A pitaya (//) or pitahaya (//) is the fruit of several different cactus species indigenous to the Americas. Pitaya usually refers to fruit of the genus Stenocereus, while pitahaya or dragon fruit refers to fruit of the genus Hylocereus, both in the family Cactaceae. The dragon fruit is cultivated in Southeast Asia, Florida, the Caribbean, Australia, and throughout tropical and subtropical regions of the world.
Vernacular names of Hylocereus
These fruits are commonly known in English as "dragon fruit", a name used since around 1993, apparently resulting from the leather-like skin and prominent scaly spikes on the fruit exterior. The names pitahaya and pitaya derive from Mexico, and pitaya roja in Central America and northern South America, possibly relating to pitahaya for names of tall cacti species with flowering fruit. The fruit may also be known as a strawberry pear.
Pitaya-producing cacti of the genus, Hylocereus, are native to a region including Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, El Salvador, and northern South America. The dragon fruit is cultivated in Southeast Asia, southern California, Florida, the Caribbean, Australia, and throughout tropical and subtropical world regions.
Stenocereus fruit (sour pitayas) are a variety that is commonly eaten in the arid regions of the Americas. They are more sour and refreshing, with juicier flesh and a stronger taste. The sour pitaya or pitaya agria (S. gummosus) in the Sonoran Desert has been an important food source for indigenous peoples of the Americas. The Seri people of northwestern Mexico still harvest the fruit, and call the plant ziix is ccapxl "thing whose fruit is sour". The fruit of related species, such as S. queretaroensis and the dagger cactus (S. griseus), are also locally important foods. The fruit of the organ pipe cactus (S. thurberi, called ool by the Seris) is the pitaya dulce "sweet pitaya". It has a more tart aroma than Hylocereus fruit, described as somewhat reminiscent of watermelon.
Dragon fruit Hylocereus
Sweet pitayas come in three types, all with leathery, slightly leafy skin:
- Hylocereus undatus (Pitaya blanca or white-fleshed pitaya) has pink-skinned fruit with white flesh. This is the most commonly seen "dragon fruit".
- Hylocereus costaricensis (Pitaya roja or red-fleshed pitaya, also known as Hylocereus polyrhizus) has red-skinned fruit with red flesh.
- Hylocereus megalanthus (Pitaya amarilla or yellow pitaya, also known as Selenicereus megalanthus) has yellow-skinned fruit with white flesh.
The fruit normally weighs from 150 to 600 grams (5.3 to 21.2 oz); some may reach 1 kilogram (2.2 lb). Early imports from Colombia to Australia were designated Hylocereus ocampensis (or Cereus repandus, the red fruit) and Cereus triangularis (supposedly, the yellow fruit). It is not quite certain to which species these taxa refer.
After thorough cleaning of the seeds from the pulp of the fruit, the seeds may be stored when dried. The ideal fruit is unblemished and overripe.
Seeds grow well in a compost or potting soil mix – even as a potted indoor plant. Pitaya cacti usually germinate after between 11 and 14 days after shallow planting. As they are cacti, overwatering is a concern for home growers. As their growth continues, these climbing plants will find something to climb on, which can involve putting aerial roots down from the branches in addition to the basal roots. Once the plant reaches a mature 10 pounds in weight, the plant may flower.
Commercial plantings can be done at high density with between 1100 and 1350 plants per hectare. Plants can take up to five years to come into full commercial production, at which stage yields of 20 to 30 tons per hectare can be expected.
Pitaya flowers bloom overnight and usually wilt by the morning. They rely on nocturnal pollinators such as bats or moths for fertilization. Self-fertilization will not produce fruit in some species, and while cross-breeding has resulted in several "self-fertile" varieties, cross-pollinating with a second plant species generally increases fruit set and quality. This limits the capability of home growers to produce the fruit. However, the plants can flower between three and six times in a year depending on growing conditions. Like other cacti, if a healthy piece of the stem is broken off, it may take root in soil and become its own plant.
The plants can endure temperatures up to 40 °C (104 °F) and very short periods of frost, but will not survive long exposure to freezing temperatures. The cacti thrive most in USDA zones 10–11, but may survive outdoors in zone 9a or 9b.
Hylocereus has adapted to live in dry tropical climates with a moderate amount of rain. The dragon fruit sets on the cactus-like trees 30–50 days after flowering and can sometimes have 5-6 cycles of harvests per year. In numerous regions, it has escaped cultivation to become a weed and is classified as an invasive weed in some countries.
Pests and diseases
Stems and fruits are susceptible to several diseases caused by fungi, bacteria, a nematode, and a virus. Overwatering or excessive rainfall can cause the flowers to drop and fruit to rot. The bacterium Xanthomonas campestris causes the stems to rot. Dothiorella fungi can cause brown spots on the fruit. Other fungi known to infect pitaya include Botryosphaeria dothidea, Colletotrichum gloesporioides and Bipolaris cactivora.
The fruit's texture is sometimes likened to that of the kiwifruit because of its black, crunchy seeds. The seed oil contains the fatty acids, linoleic acid and linolenic acid. Dragon fruit is used to flavor and color juices and alcoholic beverages, such as "Dragon's Blood Punch" and the "Dragotini". The flowers can be eaten or steeped as tea.
|Nutritional value per 100 g (3.5 oz)|
|Energy||268 kcal (1,120 kJ)|
|Dietary fiber||1.8 g|
|†Percentages are roughly approximated using US recommendations for adults. |
Source: USDA Nutrient Database
As the nutrient content of raw pitaya has not been thoroughly analyzed or published as of 2019, the USDA FoodData Central database reports one limited product label entry from a manufacturer of a branded product, showing that a 100 gram amount of pitaya contains 268 calories, 82% carbohydrates, 4% protein, and 11% of the Daily Value each for vitamin C and calcium (see USDA link in table).
|Hylocereus costaricensis (Red-fleshed pitaya)||Hylocereus undatus (White-fleshed pitaya)|
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