When is a pineapple NOT a pineapple?
…When it’s a pandan fruit, of course!
Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of reading about tropical trees and their uses; I guess I’ve got cabin fever or something, I’m constantly dreaming about the Pacific Islands. Many years ago, my husband and I travelled to Maui, and on our first night there, we were captivated by the pineapple trees growing along the beach near our hotel. There were so many of them; it seemed strange to us that they were just plunked down everywhere, dripping with luscious fruit. Fortunately, a consultation with a local plant field guide that I picked up in a bookstore corrected our improper i.d.: these weren’t pineapple trees (sheesh! Uninformed Canadians!), but rather Pandanus, or screwpines, an incredibly common genus (with nearly seven hundred species!) found everywhere in the Pacific Islands, as well as in Madagascar, southeast Asia, and some parts of Australia. Pandan trees can grow from less than 1 m to 20 m, depending on the species. Their roots form showy “stilts,” architectural props that keep them upright – an absolute necessity for the immense towering varieties, such as P. utilis. Our “tourist pineapples” in Maui were likely P. tectorius, which reach about 8 metres and produce huge globular fruit about 10-20 cm in diameter. The fruits have segmented “diamonds” that mimic pineapple fruit: in the case of pandan fruit, each segment – of which there are 40-80 per fruit – contain at least one or two seeds. The fruit changes colour from green to red as it matures.
Nearly all parts of the pandan tree are useful: the number of items that can be produced by these false pineapples is immense. Tender leaves are cut and sliced into strips, which are hand-dyed and woven into articles such as handbags, clothing, and mats. In days gone by, the leaves were even used to make sails for boats! The fragrant leaves of P. amaryllifolius are used in cooking, usually added to rice or curries or in baking or beverages to impart scent and flavour. In some cultures, the leaves are used to treat leprosy and smallpox, as well as ulcers and wounds. The essential oils from pulverized roots and flowers have antiseptic and anti-bacterial properties and are often used as pain relievers, to combat headaches and chronic arthritis inflammations, even – supposedly – hangovers! Bits of pandan root can be chewed to make a soothing dental gum (no word on what this tastes like, though. Does anyone know? I’m pretty sure it’s not minty-fresh). Pandan bark is made into tea to fight nagging coughs, and bark or leaves are added to hot bathwater to treat certain ailments of the skin. Flowers are used for everything from hair decorations to laxatives to ingredients in perfume and items used in religious ceremonies. It seems there’s nothing this tree can’t provide!
By the way, pineapples don’t actually grow on trees. In fact, pineapple plants only reach about 1.5 m in height. Ananas comosus are fast-growing perennials with very short lifespans: they expend all of their energy into producing a single fruit, then they die. Which kinda makes them even more special, doesn’t it? Yummy….
There is a recipe for a mouth-watering-looking Pandan Chiffon Cake on nyonyafood.rasamalaysia.com/pandan-chiffon-cake/. Maybe if someone bakes this for me it will take my mind off this crazy Canadian winter!
Firefly Encyclopedia of Trees – Steve Cafferty, ed. (2005, Firefly Books Ltd.)