In a painting from 1675, England’s King Charles II stands on a terrace as the royal gardener kneels before him offering up a curious present.
It’s one of the most desirable items of the era, representing the ultimate in luxury and prestige. Imported from a faraway land, it’s among the first of its kind to have made the journey from the New World to Britain.
It’s a pineapple.
Today, the exotic fruit would hardly qualify as a suitable gift for royalty. But in those years, pineapples were at the beginning of an arc in history during which they would become — particularly in Britain — a symbol of wealth and opulence unlike any other. Pineapples still adorn the top of the western towers of St. Paul’s Cathedral, one of London’s most iconic landmarks.
The painting, which was commissioned by the king himself and is attributed to his court painter, Dutch artist Hendrick Danckerts, was once believed to commemorate the first pineapple grown in England. However, that didn’t happen until later.
“The pineapple that was given to Charles II had been shipped over from Barbados,” said Francesca Beauman, author of the book “The Pineapple: King of Fruits,” in a phone interview.
The king’s diarist, John Evelyn, had recorded the moment Charles II first tasted the fruit at a banquet held for the French ambassador in 1668. In that setting, the very sight of the scaly produce would have been met with gasps of wonder.
“Pineapples were very sought after from the very beginning, because the explorers who had come across them in the New World wrote about them in rapturous terms, raving about how delicious they were,” Beauman said.
Its popularity extended to British North America, where a young George Washington was among the admirers of the fruit. “None pleases my taste as do’s the Pine,” he wrote in his diary during a trip to Barbados in 1751.
Because pineapples are not mentioned in the Bible or in any old texts from Greece and Rome, she added, they had no existing resonance. The English could therefore impose upon them whatever resonance they wanted, and the pineapple became the king of fruits — taking root in British culture in more ways than one.
Pineapples need very high temperatures to grow, and they take years to mature. Nevertheless, once they became established as the most desirable of fruits, people started cultivating them in Britain.
“Despite the fact that obviously it’s a fool’s project, as England and Scotland have a cold and rainy climate, by the 1770s anyone who was anyone amongst the upper echelons of society was growing their own pineapples — it became an essential feature of a country house garden,” Beauman said.
This came at a great expense and difficulty. It required the construction of special greenhouses called “pineries,” which needed to provide heating to the plants from below, using stoves that constituted a fire risk. “It was rare and special that you actually succeeded,” Beauman said. “To even grow one pineapple was a huge achievement that people would show off all the time.”
The construction and heating costs, as well as the time required to obtain the fruits, made a single pineapple cost up to 80 pounds, according to Beauman’s calculations — that’s almost a whopping $15,000 in today’s money.
“That was about the same cost as a new stagecoach with horses — the equivalent of buying a new car in Georgian England,” she said. “People had a full-time garden boy who would sleep among the plants to make sure that they didn’t burst into flames by mistake. It was a way of showing off your wealth, and it quickly became a status symbol.”
Pineapples for rent
While the fruit became enshrined in British culture as an aesthetically pleasing beacon of distinction, it was seldom eaten.
“If you were very rich and had a really amazing gardener, the first thing you’d want to do was send a fancy friend a pineapple as a present,” Beauman said. “It would also be displayed on the dining room table as a status symbol, and commonly it would sit there until it began to rot, because why on Earth would you eat a pineapple? It’d be like eating a Gucci handbag.”
So prized was a chance to be seen with the fruit that, according to Beauman, there were instances of pineapple rentals, where a fruit would be loaned for a few hours to be carried around at a party, then returned.
Eventually, the pineapple started being incorporated in all kinds of designs, including architecture and crockery.
“I would argue that the pineapple is naturally de