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Peerless Pineapple

By Audrey Stallsmith


Everybody had something gorgeous, and besides, there were pounds of unknown sweets: Turkish delight, crystallized pineapple, and such-like things which, the children thought, only the splendour of London could provide. And Paul boasted of these sweets among his friends. "Real pineapple, cut off in slices, and then turned into crystal--fair grand!"

D. H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers

Mom's Thanksgiving salad wouldn't be complete without pineapple. But this exotic probably didn't grace the original feast. Although Columbus came across the fruit on the island of Guadaloupe in 1493, it proved so difficult to ship that fresh pineapple remained a delicacy in colonial America.

So rare, in fact, that only the best hostesses could afford it. And, according to tradition, sea captains would announce their return home by displaying pineapples outside their doors.

Ironically enough then, the spiny plant that Carib Indians had once planted around their villages to repel intruders became the symbol of hospitality. You can often see its image carved into the bedposts or door posts of old houses-even incorporated into crochet patterns!

Its official name, ananas cosmosus, derives from the native anana or "excellent fruit," while cosmosus means "with long hair growing in tufts". Columbus called the fruit "pine of the Indians," perhaps due to its resemblance to a pinecone.

Ananas probably originated in South America and gradually made its way north--with restless Indian tribes--to Central America and the Caribbean, the plant being much more suited to travel than its fruit is. A succulent, it can survive without soil for long periods of time, due to the moisture already stored in its stiff leaves.

And it can thrive on land too dry for most other crops. So lengthy ocean voyages and semi-arid new climes didn't bother pineapple plants at all. Within a century after Columbus "discovered" them, they had reached Africa, India, and the Orient.

You can start your own pineapple by cutting off the crown of leaves at the top of one of the fruits, leaving it to dry out for a few days, then setting it in a pot full of soil. Unless you live in a very tropical climate, however, you'll need to keep the plant indoors for most of the year. And you may have difficulty getting it to bloom under those conditions.

On pineapple plantations, however, each plant produces a cluster of a hundred or more ½ to 1-inch lavender flowers. Those blooms eventually "flesh out" into each other to become a single pineapple fruit, which ripens about six months later. Side-shoots, called ratoons, will produce additional crops, dubbed the "first ratoon," "second ratoon," etc. But the fields are usually replanted after no more than a couple ratoon crops.

We tend to associate pineapple with Hawaii, but the plant wasn't introduced there until 1790. And, although that state was once the biggest producer of the fruit, Southeast Asia dominates the market now.

Bromelain, the same enzyme in fresh pineapple that prevents gelatins from gelling, has some amazing health benefits as well. Because, when ingested, it soothes almost any type of inflammation and swelling, pineapple has been recommended to treat arthritis, bruises, bursitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, gout, sinusitis, tendonitis, etc.

In The Green Pharmacy, James Duke reports that "bromelain can help the body get rid of immune antigen complex, compounds that are implicated in some arthritic conditions." John Heinerman, in his Encyclopedia of Fruits, Vegetables, and Herbs, recommends that any persons needing to have impacted wisdom teeth removed should consume large amounts of pineapple and pineapple juice prior to the surgery. He promises that "swelling will be extremely minimal," as a result, and pain "practically nonexistent."

The fact that bromelain also thins the blood might, however, cause some complications! But that effect could also make it helpful in preventing strokes. And, since the enzyme breaks down proteins too, it may relieve indigestion, remove corns and warts, and kill internal parasites (worms). Pineapple also contains glutamine, which helps prevent ulcers, and its fruit acids-when applied externally-can strip off dead skin cells.

Most of us, however, would be quite happy to eat this succulent tropical even if it wasn't good for us. It's an indispensable ingredient in "sweet-and-sour" dishes, upside-down cakes, salads, etc. It's no wonder that pineapple means, "you are perfect," in the Language of Flowers!

Plant plate is from F. E. Kohler's Neuefte und Wichtigfte Medizinal-Pflanzen, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden Library