While there aren’t many local commercial growers, a Northland nursery owner with a passion for pineapples is helping like-minded Kiwis sate their desire. Words Diana Noonan
Last time Kiwi Gardener checked in with tropical fruit grower Hugh Rose it was to chat to him about his groves of scrumptious bananas. But Hugh’s 24ha Whangārei property also sports another delicious fruit, the pineapple. He doesn’t grow these sweet treats to sell the fruit; instead, he supplies pineapple ‘pups’ (young plants) to Northland’s commercial growers. Although pineapple growing on a commercial scale is still in its infancy in New Zealand, Hugh is in no doubt that it will gather momentum.
“Once you’ve tasted a locally grown pineapple, no other will do,” he says, “You won’t be happy with the imported variety! And the fact is, it’s perfectly possible to grow them here in the north.”
Returns for growers aren’t too bad, either, Hugh says. Locally grown pineapples are in high demand and attract a premium price of between $5 and $10 per fruit, depending on size. However, if you’re tempted to try your hand at commercial pineapple growing, Hugh suggests you bear in mind that, unless you’ve got 1000 plants on the go, you’re not going to make a living from it. Which may go some way to explaining why there are currently so few commercial growers.
“However,” says Hugh, “there are a lot of ‘nursery growers’ out there.” These are people who, like Hugh, grow pineapple plants for sale. And because of the huge interest in the fruit from home growers, these plants are in high demand.
Generally speaking, a home grower will get their first pineapple from a three-year-old plant. A four-year-old plant will produce two fruit in a season, and a six-year-old plant will produce three fruit. But commercial growers harvest just one fruit a year per plant for five years, and then rip the plant from the ground.
Hugh, who is as interested in ‘collecting’ tropical fruits as he is in growing them, has five pineapple varieties on his property. Pineapples come in two distinct forms, as defined by their smooth or rough leaves. Hugh has two varieties of ‘Smooth Cayenne’ (Ananas comosus var. comosus – formerly A. comosus). Both produce a yellow-gold pineapple of significant size. Although they both have smooth leaves, Hugh says that, every now and then, he’ll come across a leaf with very fine serrations. “It’s almost like a razor blade,” he winces. “It can cut to the bone. So don’t trust any pineapple!”
Hugh also grows two variations of red pineapple (A. bracteatus). Red pineapple has very coarse, thorny leaves that are guaranteed to “rip you to shreds”, but also produces the most stunning flowers. “They simply ‘glow’,” he says. Some of Hugh’s red pineapple variants sport foliage that is around 1.5m in height and diameter!
While pineapples are usually happy to cooperate and produce fruit, they can sometimes be a little stubborn. Hugh has two methods for coaxing them to flower. The first (which, for safety reasons, we don’t recommend you try at home) involves the application to the plant of calcium carbonate. Fortunately, dropping a small square of banana peel into the centre of the pineapple plant has a similar effect.
“As the banana peel breaks down,” says Hugh, “it produces ethylene, a gas which acts as a ripening signal that instructs the plant to start flowering. However,” he cautions, “don’t try this with a young plant as it will only produce a small pineapple. Use the banana skin trick only with a plant that is three or four years old, and which is failing to send up a flower.”
Hugh also advises placing a plastic bag over the plant after popping the banana skin into the foliage. The bag will help the skin to decay, and also trap the ethylene gas and stop it dispersing.
To propagate his pineapple plants, Hugh uses a greenhouse to create a mini tropical environment for the ‘pups’ to thrive in. Pineapples produce these pups, and other reproductive vegetative material, in four different places on the plant. The first is the ‘crown’ (which many people have enjoyed trying to grow after cutting the leafy tuft from the top of the fruit and planting it in a pot). ‘Slips’ (leafy branchlets) grow just below the fruit, and suckers (pups) and shoots grow near the base of the fruit’s stem. Most pineapples tend not to produce seeds, a characteristic that has been bred out of them as it is thought that seeds lessen the quality of the fruit. If they do have seeds, they are located just below the ‘scales’ on the skin of the fruit.
In his greenhouse, Hugh keeps the pineapple pups watered with a mister. The moisture trickles down the leaves to the centre of the plants where it collects in a natural reservoir (not surprisingly, the pineapple is a member of the bromeliad family). The pups will remain in the greenhouse for a year and a half until they reach a minimum size of 150mm in diameter. At this stage, they are large enough to be planted out.
Pineapples, like all tropicals, should be planted in late spring or early summer, when the soil has really warmed up, Hugh says. For Northland growers, this is usually October, but in cooler regions, where gardeners are growing in a greenhouse, it’s best to wait until soils are in the range of 20°C or more.
Soil should be rich, and acidic to a 4.5 to 5 level (think soil suited to rhododendrons). The planting site should be in a position to attract as much sun as possible (pineapples will take all the sun they can get). The plants don’t like competition, so it’s important to keep them weed-free and to remember that the roots are frail and minimal compared to the size of the plant above – so take care when working around them.
Hugh recommends planting the young pups on ridges. Ridges encourage the soil to warm up, and also provide the free-draining situation that pineapples require. Planting in a black polythene bag is another way to hurry up the warming of the soil.
In early and mid-summer, Hugh foliarfertilises his pineapple plants with liquid seaweed, saying it is one of the fastest ways to provide the nutrition the plants crave.
Hugh’s pineapple plants begin to flower from the start of October onwards, with the main flowering season being in December and January. From the time the flowers appear until harvest is about six months. There are two ways to detect ripeness, says Hugh. The first is by the sweet smell of the fruit, and the second is by the presence of ants – the insects love the fruit as much as humans!
Once the pineapples come on stream, Hugh and his wife Pauline use them often in cooking. They especially enjoy the red varieties, which they say have a very intense flavour. “Think of any recipe which requires rhubarb or apple,” says Hugh, “then use pineapple as a substitute. Pineapple pie and pineapple
cobbler are absolutely awesome!”
Hugh usually has around 300 little pups that home growers can purchase, providing they are happy to wait for them to grow on before planting them out. Otherwise, he says, February is the time to make enquiries.
A red pineapple can be enjoyed raw, when it is ripe and juicy, but try this surefire crowd-pleaser from
Hugh’s wife Pauline Rose.
• 1½ cups ripe red pineapple, chopped
• ½ cup raw caster sugar (you can use white but raw has more flavour)
• 2 tbsp custard powder
• 1 cup rolled oats
• 1 cup brown sugar (yes, this recipe is quite naughty but it’s worth it!)
• ¼ cup wholemeal flour
• 1 tsp cinnamon
• 75g butter, softened in microwave for 15 seconds (increase the quantity of butter if you want a richer dessert)