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.
A native of Mexico and South American, the beautiful tropical fruit pitahaya - also known as dragon fruit - could be a viable crop for Southern California desert, said an article in the Desert Sun.
Ramiro Lobo, UC Cooperative Extension advisor in San Diego County, shared the results of pitahaya studies conducted in San Diego and Irvine with a group of inland desert farmers recently.
“The fruit size and quality is good ... we’re getting great marketable yields,” Lobo said.
In March, five varieties of the fruit were test-planted at UC Riverside's Coachella Valley Agricultural Research Station in Oasis.
“We’re selecting varieties that can tolerate the heat,” said José Luis Aguiar, UCCE advisor in Riverside County. “They’re doing well in San Diego County and Irvine and we’re trying to extend the range.”
Dragon fruit grows on a cactus plant. (Photo: Jose Luis Aguiar)
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.
Pitahayas, as packed at a small farm in San Diego. (Photo by Shermain Hardesty)
At UC South Coast Research and Extension Center, the dragon fruit plants are currently in an orchard system, though new trellis trials will soon be under way. (Photo by Shermain Hardesty)
Pitahaya blooms at UC South Coast Research and Extension Center. (Photo by Shermain Hardesty)
Colors of ripe pitahaya flesh can vary between red, fuschia, pink and white.
Irvine Field Station white flesh pitahaya
Los Angeles Times food writer David Karp dubbed the exotic fruit pitahaya "artichokes from Mars" in a story which drew inspiration from a UC Cooperative Extension field day held last month at the UC South Coast Research and Extension Center.
Karp described pitahaya - also known as dragon fruit - as flaming pink, spineless cactus fruits, with neon magenta flesh and a mild, sweet flavor. They have tiny, edible black seeds, similar to a kiwi's.
UC's resident pitahaya expert is Small Farm Program advisor Ramiro Lobo, based at the Cooperative Extension office in San Diego County. He has a test planting at the Research and Extension Center with 19 varieties. Because pitahaya, which grows on climbing cacti, requires less water than avocados, they may be an alternative crop for farmers faced with water shortages. The annual pitahaya field day this year was attended by 140 home gardeners and farmers who may be interested in cultivating the unusual fruit in California.
Much of the locally grown pitahaya is sold at farmers markets and some of the pitahaya found at grocery stores is imported. According to Karp's story, USDA permitted Vietnam farmers to export irradiated pitahaya fruit to the U.S. However, the fruit's short shelf life requires it be shipped by air, an expensive endeavor.
Mexico also presents competition for U.S. pitahaya growers. Currently farmers there grow 5,000 acres of pitahaya, and USDA permits exports from fruit-fly-free districts to the U.S.
"Most of the plantings (in Mexico) currently are not in such areas, but if that changes, the fruit may become as common as mangoes here," Karp wrote.
Artichokes from Mars (Photo: Wikipedia Commons.)
The beautiful color and exotic shape of dragon fruit is being produced successfully in Southern California backyards and on small farms thanks to the work of UC Small Farm Program advisor Ramiro Lobo, based at the UC Cooperative Extension office in San Diego County.
Lobo will once again host backyard gardeners and farmers at the 2009 Dragon Fruit Festival and Field Day Saturday, Aug. 29, at the UC South Coast Research and Extension Center near Irvine. The event was publicized by the Village Voice blog, Roger's Pick.
Dragon fruit is native to Mexico, Central, South America and parts of the Caribbean. It's flesh can be white, pink or magenta depending upon variety, according to Roger's Pick writer Roger Boddaert. The magenta flesh, he writes, contains lycopene, a natural antioxidant believed to fight cancer, heart disease and lower blood pressure.
Next Saturday's festival will include:
- Tour of pitahaya research field plots
- Presentations by Lobo and other experts
- Pitahaya fruit tasting, brix measurements and cutting distribution
For more information about the festival, click here.
Lobo speaks at last year's Dragon Fruit Festival.