Posts Tagged: Pitahaya
Farmer Arian Williams is successfully tending 16 acres of avocados in the De Luz area of Temecula, but he and his wife came to the 10th annual UC Pitahaya Festival in August to see whether there is commercial potential in producing pitahaya.
"We're taking cuttings, and trying it now," Williams said.
Vanessa Caballero, Williams wife, was enthusiastic about the prospect. "I love the way pitahayas look, and there are not too many grown commercially now," she said.
The field day at the UC South Coast Research and Extension Center in Irvine included research-based presentations on irrigation strategies, gopher control, integrated pest management, and the impact of root knot nematode on the vining, climbing pitahaya cacti. Native to Central America, the crop has become popular in Asia and the Middle East. Most of the fruit sold in the U.S. is imported.
UC Cooperative Extension advisor Ramiro Lobo has found that the unusually beautiful fruiting cactus thrives in Southern California's mild climate. Pitahaya do well in regions where avocados are produced, but use much less water. They can also make excellent landscape plants, adding interest to the garden while producing healthful fruit.
Pitahaya fruit begin as large, showy, nighttime-blooming flowers, each of which contain male and female parts. In many of the most-desirable varieties, the anthers (the male part with pollen) and the stigma (the female part that needs to be pollinated) are separated by a distance that prevents night-flying pollinators, such as moths, from consistently making the connection.
For a uniform and bountiful crop, Lobo suggests hand pollination. Pollen can be collected by shaking a bloom over a bowl or trimming the anthers into a cup with a pair of scissors. He stores pollen in the freezer until the night or early morning hours when cacti bloom. He dabs up pollen with an inexpensive makeup brush and lightly swishes it onto the flowers' stigma.
“It's easy and takes just a few seconds per flower," Lobo said. "If you don't hand pollinate, you end up with fruits that are very small. And uniformity isn't there."
Hand pollination also allows farmers to accurately project their pitahaya harvest and work in advance with fruit marketing companies to sell the crop. Lobo said he carries a mechanical counter to click as he pollinates flowers. Forty days later, that precise number of fruit will be ready for harvest.
Question: What exotic fruit has been named as a flavor in Starburst candy, Ice Breakers gum, SoBe beverages, Vitamin Water drinks, Bacardi rum and even Axe body spray?
Answer: Dragon fruit. (Hylocereus spp.)
If you want to try one, you may be in luck because now is the peak harvest season in Southern California for this subtropical cactus fruit with the fire-breathing name — also known as pitahaya. And it just so happens that growing and eating fresh dragon fruit is what Ramiro Lobo, UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor for San Diego County and the Small Farm Program, is most interested in.
Lobo says he’s known about pitahaya since he was a kid, but his professional interest was rekindled when the enthusiasm of the Rare Fruit Growers group intersected with an ongoing quest to find crops that are more water-efficient for the region.
“Wherever you can grow Hass avocados, you can grow dragon fruit,” he said. “And it uses less water than avocados or any other orchard crop that we grow in San Diego.”
“We’ve seen the market expanding. We’re seeing it in high-end restaurants in Los Angeles and Las Vegas,” he said. “Supply is very sketchy right now, but growers who are selling direct at farmers markets are getting $7-8 per pound. Hardly any other fruit today is bringing that kind of money.”
One other clue that the U.S. market for this “artichoke from Mars” (as one LA Times writer described it) is expanding? Imports of the fruit have been growing from Vietnam, with perhaps 600 tons imported in 2010. And the USDA is currently working through the processes that could allow imports from Mexico, Thailand and Central America too.
While Lobo doesn’t sound too worried about competing with imported dragon fruit, he does hope your first taste of fresh dragon fruit is indeed very fresh.
“We cannot compete with Vietnam fruit for price, but we can definitely compete for quality,” he said. “The challenge is that a lot of people are exposed to dragon fruit, but the fruit quality is lousy. It’s a very sensitive fruit, so if you put it in a container and send it across the ocean for 10 days, it’s not going to be as good. But people who get exposed to a good variety keep buying it.”
In California, it is estimated that about 200 acres are planted in pitahaya, with anywhere from 400 to 1,000 acres planted nationwide.
Lobo oversees approximately 500 dragon fruit plants at the UC South Coast Research and Extension Center in Irvine. He is currently working to set up an irrigation trial for pitahaya, to better evaluate its water requirements. He is also working to test out different trellis systems, comparing hedge versus orchard systems for this fruiting cactus.
The UC South Coast Research and Extension Center is also where the pitahaya field day was held recently. Lobo said questions from the day’s 100 or so participants sounded like more growers are getting serious about growing pitahaya commercially, with more technical questions and an interest in disease, rodent and pest management.
“The bar has been raised, and [some of those questions] even put us in a bind because without the research, it is kind of hard to answer them,” he said.
In the meantime, Californians and marketing companies will probably continue to find new secondary uses for this fruit’s juice, pulp and name: Lobo says he’s seen wines made with dragon fruit and organic yarn dyed naturally with that fiery pink flesh.