Plant of the Month: June 2017

There is no doubt that, for a very long period, the pineapple was THE evidence, across Europe, of your wealth, your taste, and your ability to choose a head gardener for your estates who could manage a stove-house. This exotic fruit from the tropical jungle was allegedly encountered by Christopher Columbus on the island of Guadeloupe, which he visited during his second voyage, between 4 and 10 November 1493 (though I haven’t yet found a contemporary account which confirms this?).

Ananas comosus in fact seems to have originated in southern Brazil and Paraguay, and it was through cultivation that it moved north to the Caribbean coast and the West Indies. Ananas is from the Tupi language of South America (meaning ‘excellent fruit’, apparently), while comosus, ‘hairy, tufty’, refers to the sprout of leaves at the top of the fruit.

The English word ‘pineapple’ was originally applied to pine cones – the fruit of the pine tree: John de Trevisa, in his translation of Bartholomaeus Anglicus’ De proprietatibus rerum, states: ‘Pinea, þe pinappel, is þe frute of þe pine tre … þe pinappel is þe moste gret note and conteyneþ in it selfe many curneles, closid in ful harde schales.’  In the 1664 English translation of Pietro della Valle’s Travels in India (where the Portuguese had introduced the plant to their colonies): ‘To outward view it [Ananas] seems, when it is whole, to resemble our Pine-Apple’; while it appears that one of the first uses of the word ‘pineapple’ to describe the fruit itself is in John Evelyn’s Kalendarium Hortense, or the Gardner’s Almanac of the same year.

Evelyn’s Gardner’s Almanac was hugely popular: this is the frontispiece of the ninth edition, of 1699.

Evelyn had noted in his diary that he was present at court in 1661 when a pineapple (‘Queene-pine’) from Barbados was presented to the king (‘the the first that were ever seen in England were those sent to Cromwell foure years since’).

Who first brought a plant to the fruiting stage in northern Europe seems in dispute. The Dutch imported pineapples, from their colony in Surinam, and according to the Oxford Companion to the Garden, Pieter de La Court (1618–85), a wealthy cloth-merchant and political economist from Leiden, grew the first successful fruiting plant in a stove house on his estate in 1658. A very famous picture in the Royal Collection (copied elsewhere) apparently shows Charles II (with added spaniels) being presented with the first pineapple grown in England by his gardener, John Rose – but the Collection’s own online catalogue is sceptical of this interpretation.

The presentation of the pineapple. (Credit: Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II)

Descriptions and images of the pineapple had first appeared in Europe about a century before: one of the best known is on the frontispiece of John Parkinson’s Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris of 1629, though the book’s claim that this is one of the ‘all sorts of pleasant flowers that our English ayre will permit to be nursed up’ seems a bit wide of the mark.   

The illustrated title page of Parkinson’s book, where the pineapple and the tulip take pride of place above the heart-shaped cartouche containing the title.

For more on Parkinson, see this excellent blog from Parks and Gardens UK : it also argues that not de La Court but one Agneta Block (also living near Leiden) was the first to raise a ‘Dutch’ pineapple.

The cultivated and cultivating Block family, with the pineapple on the left, by Jan Weenix (c. 1640–1719). (Credit: Amsterdam Museum)

Maria Sybilla Merian depicted pineapples during her travels in Surinam: the image below was published in her De metamorphosibus insectorum Surinamensium of 1714 – which, as its title suggests, focused on insects, the exotic plants being shown ‘merely’ as their habitat or context.

Merian’s image of the pineapple as host to various cockroach-like insects.

At almost the same time, the honour of raising the first pineapple in England (if we discount John Rose’s claim) seems to belong to Sir Matthew Decker (the Dutch merchant who was the grandfather of the 7th Viscount Fitzwilliam), around 1715.

Sir Matthew Decker (1679–1749), by Theodorus Netscher (1661-1732). (Credit: The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)

His prize fruit (with some double daisies for scale) is immortalised in this painting, part of the Founder’s Bequest to the Fitzwilliam Museum.

Sir Matthew Decker’s pineapple, immortalised by Netscher. (Credit: The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)

In 1723, a stove house was built at the Chelsea Physic Garden (leased to the Society of Apothecaries by Sir Hans Sloane the year before) specifically to raise pineapples. And in the course of the eighteenth century, the aristocratic and the wealthy vied with each other to construct ‘pineries’ which would produce fruit for their banquets and parties – at which it was not necessarily eaten, but produced over and over again until it finally rotted away. (There is a story that pineapples were sometimes leased out by their owners to make an impression at another person’s dinner table – a nice little earner, again until they rotted.)

The most famous of the stove structures is undoubtedly the ‘Dunmore Pineapple’, the stove house built at the order of John Murray, 4th earl of Dunmore in 1761, which was later topped by an immense stone fruit, possibly designed by Sir William Chambers. Acquired by the National Trust for Scotland in the 1970s, it is now a holiday home which you can rent.

The Dunmore Pineapple. (Credit: The Landmark Trust)

In the second half of the eighteenth century, pineapples had become common enough to appear (usually at the top of the pile) in Dutch still lives, and to feature increasingly as a motif in all sorts of decorative contexts.

Two still lives in the Fitzwilliam Museum: above, by Paulus Theodorus van Brussel (1754–95); below, by Jan van Os (1744–1808).

Finials in architecture, on railings and curtain rails, on wallpaper, as paperweights, lamp bases, fountains …

One of the finials of a railing outside the Fitzwilliam Museum, recently restored from a dull black to their former glory.

The scientific/mathematical explanation for the pineapple’s pleasing appearance is presumably the rotational symmetry (if that is the term) of the well grown fruit: you can twist it round and round, and at each aspect it looks the same. It consists, apparently, of multiple berries derived from upward of 100 flowers, which merge into a single compact fruit; the interlocking of the berries is part of the visual trick where you can pick a starting point and trace a connecting line ad infinitum.

The ‘Black Jamaican’ pineapple, from Hooker’s Fruits, by W.J. Hooker, vol.1, 1815.

At the upcoming 2017 Hampton Court Flower Show, the gardeners of Charleston, South Carolina, will be bringing a taste of their home city, centred on a famous landmark: in the southern United States the pineapple is a symbol of hospitality, which, legend has it, originated with the sea-captains who would mark their return by nailing a pineapple from their cargo to the doorpost of their home to indicate that it was party time.

The pineapple fountain in Waterfront Park, Charleston.

There is a whole other story to be told about the economic significance of the pineapple, the canning industry, the firms of Del Monte and Dole (the former once famous for the Man Who Said Yes, the latter so synonymous with the fruit that ‘pineapple’ became the slang word for the dole, or unemployment benefit: sadly, ‘pineapple’, like ‘pomegranate’ is also a slang term for a grenade). But I’ll end now with a hideous confession: although I’ve always fancied one of those little brass paperweights, I don’t actually like pineapple at all …


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4 Responses to Plant of the Month: June 2017

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