pierre laszlo

Ananas comosus L. (Bromeliaceae)

Plant of the month    (©Pierre Laszlo, all rights reserved)
Ananas comosus L. (Bromeliaceae)

World War II and World War I continue to haunt many of us. Likewise, to some Americans their Civil War. Yet earlier events feel less traumatic, buried that they are in the sands of time. Which does not erease their imprint, it may still affect our present.
The pineapple — in fact a composite of numerous fruitlets, as its skin shows — is proof. The current world production of pineapples continues to resonate with the original diffusion of its cultivation during the sixteenth century.
The most recent statistics from the Food and Agriculture Organization, for 2012, shows the eight largest producers as Thailand, Brazil, Costa Rica, Philippines, Indonesia, India, Nigeria and Mexico, in that order.
Domestication of this plant occurred during pre-Columbian times by the Tupi-Guarani Indians in southeastern Brazil. It accompanied these tribes in their northward migrations to the Antilles, northern Andes and central America, before the arrival of the Spanards. Pineapple was consumed by the Aztecs, even before the conquest of Mexico.
Christopher Columbus encountered the pineapple in 1493, on the leeward island of Guadeloupe and brought it back to Spain. The Spaniards introduced pineapple cultivation into the Philippines during the early sixteenth century. In 1548, Portuguese traders introduced the pineapple to India. The Portuguese also brought it to both the west and east coasts of Africa. Pineapple plants were reported growing in China in 1594.
Thus there was a globalization of sorts during the sixteenth century. The Jesuits and their missions to the Far East were also a major factor. That many of the countries to which pineapple cultivation was introduced at that time continue to be leading producers and exporters today is notesworthy: history runs through us, collectively, as blood through the body.
Thailand is the exception. Production of pineapples in that country dates to the 1970s. Most of the pineapple farms are located along the east and west coasts of the Gulf of Thailand. The resounding success of this cultivation stems from its having followed a Jeffersonian scheme: smallholders, generally occupying between 1 to 5 ha of land, constitute more than 95% of all producers. Cultivation was initially a free trade enterprise, most growers by now are under contract with canning plants.  
That pineapple cultivation spread so quickly around the world came about also as a side-effect of the start of our collective addiction to sugar. Spaniards brought in experts from the Canary Islands to help established sugarcane in the New World. It was first shipped back from Santo Domingo to Europe in 1516.
In like manner to sugarcane, the pineapple is sweet: 10 g sugars per 100 g, distributed as 6 g of sucrose, 2 g of fructose and a little under 2 g of glucose.
Another factor came into play to explain the worldwide spread of this plant. Its adaptability to a variety of climates, although predominantly subtropical and tropical, stems from a rather unique feature. The pineapple plant belongs neither to the C3, nor to the C4 type (seen the C3-C4 entry in the Plant of the month series).  It belongs to a much scarcer type, the CAM (Crassulacean Acid Metabolism). CAM plants are adapted to extremely hot and dry environments. Accounting for about 10% of the plant species, they include cacti, orchids, maternity plant, wax plant, pineapple, Spanish moss, and some ferns. Among them, the pineapple is the only one heavily cultivated.
In CAM plants, stomata open at night to take in CO2 and fix it into malic acid — a molecule with four carbon atoms — for storage in the large vacuoles of their photosynthetic cells. Stomata are tiny windows, the size of a miniscule pinprick, through which leaves let in the air, with its CO2. In the heat of the day, the stomata close tightly to conserve water and the malic acid is decarboxylated to release CO2 for fixing by the photosynthetic factory.  The significant advantage is that CAM plants use much less water than either C3 or C4 plants.
This, together with a highly efficient sugar-producing process, explains why mankind began pineapple cultivation, eagerly and early in history.
To some Europeans, discovery of the New World amounted to admission into Earthly Paradise. The pineapple fruit was just one of many delights. The French explorer of Brazil, Jean de Léry, described the pineapple plant in a book, published in 1578. With that book, he introduced the Tupi-Gurani name, ananas, into French. In order to convey the appearance of the plant to his readers, he compared it to a gladiolus (for the leaves), a thistle and an artichoke. He waxed lyrical about the melting in the mouth taste, about the sweetness. The smell, he compared to that of raspberries.
To jump forward by a few centuries and to expulsion of mankind from this Garden of Eden, Arie Jan Haagen-Smit (1900-1977), an analytical chemist who was a professor at Caltech, was analyzing precisely these pineapple volatiles in 1949. In so doing, his apparatus with freeze-out traps sampled the contaminants in Pasadena smog. Instead of the lovely pineapple fragrance, a stench resulted. This pioneering study led to the first measures for curbing air pollution in the Los Angeles area. 
But let us return to the immediate aftermath of discovery. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, pineapples were an amazing luxury in Western Europe. Only princes — King Ferdinand of Spain as early as 1530 — and extremely wealthy people could afford it. Burghers had to content themselves with images of the fruit on still-life paintings, such as those by the Dutch artist Jan van Os (1744-1808). The very first picture of a pineapple was an etching in the 1535 edition of Historia General y Natural de las Indias, by Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdéz (the original edition appeared in 1526). The author of that book extolled the sensory qualities of the fruit , its ‟fragrance of more than perfect peaches, its flavor better than peaches — more juicy.‟
Pineapples were grown in heated glasshouses, in England during the eighteenth century. About the 1770s, pineapples could be rented to adorn dinner parties. However, they cost a guinea each, two if eaten. Which translates to about US $ 200, in today’s (2014) currency.
Carved images of pineapples became, from the eighteenth century on, an architectural decorative element. Was it a symbol of hospitality, on the part of houseowners, as has been alleged ? This is disputed, it may well have become so only in recent, post World War II times. 
When did pineapples become affordable? When a market opened up for them, i.e., with the rise of the middle class. The Industrial Revolution brought steamships that reduced the duration of the transatlantic journey, from Caribbean plantations to Western Europe. Another development, also begun during the nineteenth century, was canning. Henceforth, it could be grown in remote locations, Hawaï for instance, and be shipped to various destinations. Pineapples became generally available only at the turn of the twentieth century.