This delicious tropical fruit is native to Brazil, Mexico, and probably some of the West India islands. But doubts of this fact have arisen on account of the wide distribution of the plant to India, China, Africa, and other tropical climates early in the sixteenth century. But this was made possible by the easy and safe transportation of the plant by means of the fruit. The partially ripe fruit will bear distant shipping, and the fact became known to the early voyagers that the leafy crowns of the fruit will grow when cut off and planted in warm climates. The suckers, also planted in earth, can be safely carried on long voyages, which is not true of many economic plants. It seems a common belief at the North that the pineapple grows on trees. Hence the surprise of tourists when they find it growing on a low plant, not as tall as eight-rowed corn, on a stalk from one to four feet high, like a humble cabbage in some respects. But unlike the cabbage the stem rises from the centre of a rosette of sword-shaped stiff leaves with rough edges. The stalk that bears dies as with the banana and raspberry, and like the latter new suckers spring up for the next year's bearing.
But the suckers must be thinned to one or two if marketable size is attained. With needed care to regulate the number of bearing suckers, and good cultivation and some fertilizing of the soil, crops can be secured from the one planting for many years. During a visit to Cuba in 1896 the writer gave much attention to their system of managing pineapple plantations. In some cases we found old plantations that had not been renewed in twenty years, but in no case were they equal in size or quantity of fruit to the younger plantations. The more systematic growers start new plantations to take the place of the old ones about once in six years, as it is found that old plants give too much trouble in thinning the sprouts from the buds in the axils of the lower leaves and the rattoons or rooted buds below the crown, and the fruit on the old plants becomes too small. In Florida the plantation is renewed at the close of from six to eight years, but the best crops often are harvested from the second and third years of bearing. In Cuba the pineapple for market is planted on upland suitable for tobacco-growing, in rows about four feet apart, with the plants three feet apart in the rows. Suckers are usually used for planting, as they are stronger and will come into bearing in one year. If crowns or rattoons are used they are grown in nursery until strong before planting.
The cultivation is only one way, and the usual plan is to hill up the line of the rows as the fruit approaches maturity, as we manage the sweet potato. This favors the better rooting of suckers, but does not seem to benefit the fruitage, as those who practised level culture secured as good or better crops. All growers practise very shallow culture, as the nitrogen-feeding roots run very close to the surface. So far as observed in western Cuba the cost of growing an acre of pineapples will not much exceed that of growing an acre of corn, if the level-surface plan is adopted, with the exception of the added cost of planting the suckers. The soil is well supplied with phosphate pebbles and does not seem to need fertilizing except the adding lightly of vegetable matter of some kind on old lands, to give fresh humus to the soil when a new plantation is started.
In Florida it is claimed that the lath covering used to protect the plants in winter are a gain in summer in screening the foliage and fruit from the hot sun. But in Cuba the plantations are in open exposure with heated cultivated soil between the rows, yet we never saw healthier foliage nor tasted richer flavored fruit in any country yet visited.
In Florida in 1894 over four million pineapples were marketed. But the freeze of 1894-95 killed the plants, except at the extreme south and on keys. This resulted in the starting of new plantations south of the latitude of Tampa, under the shelter of lath-covered sheds, with lath spaced about the same as the frames used for evergreen seedlings in the West (13. Shaded Beds for Seed-planting). Under the sheds the plants are set out much thicker than in Cuba, using, it is said, from eight to fifteen thousand plants to the acre, as varied by variety and the different opinions of the planters. The plants begin to bear in about eighteen months after setting out if strong suckers are planted, and with systematic care the plantations prove profitable for eight years or more. Those grown under sheds ripen a large part of the crop in winter, when larger prices are secured. But on Florida keys, where sheds are not used, the fruit does not ripen until April, and continues well into summer.
The pineapple may be said to be a new commercial fruit. Europe procures the main supply from the Azores at prices out of the reach of the masses, and so immature that they are only used in limited quantity. In California the supply comes from the Sandwich Islands in a nearly ripened condition and find a ready market at moderate prices. In the States east of the Rocky Mountains those reaching the markets come from the West India islands and Florida by sailing-vessels mostly, and in imperfectly ripened condition, and the same is true in the Western States to a still greater extent.
As Lindley said many years ago: "The pineapple is acknowledged to be one of the most delicious fruits in existence." But this was said of the ripe fruit when the yellow pulp is too tender for slicing and can be eaten with a spoon. In this condition it is not only nutritious but healthful to a remarkable degree. Its free use cures dyspepsia, and is the best known remedy for throat diseases and other troubles of the system. In this perfect and healthful state it cannot reach distant markets, like the orange and banana, but as a canned fruit it would soon find an almost unlimited sale if put up in glass jars properly boxed for shipment. Marmalades in glass will also retain the remarkable flavor of this queen of fruits, if the fully ripe fruit is used. In these suggestions the ease of growing the fruit in Cuba is considered, if we secure proper trade relations, and an actual test of canned pineapple and marmalade made by American ladies residing in Havana. As grown in Florida, if shipped by rail the almost perfectly ripe fruit can be delivered North as safely as the south Georgia peaches.