During a stroll in the Halifax Public Gardens this past Canada Day, I was pleasantly surprised to see a growing pineapple. It recalled to my mind a corner fresco of a gardener proudly displaying a pineapple in the ‘Belaria’, or summer residence, of the Schwarzenbergs in the Český Krumlov castle in Bohemia. As this 2014 article in Garden History by Ruth Levitt and 2018 piece in the Paris Review by Nina-Sophia Miralles explain, the pineapple was a prized luxury item for early modern Europeans, especially given the challenges of growing pineapples in colder climes. How did the pineapple end up in Europe, and around the world?
From about 2000 BCE, the pineapple was cultivated by the Tupi-Guarani peoples living in areas around Brazil and Paraguay. They must have been envied by the tribe of less skilled gardeners who could not even maintain proper hair health, their ‘Toupee-Guarani’ neighbours. The Tupi-Guarani tribes traded with Caribbean islanders, who brought the pineapple to their domains. In Christopher Columbus’s second voyage to the Caribbean in 1493, he and his crew brought back specimens of the pineapple back to Spain. The Tupi and Carib name for the fruit is nanas (‘excellent fruit’, and the source of ananas, as it’s known in many European languages), while the Spanish called it piña (‘little pine’). In the seventeenth century, it acquired the English name ‘pine-apple’. Other pine-appellations didn’t catch on, however: e.g., the breeds sold by a 19th c. US marketer as pine-‘n-dandy; or the bland Norwegian aquatic variety of the fruit, associated with dead parrots (according to the noted British etymologist Montgomery Python), the ‘pine-in-&-for-the-fjords’.
The pineapple thus came to the attention of European colonisers in the Americas. Jamaica, seized by the British in the seventeenth century, became so associated with it that the Great Seal of 1692 contains images of pineapples–which have been retained in the coat of arms of independent Jamaica. It has also entered into the local parlance: upon meeting someone after a long absence, the traditional greeting to ask how well they’re doing is, ‘Jamaica lot of pineapple juice?’ The pineapple was noted by the British collector and natural historian Hans Sloane in 1687-88, though he complained that it was too sour and thus required soaking in fortified wine. Perhaps it also left a bitter taste in his mouth, due to the lack of reimbursement on family credit for his shipments of ‘Pine-Apple rum’ (as it was called): i.e., unpaid Sloanes.
Most Europeans would not see a pineapple in the ‘flesh’ until the seventeenth century. John Locke regarded the pineapple as the symbol of an exotic object that is not known until seen and tasted. He may very well have also argued that there is no innate idea of a dried grape in the ‘blank slate’ of a newborn child, who thus possesses a tabula raisin. In an August 9, 1661 diary entry, the English writer John Evelyn recorded that he saw ‘Queen-Pine’, a present to King Charles II; and he later notes that he tasted ‘King-Pine’–a term perhaps coined by the British monarch, as he associated its majestic shape and rarity with the divine ‘ripe’ of kings. Evelyn, like Sloane, was underwhelmed by the taste, but considered that its flavour may have been impaired by the long voyage from the West Indies. Whatever its flavour, the fruit was associated with royalty and empire–Charles II even commissioned a painting of a courtier presenting him with a pineapple–and thus displaced lesser fruit-related titles of aristocracy and monarchy, e.g., ‘Pears of the Realm’ or ‘Im-pear-ial Majesty’. We may speculate that the British monarch in 1702-14 was so secretly besotted with the pineapple (a fruit mentioned in the recent film The Favourite) that her court gave her the nickname ‘Queen Anne-anas’.
Early modern European gardeners struggled to grow the pineapple. Many attempts to grow pineapple plants from West Indian specimens failed due to the requirement of constant soil and air temperatures of 21 degrees. The breakthrough was achieved by the Dutch collector, patron, and artist Agneta Block in the late 1680s or early 1690s. She cultivated them in her home at Vijverhof, a small town between Amsterdam and Utrecht. It was fortunate that she was not living in these nearby cities, given the capital’s reputation for Amsterdam-poor soil temperatures and the Utrecht-erous conditions in the south; not to mention the self-evidently unfavourable environment for fruit in Rotterdam. She was followed by other successful Dutch growers, who in some cases enjoyed the fruitful patronage of the House of Orange. The key to their success amidst the cold and damp of the Netherlands? The use of greenhouses, which drove would-be pineapplicants in the rest of Europe green with envy.
After the Glorious Revolution in 1688, the new monarchs William of Orange and Mary brought plants from Holland to Britain, and their gardeners set about growing pineapples at Hampton Court. This set the stage for the eighteenth-century British fad for pineapple cultivation. Aristocrats and the well-to-do constructed ‘pineries’ to grow pineapples: these were special green houses with sloping glass panes, raised beds, and heating stoves. They were on an elevated, heated, and pane-staking quest to grow Eng-licious pineapples. The fruit would take some 3-4 years to bloom, costing the equivalent of some ten thousand Canadian dollars today. Pineapples were displayed from party to party until they rotted; they could be rented by the wealthy unable to grown their own; and by the 1770s, the expression ‘pineapple of the finest flavour’ came to mean the best of the best (as in, ‘the EMSP is the pineapple of the finest flavour’). The pineapple was at its pine-acle of glory.
The shape of pineapple and its crown of leaves appealed to architects, craftsmen, and designers alike. Pineapple decorations adorned buildings through Britain, including the tips of towers of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and, most eccentrically, the entire cupola of the hothouse at Dunmore Park in Scotland (pictured above). This fruity shape ‘ap-peeled’ to British designers, while the pineapple’s carbohydrate content inspired a new style of ‘starchitechture’.
By the nineteenth century, pineapple cultivation was taking place throughout Europe, as well as in Africa, Asia, and of course South, Central, and North America–including the True North variety known as the ‘Canadananas’ especially grown in Alberta by loving Korean popstar-horticulturalists in K-ananas-kiss Park.
’til next week,
Director, Early Modern Pine-apoplectic Studies Program