Samui Wining & Dining
Tropical Pick

The odd little pineapple.

 

4-01Nature is strange and wonderful. The countless thousands – millions even – of different species is staggering. When it comes to flora, the diversity and beauty will astound you. And yet, in all of this vast variety, there is a strong basis of order. Animals of one family all have the same characteristics. Plants multiply by sprouting new babies or forming seeds. Edible roots and stems we call vegetables. Fruit grows on trees and is the (usually edible) part that surrounds and protects the seed. Mostly, it’s all very neat.

      But every now and then nature enjoys a joke. It’s as if when God was making the world, he worked hard at it for six days, looking forward to his day of rest. And on the final Saturday, somewhere in the late afternoon, he got a bit bored and started to mess around, just before he’d finished creating. Perhaps he’d already finished and had an hour to spare – who knows. But the fact is, in among all that neatness and order, here and there you’ll find something truly bizarre.

      Like the cashew nut, for instance. This is a normal example of a tree that bears fruit. But instead of the seed forming inside the fruit, it grows on the outside, like some kind of bad wig, perched on top of a pointy bald head. But, to be fair (and whether it was a joke or not) nature took care to protect this

outer seed by surrounding it in a poisonous shell. Fair enough. There are many other similar oddities. And another example that was definitely created last thing on the Saturday, and one of the most common fruits of all, is the pineapple.

      A great many people who come to Samui do so for the climate. They’re escaping the chill of their own climes. And therefore it’s safe to say that the only place they’ve ever seen a pineapple back home is in a supermarket. Just about everybody knows what a pineapple looks like. It’s probably the same for coconuts, too. But, in the same way that coconuts growing on a tree look nothing like the coconuts in a supermarket, pineapples growing in their natural habitat come as a bit of a surprise, too – more of this in just a moment.

     Firstly, the family that the pineapple belongs to is surprising. Usually its other relatives in the bromeliad group are a blaze of colour – every hue in the rainbow – and prized and collected for the beauty of their floral outbursts. The majority of the family are ‘epiphytic’, growing supported by other plant forms. And a lot of these you’ll have to look upwards to see in their natural habitat; they are aerial, hanging in the air, with long, dangling roots. They are all glorious. All except for the pineapple. It’s the only bromeliad that’s edible. Where, normally, all its brothers and sisters develop a middle cluster of fabulous blooms, the pineapple does not. The pineapple, instead, develops . . . a pineapple.

      These odd fruits were first discovered by Christopher Columbus, on his third voyage (to South America), in 1498. One of his crew recorded the discovery: “It is in the shape of a pine-cone, twice as big, which fruit is excellent and it can be cut with a knife, like a turnip, and it seems to be wholesome.” The passing resemblance to a giant pine cone gave rise to the name of ‘pineapple’ although the Latin classification name for it, ‘ananas’, comes simply from what the local villagers called it at the time of its discovery. Interestingly there is very little variation of this name the world over – Spanish peoples know it as ‘pina’, and the Dutch, French and many nations of South East Asia still call it ‘nanas’.

       And so we come to pineapples and the way in which they grow. A pineapple tree? Aerial pineapples waiting to be plucked? No, the reality is much duller. It grows on the ground, in a little nest of waxy, spear-like leaves with spiky edges. The roots are shallow and this leaf cluster traps the rain and dew it needs. But the oddest thing of all is the way in which the fruit forms and ripens. When it begins to bloom, a head of about 200 tiny purple or red flowers form. The stem elongates. It raises all the little flowers about 10 inches or so into the air above the leaves. And, as it does so, all the tiny florets fuse together to form one single densely-packed fruit head. And there it sits, a pineapple on a stick, getting fatter and heavier as each day passes.

         Mind you, there’s a big difference between pineapples in the wild and cultivated ones. On the farms, a lot of care goes into making sure that the flowers that will eventually combine to become the fruit-head aren’t pollinated. Think about it – have you ever bought a pineapple that had seeds inside? By rights they should have seeds – all fruit does. But pineapples are one of the very few fruit that can form without being pollinated. And if they actually do form seeds then it degrades the sweetness of the fruit, making it increasingly more bitter as it matures.

         If you ever get away from Samui’s main streets and into the side roads leading up towards the hills, you’ll actually see a great many pineapples growing wild and untouched. I’m told this is due to a local government incentive of a few years ago, wherein somebody thought it would be a good idea to plant thousands of pineapples for the benefit of the community. Unfortunately, nobody seemed to know that, left alone and untended, the fruit would become inedible. And so they still exist today on wasteland and along the sides or roads, running to seed, untended and unloved. But then, I suppose that’s just part of the price you have to pay for being one of nature’s little oddities, isn’t it!

         

Rob De Wet


 


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