Curious Questions: Why are pineapples called pineapples, when they’re not pines and not apples?

Martin Fone delves into the curious history of one of the world's most popular tropical fruits.

What a curious fruit a pineapple is. As a child, so unfamiliar was I with the pineapple in its natural state that it was a shock to discover that it grew on the ground rather than from a branch of a tree. The nearest I ever got to one was a can of slices, over which I poured Carnation milk, and a bag of pineapple chunks, hard boiled pineapple flavoured sweets with a rough coating of sugar on the outside which took off the skin of the roof of my mouth if I sucked too vigorously.

Originating from the inland areas of what are now Brazil and Paraguay, pineapples were cultivated extensively throughout the Central Americas, prized for the deliciously sweet yellow fruit inside the tough outer exterior. The European love affair with the fruit began when Christopher Columbus arrived on Guadeloupe on November 4, 1493. Coming across a deserted Carib village, he and his crew ate their way through a mound of freshly plucked pineapples. Starved of vitamin C and anything that was remotely sweet, they proved an instant hit with the matelots, as they did with his patrons, when Columbus brought specimens back to Spain.

Delicious as the fruit was, the plants proved to be extremely difficult to grow in the cooler climes of Europe. A Dutch cloth merchant, Pieter de la Court, cracked the problem in the 1650s, after experimenting in Leyden with various forms of stove to heat rooms in which to grow exotic fruits and plants. Frustratingly, it was not until 1737 with the publication of a description of his methodology complete with illustrations that his ideas were disseminated widely across Europe.

‘A pineapple was the most luxurious of all luxury items, the ultimate status symbol’

Here in England, though, Sir Matthew Decker produced on his estate in Richmond what was described as an English-ripened pineapple. So proud was he that he presented the fruit to a grateful King George I and had it immortalised on canvas in 1720 by Theodorus Netscher. However, the plaudits for growing the first pineapple successfully went to the gardeners at Dorney Court in Buckinghamshire, a feat accomplished in 1722. The following year Philip Miller, curator of what is now the Chelsea Physic Garden, built a huge ‘pineapple stove’ to grow the fruits in earnest, after conducting on-site research at de la Court’s premises.

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Even though the technology was now available to grow the fruit successfully using hothouses known as ‘pineries’, the sheer cost of the equipment involved, never mind the time, effort and labour, meant that a pineapple was the most luxurious of all luxury items, the ultimate status symbol. In Georgian England if you wanted to make a splash at a dinner party, you would place a pineapple at the centre of your table, often on a pedestal, where it dominated proceedings and could be seen as your guests entered the dining room. Those seated nearest the pineapple were especially favoured.

For proof of the fruit’s status, look no further than The Dunmore Pineapple in Dunmore Park, Airth, Scotland. It was built in 1761 as an estate summer house and garden folly.

The pineapple, though, was not there to be eaten — perish the thought. It was to be admired, to demonstrate to your guests and the world at large that no expense had been spared. If you could not afford to buy a pineapple outright, during the 18th century fruit merchants would rent a pineapple out for the evening. Woe betide you, if it came back damaged. In artistic circles, the pineapple symbolised hospitality and generosity and by the 1760s porcelain dishes and teapots in the shape of the fruit were à la mode.

With all the handling that the fruit had received and the length of time it had been on display, if the pineapple was finally cut open, it would often be found to be rotten and full of maggots. The recent ITV adaptation of Jane Austen’s unfinished novel, Sanditon, had a scene where, to Lady Denham’s horror, the impetuous Arthur Parker leapt up from the table and proceeded to carve open her pineapple to reveal its rotten state. When the pineapple had run its course, perhaps wriggling of its own accord on its silver pedestal, the prudent hostess would simply throw it out in a further display of ostentation.

‘The word was first recorded in English in 1398, almost a century before Columbus had first brought the fruit to Europe’

What became the most dominant cultivar, ‘Smooth Cayenne’, started out in a hothouse in England, grown from seeds from the Antilles, and then exported out to warmer climes to be grown on a commercial basis. Over time the increase in supply coupled with faster vessels and better ways of storing the fruit on board meant that the pineapple was no longer a fruit restricted to the über-rich.

Cheaper it may have been, but it was still out the reach of the poorer classes who had to make do with enjoying the intoxicating sweetness of the pineapple in the form of jams and confectionary. The arrival of the democratising tinned pineapple had to wait until 1900 when James Dole established the first processing plant on Hawaii, the efficiency of which was considerably enhanced when one of his employees, Henry Ginaca, in 1911, invented an automatic peeling and coring machine. So successful was Dole’s company that for seven decades it produced around 75% of the world’s pineapples, transforming what was once the epitome of luxury into a fruit within the reach of most people’s pocket.

As it is neither a pine nor an apple, nor even a single fruit, rather a group of separate berries fused together, why do we call it a pineapple? It is even more puzzling when you consider that the word was first recorded in English in 1398, almost a century before Columbus had first brought the fruit to Europe. Was this English prescience at its greatest?

Alas, no. At that time the word pineapple was used to describe the reproductive organs of conifer trees, pine cones. When Captain John Smith first saw the fruit in 1624, he described it as a pineapple, probably because he thought that it looked like a superannuated cone. He had a point. In an egregious example of etymological eviction by the end of 17th century the poor conifer trees’ sexual organ had to give way to the sweet exotic fruit and seek refuge in a word coined from the Greek kōnos, meaning cone shaped. The pine cone was born.

The pineapple’s botanical name is Ananas comosus, ‘nanas’ meaning excellent fruit in the language of the indigenous Tupi people from Brazil and ‘comosus’, Latin for hairy or tufted. The scientific tag lives on in languages such as French, German and Dutch, where a pineapple is called ‘ananas’ and, indeed, until early into the 19th century it was a variant for the fruit in English, as Thomas Baldwin’s manual, Short Practical Directions for The Culture of The Ananas; Or Pine Apple Plant (1818) shows.

The specimens Columbus brought back from Guadeloupe, though, were classified as piña des Indes, ‘pinecone of the Indies’, and the Spanish use the word piña to describe the fruit. Many of us will recognise the word in my favourite form of the pineapple, a Piña Colada.

A very curious fruit, indeed.