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Pineapples have the gift of hitching rides

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By John Bartlit

Pineapples first sprang up deep in South America, in the region where Brazil and Paraguay now meet. The wonders of their shape, color and taste led people to begin carting them outward from there.

Over hundreds of years, pineapples worked their way from native tribe to tribe and to islands in the Caribbean. One of them was the lush, volcanic island of Guadeloupe, where Columbus landed in November 1493. Imagine sailors ashore amid the wonders of a “new world,” where they met with pineapples. The story builds.

From this second voyage, Columbus brought pineapples back to Spain. Most likely no more than pineapple crowns arrived intact, which could start new pineapples. News of pineapples spread across Europe and spurred attempts to grow pineapples in the adverse climate.

In those same years, seafarers ranged far around the globe. Pineapples reached the Philippines on Spanish ships on occasions in the 1500s and after. Later the fruit reached Hawaii. By tricks of fate, today’s icons of tropical islands got

Early seafarers from New England brought pineapples back from trips to the Caribbean. Pineapples were big treats in the colonies, as much as in South America, Europe and the islands, and then a notch more. Their novelty and scarcity brought a price higher than many people could afford.

Yankee ingenuity found an early answer, strange though it was: Pineapples were rented for a fancy dinner party, displayed grandly on the table to be admired, but not eaten, and returned the next day. None would deny the fruit’s native name of “ananas,” which means “excellent fruit.”

New Englanders’ connections to pineapples spread further. James Dole grew up near Boston. He moved to Honolulu in 1899 at the age of 22. Before the Great Depression of the 1930s, Dole’s plantations in Hawaii produced over 75 percent of the world’s pineapple crop. The chief means to market was canning.

But business conditions and leaders don’t last forever. Times move on. Business factors that can change include technologies for farming and shipping fruit, labor supplies and wages, and consumer tastes. Decisions have shifted pineapple production from Hawaii to other countries. Today, Costa Rica, Brazil and the Philippines lead the world sales of pineapples. Hawaii now grows pineapples only to fill the Hawaiian market.

Pineapples have been spreading among the world’s population for some seven or eight centuries or more. Fashions of thought have come and gone in many fields. New sciences have risen, such as botany, chemistry, plant chemistry and ecology, which themselves grow in breadth and depth.

Indeed, pineapples owe their popular taste and smell to nature’s own potion of chemicals – ethyl butyrate, polyphenols and a dash of bromelain.

Review the journeys. From an unlikely start in the backcountry around Paraguay, pineapples gained renown as a proper gift for royalty. The industry’s numbers kept improving as pineapples became more frequent among common folk.

Steps along the way involved venturers, shippers and farmers of different eras. By the 20th century, crop experiments were being done by the Pineapple Research Institute of Hawaii.

If asked, any class of consumers would guess that such an excellent fruit for people to enjoy is an equally big draw for tropical bugs and blights. That’s a safe bet. The denser the farming the bigger the attraction for pests.

If asked further, people might also guess why pineapples at the store are marred so little by signs of persistent pests. How could this be? Guesses about pest controls tend toward herbicides and pesticides; others will touch on selective breeding of pest resistant species. Both guesses are right.

Discoveries are always waiting their chance. From each discovery, pathways of invention soon head out in all directions. The journey is never-ending.

Among today’s issues with pineapples are the types and amounts of pesticides that are being used and the effects of those pesticides on humans and in the environment.

Agronomists are working on answers.