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Fragrant pineapples!

July 22, 2012

At present we have a generous crop of pineapples (Ananas comosus, Bromeliaceae) at Dokmai Garden. To the great surprise among our Thai visitors, the pineapple is not originally native to Thailand. It comes from eastern South America, somewhere in the upper Paraná in Brazil. The first historically documented Eurasian encounter was on the island Guadeloupe on November 4th, 1493, when Christopher Columbus made his second voyage. The fruit had reached the Spanish Philippines by 1558 and was probably brought to Thailand by the Portuguese. One of the oldest cultivars of pineapple still cultivated in Thailand is ‘Si la cha’ which is a cooking pineapple. The leaves are not much serrated and the fruits are large.

Another cultivar with relatively smooth leaves is ‘Nang lae’ (=’Nam pung’). It was introduced from China to the Nang lae district in the Chiang Rai province and has become a great hit as a superior dessert pineapple. Although small and round, its perfect balance of acid and sugar and its amazing aroma makes it a choice fruit. It belongs to the ‘Cayenne group’ of pineapples.

Another more modern cultivar is ‘Phuket’. It has painfully serrated leaves and grows much larger and cylindrical than the round ‘Nang lae’. This cultivar is suitable for desserts as well as cooking. The cooking aspect must not be underestimated. Not only delicious, but a protease tenderizes raw meat if pineapple is used in a marinade. It belongs to the ‘Queen group’ of pineapples.

The cross between ’Phuket’ and ‘Nang lae’ has resulted in another appreciated but still serrated variety called ‘Phu lae’. It is small and round with elegant taste. According to molecular studies, ‘Phuket’ and ‘Phu lae’ are in fact the same cultivars, not a cross, but may show different morphology due to different methods of cultivation. ‘Phu lae’ is found in the adjacent Chiang Rai province.

Obviously there are many more cultivars. At Dokmai Garden we keep ‘Nang lae’, ‘Phuket’, a seedling and some commercial strains too. It may surprise people there are seedlings. Unlike apple, the domesticated pineapple does not need pollination to set fruit, which is the dream of a farmer (no worries about climate for perfect insect pollination) and the consumer (no seeds to spit). However, if two strains flower near each other, and if a hummingbird (in South America) or a sunbird (Thailand) flies around to collect nectar, there is a chance of cross pollination. If a farmer collects the tiny seeds he may create new strains.

If you grow pineapples here in the Chiang Mai valley, make sure the land has full sun and is well drained. The leaf rosettes are designed in a way to collect water, and sometimes pineapples can become swimming pools for mosquito larvae. Frogs will take care of that. Do not plant the pineapples too densely, or serrated strains will be a nightmare to weed if you wear shorts. Plant the pineapples in pairs with generous space (at least one meter) between the double rows to allow weeding from both sides. A row of pairs, especially if the variety has serrated leaves, will become a sanctuary for small vulnerable birds and amphibians which otherwise succumb to cats and dogs. This is of course in a small scale farm with a mosaic of crops and ornamental plants. Replacing vast tracts of rain forest with endless hillsides of pineapple is a biodiversity desert.

The pineapple family, Bromeliaceae, is a large plant family: 2650 species almost entirely confined to the Americas. Many are epiphytic, and in the Chiang Mai gardens you can discover impressive bromeliad collections. The genus ‘Bromelia’ was coined by the Swedish gentleman Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), and the French botanist Antoine Laurent de Jussieu (1748-1836) used this name to erect the family Bromeliaceae. The name is in honour of the Swedish naturalist/physician Olaus Bromelius (1639-1705).

The pineapple genus ‘Ananas’ was coined by the Scottish botanist Philip Miller (1691-1771), head gardener of the Chelsea Physic Garden. ‘Ananas’ is the Latinized form of ‘nanas’, a Tupi word for ‘delicious fruit’. There are six species of Ananas in the world. ‘Comosus means ‘hairy’.

Three fruits of ‘Phuket’ (of the Queen pineapple group), straight from the organic Dokmai Garden orchard. We are happy to share our produce with you.

Pineapple flowers

Text & Photo: Eric Danell

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 23, 2012 3:59 PM

    Is the si la cha pineapple fibrous? I’m guessing it is because this sounds very much like spanish word “hilacha” which means fibrous or stringy.

    • July 24, 2012 8:13 AM

      Yes it is fibrous! I am quite sure it is of the Spanish subgroup, but the cultivars tend to change names and your remark is clever. I shall investigate!

      Eric

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