the native name, or slight modifications of it.
After the discovery of America, the fruit was quickly disseminated throughout the world. The fruit generally is seedless, but the suckers from which the plants are propagated will stand long handling and still grow. Thus, there was no problem distributing the plants, even by slow sailing ships of the 16th century.
Fruits taken to Europe were greatly esteemed, and soon gardeners of northern Europe were attempting to produce them under glass. A wealthy merchant near Leiden, in the Netherlands, is credited with first producing mature fruit under glass, early in the 18th century. Glasshouse growers in England and on the Continent soon were producing fruit for sale, and many publications described growing methods.
This industry flourished during the 19th century, and growing pineapple under glass for the European trade is still a major industry in the Azores today. But development of large plantations in the Tropics, together with improved shipping facilities, has made commercial production under glass generally uneconomic.
Pineapples grow on a herbaceous plant with stiff, large, grass like leaves. Because the leaves contain tissues especially adapted for retaining moisture, pineapples can survive long dry periods and grow in semiarid regions.
New plants are produced by setting the offsets, or shoots, taken from the mother plant. Where cultivation is on large scale, as in Hawaii, the ground is often covered with asphalt-treated paper to conserve moisture. The shoots are set through holes in the paper. Rain or dew collects on the leaves and flows inward to the stem and down through the holes.
Between 15,000 and 20,000 plants are set to an acre. In 12 to 18 months after setting, each plant produces a single fruit on a stem two to three feet high. After the fruit is harvested, the shoots along the stem grow a second crop about 12 months later. A plant may last for years but fruit size tends to decrease. Commercial products harvest two to five crops before the plantings are torn out and reset.
Although the pineapple is one of the most widely grown of tropical fruits, about four-fifths of the pineapple entering world trade comes from the Hawaiian Islands; and most of these are sold in the United States.