Monday, September 1, 2008

Have some patience -- and the best pineapple you ever tasted

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel September 1, 2008)

We just finished eating our third freshly picked pineapple of the season. Delicious.

Homegrown pineapples are not only sweeter and more flavorful than their store-bought counterparts -- they are ridiculously easy to grow. Just cut the leafy crown off a purchased product -- you have to do that anyway when you're slicing it up -- and instead of tossing it into the trash, plant the crown in the ground. You don't need special soil or miracle fertilizers.

Pineapple plants like ground that is sandy and well-drained -- probably the same kind of dirt you have in your backyard.

Before planting, some people say you should either cut away any existing flesh or, at the very least, make sure all soft fruity parts are completely dried out. It's probably good advice, but I'm too impatient to wait several days for a callus to form and I'm too lazy to strip away existing soft flesh. I prefer the "hurry-n-bury" method -- quickly cut off the crown and rush outside to anchor the stiff, spiky leaves in the sandy soil.

One thing that shouldn't be hurried is deciding where to plant your pineapple. While the severed crown may be only six or eight inches tall and about half as wide, remember: it is going to grow.

As the plant develops, this Brazilian native will extend its leaves upward and outward. At maturity, a single crown will require a space that's about 3 feet wide by 2 feet tall. And consider those leaves. Pineapple leaves look and feel like green, serrated swords. Ouch!

The first time I planted a pineapple crown I placed it in a convenient spot right along our front walkway. Mistake. As the plant grew, so did its pointy sharp leaves. Make sure you place your young starts a good distance away from where any bare-legged people might pass by.

Homegrown pineapples are tasty, but people who insist upon immediate gratification should avoid growing these relatives of bromeliads and Spanish moss. It takes a minimum of 18 months, often longer, for fruit to develop. Even then, after all that waiting, you only reap a single edible pineapple from each crown planted. But that's all right. One bite into a slice of the pale yellow fruit and you'll be glad you waited.

Homegrown pineapples are so flavorful chiefly because gardeners have the luxury of waiting until a fruit is completely ripe before twisting it off its stalk. Commercial growers can't do that. Like most fruits grown for market, pineapples are harvested well before their prime when their waxy outer rinds are still a dark murky green. This common practice may extend the fruit's shelf life and prevents spoilage during transportation, but it doesn't do much to enhance the pineapple's heady essence.

Until I grew my first pineapple, I didn't know its bumpy outer skin turns bright yellow when the fruit is ripe. From years of shopping, I'd learned that (A) a golden tint to the rind is good and (B) leaves that are brown and shriveled are bad. The entire rind on a naturally ripened pineapple is the color of summer flowers -- sunflower yellow or daffodil bright. Add in the seductively sweet scent that accompanies a mature specimen -- an aroma that evokes images of a tropical beachside paradise -- and you can imagine how rewarding it can be to grow your own.

It's not only people who appreciate the taste and smell of this herbaceous perennial. Opossums, raccoons, squirrels and foxes share a fondness for the ripening fruit. With their sharp teeth, wild animals can do what people cannot -- chew their way through the tough outer skin to get at the juicy inner flesh.

That's what happened to the first pineapple I picked this year. I eagerly watched as the rind became more yellow each day. After about a week of anticipation I asked my husband, "Do you think I should pick it today?"

"Give it one more day," he suggested confidently. So I took his advice. And he must have been right because that night, a sharp-toothed furry critter confirmed his assessment by taking a large bite out of one side of the fruit. Sure enough, when we picked the slightly gnawed fruit the next morning -- after cutting around the gnawed spot and giving it a good washing -- we were awed by its sweet, juicy flavor.

I don't know why the animal stopped at one bite but I'm glad it did. Sharing is important, but when you've waited more than 18 months for a few mouthfuls of flavor, it's hard enough to divvy up the bounty with your family, let alone with an opossum or raccoon.

Pineapples are a never-ending pleasure. Each harvested fruit provides a crown that starts the whole process all over again. All it takes is one store-bought fruit to begin the cycle, so give it a try. The next time you buy a pineapple, don't toss the top -- plant it instead. It's a sweet and easy thing to do.

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