Posts Tagged: pitahaya
Once you know what a dragon fruit looks like, you will never forget it. The bright red, sometimes yellow or purple, scaly skin makes for a dramatic appearance. One that will surely leave an impression. The flesh ranges from white to a deep pink and the flavor is often described as having hints of kiwi, watermelon, or pear.
Since 2007, the Pitahaya/Dragon Fruit Production Tour, has united dragon fruit growers of all levels and backgrounds. After a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, registration for the 2022 tour filled up in less than 24 hours.
A group of 60 participants gathered Sept. 8 at the Wallace Ranch Dragon Fruit Farm in Bonsall to learn the latest research on growing the drought-tolerant specialty crop. Ramiro Lobo, a small farms and agricultural economics advisor for UC Cooperative Extension in San Diego County, introduced dragon fruit growers and other UC scientists.
“I can't remember a year where this event was not sold out. So, the need and demand is there,” said Eyal Givon, a long-time participant and dragon fruit grower.
The tour not only demonstrates how to grow the fruit, but it also grants participants access to plant material for varieties that are unavailable elsewhere.
“We have given out about 50,000 cuttings through our festival and some varieties were unique to us because we introduced them to the U.S.,” said Lobo.
During their time at Wallace Ranch, participants heard from the farm's owner, Neva Day, regarding the growing practices that have shaped her success today. Day has been growing organic dragon fruit since 2013 and has well over 5,000 plants on the ground and more than 20 varieties.
According to Middleton, Pecan Sandies are a balanced source of fat, protein, and sugar, making them excellent bait for the sugar-loving insects.
Participants eventually made their way to Dragon Delights Farm located in Ramona. Kevin Brixey, the farm's owner, has been growing organic dragon fruit for six years.
Although Brixey was hosting this year's tour participants, he used to be one of them.
“I attended the Pitahaya Festival in 2014 and that's where I realized dragon fruit was something I could grow. There was a lot of good information being shared and a connection to other growers, so it was a major steppingstone for me,” he says.
Unlike traditional dragon fruit growers, Brixey uses shade to grow his dragon fruit after learning about the method from another grower.
“I was impressed. I liked how the fruit performed under shade and now I use it as a management tool,” Brixey explained. In Inland Valleys, shade can shield fruit from intense sunlight and protect them from unwanted guests that eat the fruit, such as birds.
At the Farm Bureau of San Diego County offices, participants learned about the history of dragon fruit growing in California, food safety, pest management, best production practices and much more.
The presenters included experts like Paul Erickson from Rare Dragon Fruit, Lobo, Middleton, Johanna del Castillo from UC Davis Department of Plant Pathology and Ariana Reyes, a community education specialist from UCCE San Diego.
When reflecting on his time participating in the production tour, Givon, who has been growing dragon fruit for about 20 years and manages a 20-acre farm in Moorpark, said he enjoys reconnecting with other growers the most.
“What others are doing, might be better than what I'm doing,” Givon said. “Or what I'm doing, could be better than what someone else is doing. This time together is good for us to learn from each other.”
Lobo agreed with Givon and added, “I hope that these tours become self-sustained, and that we go back to a research field day at Southcoast REC with regional tours in San Diego and Ventura as we did before, or any other counties.”
The Pitahaya/Dragon Fruit Production Tour is an annual event hosted by UCCE San Diego. To learn more about UCCE San Diego events, visit https://cesandiego.ucanr.edu.
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.
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