Nancy Howell has been at Ocean View Farms community garden in Mar Vista since it opened in 1977. She grows crops common to many plots -- artichokes, squash and beans. However, one neat planting box contains something strikingly exotic: pineapple.
When she planted a cut-off crown of a Costco pineapple from Costa Rica and stuck it in the ground, everyone laughed at her, Howell said. Now she's the one laughing.
"Two years later I had a pineapple," she says, grinning. This year she has a few more plants, started from store-bought fruit or from the mother plant's pups.
The pineapples are small, she says, but delicious. They're also beautiful. Howell compares the architectural drama to a vigorous artichoke in full display. When the finest emerald of the crown appears, the spiral of the developing fruit looks perfect, even in miniature. It's actually a compound fruit, like a giant blackberry, where each individual flowerhead becomes its own juicy core of sweetness.
Depending on the variety, the pineapple plant can have sword-like leaves that are spiny or smooth, solid green or striated. The heads may be magenta, gold or green-purple, ranging in size from 1 to 5 pounds. They are as pleasing to the eyes as the fruit is to the tongue.
Of the four main classes of pineapples, the most common in California are Smooth Cayenne cultivars from a Hawaii variety. You also may find Red Spanish pineapples from Mexico or Queens pineapples from the Philippines.
The one class you're unlikely to find in a local market is Abacaxi, grown in Brazil and Florida. Abacaxi varieties such as Sugarloaf, Sugar Slice and Chocona are the most fragrant and best tasting pineapples, but they bruise easily.
To plant from fruit, cut the crown 1 to 2 inches below the leaf line. Remove all the fruit and some of the lower leaves, exposing any stalk. Let it dry for two days. Then plant it in shallow soil, propped up if necessary.
Pineapples can be grown in containers, but they may get big -- 3 feet across, sometimes more. For plants that already have been started, you can try the Tropics in West Hollywood.
Howell doesn't baby her plants. Being close to the ocean, on a west-facing bluff, she doesn't have to. Pineapples don't like frost and must be covered if exposed to winter winds. The California Rare Fruit Growers advise planting with a ground cover of black plastic to keep down weeds as well as to retain moisture and heat.