Florida's Most Spectacular Flowers
Perhaps the thorniest plant commonly found in the Florida garden is Pinguin or Florida Wild Pineapple, also known as Bromelia pinguin. The plant also sports one of the largest and most spectacular blooms that one will see on a naturalized Florida plant.
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For the second time this particularly hot and dry May these spectacular plants are now in full bloom.
In a normal weather year Florida Pineapple bloom once-a-year around the first of May.
Most years in the 2010s have been anything but weather-normal. Hot and dry conditions often extend well into rainy season extending the blooming period for Florida Pineapple into early June.
While this is definitely one of our thorniest plants it is not native. The plant has naturalized as far north as the Ocala National Forest in North Central Florida.
I found my first specimens in the swamps east of Deltona and west of Oak Hill near Canaveral National Seashore. From a few plants transplanted I now have thousands. The plant rapidly reproduces from vigorous rhizomes as well as from the "pineapple" fruit it makes from these dazzling blooms.
The thorns on the leaves are retracted so that they catch anything that passes by. These thorns will easily rip through jeans and into leather boots.
I planted my stand of Florida Wild Pineapple to stop kids-with-guns from walking a path through our acreage, much as is done in the Caribbean islands where these plants are native. The kids were stopping off at a giant oak tree to climb and shoot at birds and sometimes at my cats and dogs. I put up a fence and planted a few dozen of the wild pineapple. There is no longer any chance of anyone coming through where the shooting trail once existed. The plants now easily extend to 4-feet or more and form a dense thicket across about 1/2 acre.
Referred to as "Maya" in the Caribbean, this pineapple-like plant sports large, sword-shaped, sharp, thorny dark-green leaves that have alternate curved spines about 1/5th-inch (5 mm) long on their edges. The shape of the leaves and the spines makes them impossible to traverse without some serious flesh damage.
Other common names are "karatas," "pingouin," "bayonette," and "pinguin." Although it is mostly fleshy, Florida Wild Pineapple is classifieded as a shrub because it is perennial, and it grows to shrub size (to 6 feet tall) and has a woody core at its base and fibrous leaves.
The plants are formed of a large basal rosette and rarely develop a discernible stem. The roots are shallow, relatively fine, all of a similar size, and radiate in all directions. At the start of a plant’s last year, it grows a stout scape inflorescence with many wooly red-orange flowers, pictured here. The new leaves surrounding the inflorescence are also intensely red-orange.
By July all of these blooms will have formed bunches of 3.5-cm-long elliptical yellow berries which ripen quickly. After the fruits have withered, about 1 year after the start of fruiting, the plant dies. Not to worry, however, the plant makes many more offspring via 3-6 foot long rhizomes that radiate out in all directions during its final years (more on reproduction below).
The native range of Florida Wild Pineapple extends from Mexico through tropical South America and the Caribbean islands. In Puerto Rico nearly all the stands are on or near abandoned farmland, which may indicate a relatively recent introduction. It has been planted and naturalized in Hawaii and Florida and many other tropical areas.
Florida Wild Pineapple is intermediate in shade tolerance. Although it sometimes grows in open areas, the most vigorous stands are found under forest canopies with moderate basal areas. In Puerto Rico, natural stands occur in areas with from 850 to 2000 mm of rainfall and from near sea level to 600 m of elevation.
All types of soils except very poorly drained and saline soils are colonized. Wild Pineapple is sensitive to fire. Although many plants in a colony will recover from a burn, they do so slowly. Usually flowering is synchronized, although an occasional plant flowers out of phase, especially in moist habitat. Our soil is unconsolidated sands that are at least 85% pure quartz with a dense layer of leaf litter on the surface. The pineapple seems to prefer our nutrient poor environment.
Florida Wild Pineapple reproduces vegetatively and by seeds. The fruits, whose fresh weight averaged 12.26 + 0.35 gs, contain 0 to over 100 seeds, depending on their size. The fruits have a tough, fibrous rind. Most of the fruits are eaten by fine-toothed animals (probably rats, mice, or fruit bats) and it is assumed that the seeds are dispersed by these small mammals.
The black, teardrop-shaped seeds averaged 0.245 + 0.006 g. Seventy-five percent of these seeds germinated between 133 and 175 days after sowing.
Florida Wild Pineapple plants grow to full size (3 to 6 feet in height and 6 to 9 feet in diameter) in 2 or 3 years. Mature stands can be dense with interlacing crowns and little clear space.
Historically, and to some extent today, Florida Wild Pineapple has been used as a hedge or living fence to inhibit entry into fields and homesteads. These hedges were never more than marginally effective at stopping wildlife—cattle and many species of animals pass relatively easily—but they are effective at stopping human traffic as their thorns are brutal.
The ripe fruit can be eaten raw or cooked and is used to make a tart drink. It is not recommended to eat the fruit raw, or more specifically undiluted. The raw fruit can be extremely acidic and can burn the lip, tongue and throat. It needs to be diluted. The new leaves and flower stalks can be cooked like vegetables as can the flowers (with stinging hairs removed).
My hand above, for scale
Medicinally the juice of the fruit has been employed for many uses from treating intestinal parasites, fevers, oral ulcers and to induce abortions. Older leaves fibers have been used to make cloth, fishing line, nets and string.
After Florida Wild Pineapple plants have reached their full size and before flowering, most healthy individuals produce one or sometimes two stiff horizontal stolons about 0.5 m long. A new plant forms at the terminus. The new plants grow rapidly and reach roughly half the parent plant’s height and diameter and become independent in about a year. Consequently, (with the exception of those planted by humans) new colonies are started as seedlings from dispersed seeds and most plants within colonies arise vegetatively.