Pineapple—The Fruit of Hospitality

by doconversationsblog

A guest post by Summer Intern Jasmine Casart, with accompanying architectural photographs by Summer Fellow Abigail Dowling.  Jasmine worked in the Rare Book Collection to help plan an exhibit that will accompany this fall’s symposium, “The Botany of Empire in the Long Eighteenth Century.”  Learn more here.

Johannes Commelin. Horti medici amstelodamensis rariorum, 1697-1701. Figure 57, Ananas.  Photographed by Megan Cook.

Johannes Commelin. Horti medici amstelodamensis rariorum, 1697-1701. Figure 57, Ananas. Photographed by Megan Cook.

The goal of many eighteenth-century imperial expeditions was to explore the natural resources of new colonies and lands in search of potentially profitable plants and products. Naturalists brought back seeds, fruits, whole plants, roots or cuttings of exotic plants, hoping to grow them back in Europe to display in gardens and foster new botanical economies. The success of such endeavors is evident in the aesthetics of historic Georgetown homes and Dumbarton Oaks architecture if one looks closely enough.

Q and 28th

A Georgetown welcome (photo by Abigail Dowling)

The pineapple (Ananas comosus) was the first tropical fruit successfully grown in northern Europe. From South America, the pineapple captured the curiosity of Western visitors as early as 1493 when Christopher Columbus came across it in Guadeloupe. With its sweet fragrance, delicious taste, bizarre appearance, and medicinal digestive properties, pineapples fascinated European gardeners and naturalists who were keen to introduce the “King of Fruit,” as many called it, to the West. Yet although tropical plants grew in Spain and southern Europe, they did not survive in the cold north. Gardeners and naturalists experimented and introduced many new techniques to grow pineapple and other tropical plants that needed constant care to fruit.

Dumbarton Oaks Box Ellipse entrance (photo by Abigail Dowling)

Dumbarton Oaks Box Ellipse entrance (photo by Abigail Dowling)

Pineapple quickly became a status symbol in the eighteenth century as only wealthy patrons with the best gardeners could cultivate the delicate, expensive plant that required daily upkeep year-round. Gardeners of wealthy estates competed to produce superior pineapples and varieties others did not grow. A pineapple was a costly and highly complimentary gift reserved for royalty, gentry, or family heads in imperial Europe. Having a pineapple as a centerpiece for important dinner parties was so highly regarded that some shops even rented the fruits out to households by the day.

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A welcoming sight (photo by Abigail Dowling)

In addition to wealth, pineapple represented hospitality and a successful voyage. Sailors often brought back the durable exotic fruit and placed it on their porches or speared onto fences, indicating their safe return and welcoming friends to visit. Pineapple has continued to symbolize a friendly, welcoming environment in both Europe and America, often included as motifs on doors of homes, shops, and hotels. Virginia and Hawaii are two states that heartily embrace the use of pineapple as a symbol of hospitality and warmth, but the motif can also be found in Georgetown, from residential front doors to Dumbarton Oaks’s greenhouse and Ellipse.

32nd Street

Georgetown hospitality (photo by Abigail Dowling)

Dumbarton Oaks Greenhouse

Dumbarton Oaks Greenhouse (photo by Abigail Dowling)


Drower, George. 2002. Gardeners, Gurus & Grubs: The stories of garden inventors and innovations. Sutton Publishing Limited, England. 2001.

Gorely, Jean. July 1945.  “The Pineapple Symbol of Hospitality.” Antiques (July 1945): Dole Archives, Hamilton Library Pacific Collections, University of Hawaii at Manoa, Honolulu, HI.

Okihiro, Gary Y. 2009. Pineapple Culture: A History of the Tropical and Temperate Zones. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.