THERE’S A WORD IN SANSKRIT THAT MEANS PURE BLISS: ananda. It seems like no coincidence that this word is one scant letter different from anana, the plant family that pineapples belong to. This blissful yellow fruit is synonymous with Hawaii, and the Island’s residents and chefs have spent decades experimenting and perfecting ways to use it.
Today, when you think about Hawaii, pineapples immediately come to mind. Even before the sands of Waikiki or the surf Native Hawaiians first rode, Hawaii evokes the sweet and tangy flavor of bliss. But like so many of the staple plants that are entwined with Hawaiian lore, pineapples are not native to the Islands.
Pineapples originated in what are now Brazil and Paraguay. They spread through South America and were even cultivated by the Mayas and Aztecs. By 1492, they had made their way to the Caribbean, where Christopher Columbus found them. He brought the spiny fruit back to Europe, where it was an immediate hit. Pineapples began to represent hospitality in Western culture, and their visage can be found in architecture in England and New England to show welcome to guests.
Nobody knows quite when or how pineapples first came to Hawaii. Popular legend is that the locally famous Don Francisco de Paula Marín first planted them in the early 1800s, around the same time he was attempting to cultivate grapes in Honolulu for wine. But it’s possible that Capt. James Cook introduced them on his fateful visit in 1778. He was known to have planted pineapples in other Pacific Islands in 1777, according to Sturtevant’s Notes on Edible Plants, although there’s no distinct evidence that he brought them to Hawaii. No matter who brought them, it is clear that pineapples have been here at least 200 years and have thrived.
Modern pineapples and their cultivation techniques more or less grew up in Hawaii in the 20th century. The industry here started with a few small growers that turned into produce giants Dole and Del Monte. Del Monte no longer grows pineapples in Hawaii, but Dole maintains a pineapple plantation in Wahiawa, on the way to Oahu’s North Shore.
James Dole first came to Hawaii in 1899, after earning a degree in agriculture from the Bussey Institute at Harvard University. Pineapples were already established as a crop on Oahu by then, but Dole knew preserving techniques previously unknown to local growers.
“Jim Dole’s advantage was the latest technology in canning fruit and vegetables,” says Michael Conway, the manager of diversified agriculture at Dole.
In the early 1900s, Dole began canning pineapples and selling them on the Mainland. Before this, it was hard to get edible pineapple nationally, because it only grows in tropical environments and there wasn’t a way to ship them quickly. Canning the fruit meant that it could be preserved and shipped, introducing the fruit to a new market of consumers.
At the same time, Dole was working with the Pineapple Research Institute (PRI) to perfect new and better varietals.
“They were doing breeding work here from the ’20s,” says Dr. Robert Paull, a researcher at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
For nearly 70 years, PRI worked with James Dole, and then his company and farmlands. They created hybrids with different levels of acidity, which altered the flavor. The pineapples in James Dole’s days weren’t like the fresh fruit we can buy in the store today. It was more acidic and less sweet. Their flavor varied based on the season. Now, thanks to hybrids generated by PRI, Hawaiian pineapples are sweet year round.
Today, Hawaiian pineapples have to be sweet, because they are no longer canned here. Before, cannery workers could add sugar to a tart batch of pineapples until the flavor was right. Now Dole and other Hawaii growers only sell the fresh pineapples that these Islands are so famous for.
“Pineapple is synonymous with Hawaii,” says Conway. And it’s true. On any restaurant menu the term “Hawaiian-style” means adding pineapple.
It’s possible, though, that pineapple, like sugar before it, may not be economically viable in time. Sugar cane once blanketed the Hawaiian landscape. This year, Hawaii’s last sugar plantation will close down on Maui.
“People just assume it’s always going to be here,’ Conway says. “That just isn’t the case.” If at some point the cost of growing pineapples on Oahu eclipses what consumers will pay, they very well could phase out of Hawaii, like sugar before them.
Currently Dole is the largest pineapple grower in Hawaii. Maui is also home to Maui Gold, a smaller, separate plantation. At its height of production, the entire island of Lanai was used to grow pineapples. Now only Dole and Maui Gold do significant commercial growing. Thankfully, neither company has imminent plans to cease production.
Many believe now, and have believed for decades, that Hawaiian pineapples genuinely taste better than those grown elsewhere. The rich soil and streamlined cultivation have led to perfectly tender fruit that embody bliss.
If you are visiting Hawaii, you can purchase Dole or Maui Gold pineapples at the airport for your return trip. Featured pineapple photos are all from the Dole Plantation in Wahiawa.