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Publication #HS1068

Pitaya Growing in the Florida Home Landscape1

Jonathan H. Crane and Carlos F. Balerdi2

Scientific Name: Hylocereus undatus and other species and hybrids (Table 1).

Common Names: English: Strawberry pear, dragon fruit, night blooming cereus. Spanish: pitahaya, tuna, nopal, pitajaya.

Family: Cactaceae

Origin: Tropical America; southern Mexico, Pacific side of Guatemala, Costa Rica and El Salvador; Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Curacao, Panama, Brazil and Uruguay.

Distribution: Tropical and subtropical America, South Florida, Caribbean, Hawaii, Asia and Australia, Taiwan, Viet Nam, Malaysia, and Israel.

Importance: Since pre-Columbian times, pitayas have been very common in their native countries where they are consumed by the general population. Recently, pitayas are being traded in international markets and have become the most important export fruit of Viet Nam. Demand will increase for many years as this delicious fruit becomes better known in other markets.

Description

Plant Stem

Pitaya are fast growing, perennial, terrestrial, epiphytic, vine-like cacti. They have triangular (3-sided, sometimes 4- or 5-sided), green, fleshy, jointed, many-branched stems. Each stem segment has 3 flat, wavy wings, (ribs) with corneous margins and may have 1-3 small spines or be spineless. The stem sections of pitaya form aerial roots which adhere to the surface upon which they grow or climb. The stem may reach about 20 ft (6.1 m) long.

Inflorescence (Flowers)

The flowers are hermaphroditic, however, some pitaya species and cultivars are self incompatible. The extremely showy, edible, white (pink in other species) flowers are very large, very fragrant, nocturnal, bell shaped and may be 14 inches long (36 cm) and 9 inches wide (23 cm). The stamens and lobed stigmas are cream colored.

Fruit

The fruit is a fleshy berry, which is oblong and about 4.5 inches (11 cm) thick with red or yellow peel with scales and with or without spines. The pulp may be white, red or magenta depending on the species. Seeds are very small, numerous and black embedded within the pulp.

Pollination

Self incompatibility has been reported in several cultivars. To ensure fruit production, plant 2 or 3 different genetic types (not the same clone). Cross pollination between the different types in the planting will assure a better fruit set and size. Moths and bats are good pollinators, since flowers open at night when there is no bee activity. All species inter-pollinate with each other.

Varieties

At the present time, there are some named cultivars (Table 2). For planting, growers are using several species and hybrids with varying skin and pulp colors. Many selections have been made and are available in the U.S. There are breeding programs in Taiwan, Viet Nam and Israel. In countries where pitaya are native, selections from the wild are being used. Many of these have been introduced into countries that are interested in growing them.

Climate

Pitayas grow well in tropical and subtropical climates, mostly free of frosts and freezes. They tolerate cool or warm climates, provided temperatures do not exceed 100° F(38°C). They tolerate some shade and may be injured by extreme sunlight. They are considered a full sunlight crop in their native countries. Initial estimates from native areas suggest that optimum temperatures for growth are 65 to 77°F (18-25°C).

Insolation (Sunburning). Severe stem damage has been reported from sunburn in some growing regions with low humidity or high altitude. About 30% shading is recommended during the first 3 to 4 months after planting and where insolation is at damaging levels. However, too much shade results in low production and poor quality fruit.

Cold. Pitayas may be damaged by exposure to below freezing temperatures (31°F; -2°C) of long duration. However, they recover rapidly from light freezing injury.

Wind. Pitayas appear to tolerate windy conditions, however, very strong winds or hurricanes may cause considerable damage to trellises or supports and consequently to the plants.

Salt. Pitayas may tolerate saline soil conditions. Some references classify them from moderate to highly tolerant to salts.

Propagation

Pitaya may be propagated from seed, however fruit and stem characteristics are variable, and the time from planting to fruit production may be up to 7 years. Asexual propagation is preferred, and the use of stem cuttings is widespread. Usually entire stem segments of 6 to 15 inches (12-38 cm) are used. A slanted cut is made at the stem base, then the cuttings are treated with a fungicide and then left to cure (dry and heal) for 7-8 days in a dry, shady location before they are planted directly in the field or in well drained media in pots. Some propagators apply a root hormone to the cuttings after curing but before planting them. Cuttings grow very fast (1.2 inches [3 cm] per day) and many produce fruit in 6 to 9 months after planting. Longer cuttings usually reach the trellis supports faster than shorter ones. Pitayas may also be grafted, but this practice is not common. Grafting has potential for selection of rootstocks adaptable to various soil types and problems. Cuttings take about 4-6 months to develop a good root system in pots and be ready for planting.

Production (Crop Yields)

Three- to 4-year-old plants may produce about 220 lbs (100 kg) of fruit per year. The life of a pitaya planting is estimated to be about 20 years.

Spacing, Trellising, and Pruning

Trellis. Pitaya plants may become quite large and spreading, and therefore individual plants should be planted 15 to 25 ft (4.5-6.1 m) or more away from trees, structures, and electrical lines. A strong trellis should be established that may withstand several hundred pounds of stem weight. A weak trellis may buckle under the weight of a mature pitaya plant. Do not use wires on the trellis because they may cut or damage the stems. If wire is used, it should be covered by hoses. For the home landscape, consider a trellis for individual plants which should consists of a post and a structure at the top of the post to support the plant. An arbor type trellis may also be constructed. Individual plants growing on a short tree or on a pile of rocks or blocks could also be used as supports for a few plants.

Training. There are two types of pruning that need to be carried out to obtain maximum production of healthy, good quality fruits. The first one involves training the growing plants until they reach the trellis. This involves eliminating any lateral stems along the main stem until it reaches the trellis, and tying the main stem to the trellis post. Soon after plants reach the top of the trellis, their tips should be cut to induce branching and the new laterals trained and tied to the trellis.

Production Pruning. Pitayas are fast growing and produce extensive growth. If no pruning is done, eventually there will be a very dense mass of stems that will reduce light penetration to the stems and interfere with harvesting the fruits. Furthermore, a dense tangle of stems may result in increased incidence of insect and disease problems. Production pruning involves the removal of damaged, diseased or dead stems and those that reach the soil. Also remove stems that interfere with cultural practices and harvesting. Selectively remove some stems and train and tie remaining stems to the trellis to prevent stem breakage and crowding. Try to select healthy, strong stems. Pitaya plants are vigorous and may require pruning one to three times per year. Cuts may be treated with a fungicide to reduce the incidence of stem rot. Pruning also induces flowering and stem branching. Prune soon after harvest and remove all pruned stems from the field. The cut stems can be taken to a location away from the field and composted.

Soils

Pitayas are adapted to a wide range of soils provided they are well-drained. They are doing well in the initial plantings in the well-drained, calcareous soils of South Florida. As with other fruit crops, they may show minor element deficiencies in the poor, high-pH soils of south Florida. Pitayas thrive in soils high in organic matter or where manure is added.

Planting a Pitaya Cactus

There are two methods of planting; one is to plant a cured cutting directly into the soil. A cured cutting is one in which the cut portion of the stem has been allowed to heal (dry) for several days in the shade. The second and highly recommended system is to plant the cured cuttings in pots, let them develop a good root system for 4-6 months, and then plant them in the landscape. Planting may be done any time in south Florida if an adequate provision for watering is made, otherwise, the warm, rainy season is a good time to plant.

Site selection

In general, pitaya plants should be planted in full or almost full sun (very light shade) for best growth and fruit production. Select a part of the landscape away from other trees, buildings and structures, and power lines. Remember, pitaya plants can become very large if not pruned to contain their size. Select the warmest area of the landscape that does not flood (or remain wet) after typical summers.

Planting in Sandy Soil

Many areas in Florida have sandy soil. Remove a 3- to 10-ft-diameter (0.9-3.1 m) ring of grass sod. Dig a hole 3 to 4 times the diameter and 3 times as deep as the container the pitaya plant came in. Making a large hole loosens the soil next to the new tree, making it easy for the roots to expand into the adjacent soil. The use of well-decomposed manure or compost mixed with the native soil dug from the hole is recommended. Water the soil before planting if it has not rained. Carefully remove the plant from the pot so the root ball stays intact, and place the plant in the center of the hole at the same level it was in the pot. Fill the hole with the same soil that came out of the hole, mixed with manure or compost, lightly pressing the soil down half way before filling and another time when finishing filling in the hole. Do not press down the soil with your feet because that may break roots. Build a berm around the plant and water well to fill pore spaces.

Staking the new plant with a wooden or bamboo stake is optional. However, do not use wire or nylon rope to tie the stem to the stake because they may eventually damage the stem as it grows. Use a cotton or natural fiber string that will degrade slowly.

Planting in Rockland Soil

Many areas in Miami-Dade County have a very shallow soil, and several inches below the soil surface is a hard, calcareous bedrock. Remove a 3- to 10-ft -diameter (0.9- to 3.1-m) ring of grass sod. Make a hole 3 to 4 times the diameter and 3 times as deep as the container the pitaya plant came in. To dig a hole, use a pick and digging bar to break up the rock or contract with a company that has augering equipment or a backhoe. Plant as described for sandy soils.

Planting on a Mound

Many areas in Florida are within 7 ft or so of the water table and experience occasional flooding after heavy rains. To improve plant survival, consider planting pitaya plants on a 2- to 3-ft high by 4- to 10-ft-diameter (0.6- to 0.9-m by 1.2- to 3.1-m) mound of native soil. After the mound is made, dig a hole 3 to 4 times the diameter and 3 times as deep as the container the tree came in. In areas where the bedrock nearly comes to the surface (rockland soil), follow the recommendations for the previous section. In areas with sandy soil, follow the recommendations from the section on planting in sandy soil.

Care of Pitaya Plants in the Home Landscape

A calendar outlining the month-to-month cultural practices for pitaya is shown in Table 3.

Fertilizer

Wait about a month after planting or until plants begin to grow to start fertilizing. Fertilization in the first year should be frequent (every 2 months) with light applications of 0.25 lb (118 g) per plant. Use a 6-6-6, 8-3-9, 8-4-12 (palm special) with 2-3% magnesium or similar formula. The addition of 4 lbs (1.2 kg) of well-decomposed manure or compost around the base of the plant but not touching the stem is recommended during the first year. Apply 4 to 6 minor element sprays from late March to September. Plants growing in high-pH, calcareous soils should be drenched around each plant with 0.25-0.5 oz (7-15 g) of chelated iron. Apply small amounts of ferrous (iron) sulfate at the base of plants growing in neutral and low-pH soils. The rainy, warm season is the best for the application of minor elements. During the second and third year, gradually increase the amount of dry fertilizer to 0.3-0.4 lb (136-182 g) per plant every two months using any of the above formulas. Gradually increase the amount of manure or compost to about 6 lbs (2.7 kg) per plant. Use the same number of minor element sprays and gradually increase the iron chelate soil drench to 0.75-1.00 oz (22-29 g) per plant. During the fourth year and after, apply 0.50 to 0.75 lbs (227-341 g) of fertilizer per plant of the above formulas, using 3 to 4 applications per year and the same minor element and iron chelate recommendations. Apply manure or compost at 5 lbs (2.2 kg) each application, twice per year.

Irrigation (watering)

Although pitayas are members of the cactus family and may withstand dry periods, they have a fairly high water requirement. However, excessive soil moisture will result in the development of bacterial and fungus diseases. A dry period is required for abundant bloom induction, but once plants flower, periods of drought may result in poor production. Therefore, no watering is recommended during the spring once summer rains begin or watering is initiated since flowering will be induced.

Pitaya Plants and Lawn Care

Pitaya plants in the home landscape are susceptible to trunk injury caused by lawn mowers and weed eaters. Maintain a grass-free area 2 to 5 or more feet (0.6-1.5 m) away from the plant. Never hit the plant stem with lawn mowing equipment and never use a weed eater near the base of the vine. Mechanical damage to the plant stem will weaken the stem and if severe enough, may cause dieback or kill the plant.

Roots of mature plants spread beyond the drip-line of the plant canopy, and heavy fertilization of the lawn next to pitaya plants is not recommended because it may reduce fruiting and or fruit quality. The use of lawn sprinkler systems on a timer may result in over watering and cause the cactus plant to decline. This is because too much water too often applied causes root rot.

Mulch

Mulching pitaya plants in the home landscape helps retain soil moisture, reduces weed problems next to the plant stem, and improves the soil near the surface. Mulch with a 2- to 6-inch (5- to 15-cm) layer of bark, wood chips, or similar mulch material. Keep mulch 8- to 12-inches (20- to 30-cm) from the base of the plant stem.

Insect Pests

Some damage by mites, thrips, ants, scales and mealybugs, beetles, borers (Diatrea), slugs and fruit flies has been reported. Raccoons, possums, rats and birds may also cause damage to fruit and plants. Severe scale infestations of stems have been reported in Florida.

Diseases

Several important diseases attack pitayas. These include the bacterium Xanthomonas compestris, which causes a severe stem rot, and Dothiorella and anthracnose. Severe anthracnose damage to newly planted pitaya has been observed in Florida, and anthracnose also attacks the fruits. Fusarium oxysporum has also attacked plants. Please contact your local County Cooperative Extension Agent for current control measures.

Harvest, Ripening, and Storage

Thorny pitayas are more difficult to harvest than thornless ones. Leather gloves and long sleeved shirts are recommended for harvesting thorny pitayas. The ripening season for H. undatus in Florida generally goes from June to November. Hand clippers should be used to remove fruits from the plants. Be careful not to damage the fruit, and remove any stub at the stem attachment by cutting the peduncle (fruit stem) flush to the fruit surface. Harvest only well colored, mature fruit. Fruit will keep 4 to 5 days at room temperature or several weeks in plastic bags in the refrigerator.

Uses and Nutritional Value

Most pitayas are consumed fresh, however, the frozen pulp may be used to make ice cream, yogurt, jelly, preserves, marmalade, juice, candy and pastries. Unopened flower buds can be cooked and eaten as a vegetable. Pitaya seeds contain an oil that is a mild laxative. Pitaya are nutritious (Table 4).

Tables

Table 1. 

Species of pitaya.

Species

Color

 

Peel

Pulp

Hylocereus undatus

Red

White

Hylocereus triangularis

Yellow

White

Hylocereus costaricenes

Red

Red

Hylocereus polyrhizus

Red

Red

Hylocereus ocamponis

Red

Red

Selenicereus megalanthus

Yellow

White

Cereus triangularis

Yellow

White

Acanthocereus pitajaya

Yellow

White

Cereus ocamponis

Red

Red

Table 2. 

Pitaya varieties available in Florida.

Name1

Origin

Species

Need for cross pollination

Weight (lbs)

Peel color

Pulp color

Flavor

Rec.2

Alice

California

Hylocereus undatus

Yes

0.5-1.0

Bright pink, green scales

White

Semisweet, good

M

American Beauty

Guatemala

H. guatemalensis

No

0.5-1.0

Pink, light green scales

Dark pink

Good flavor

Y

Bloody Mary

California

H. polyrhizus

Yes

0.25-0.5

Red, green scales

Dark red

Semisweet, good

N

Cosmic Charlie

California

H. undatus

No

0.75-1.25

Pink, light green scales

Pink

Grape/kiwi-

like flavor

Y

Costa Rican Sunset

Costa Rica

Hylocereus spp.

Yes

0.25-0.5

Pink, green scales

Dark red

Good flavor

M

Dark Star

California

H. undatus

No

0.75-1.25

Pink, light green scales

Pink

Mild grape-like flavor

Y

David Bowie

California

H. undatus

No

0.5-1.0

Bright pink, green on margins of scales

White

Sweet, tangy flavor

Y

Delight

California

H. polyrhizus x H. undatus

No

0.5-1.0

Bright pink, green scales

White

Sweet

Y

Guyute

Central America

H. undatus

No

0.5-1.0

Pink, green scales

White

Sweet

Y

Halleys Comet

California

H. undatus x H. polyrhizus

No

1.5-2.0

Pink, green scales

Dark pink

Sweet, good flavor

Y

Harpua

Central America

H. undatus

No

0.75-1.0

Bright pink, green scales

White

Semisweet, good flavor

M

L.A. Women

California

H. undatus

Yes

0.75-1.5

Bright pink, green scales

White

Sweet, bad after taste

N (bad aftertaste)

Lake Atitlan

Guatemala

H. guatemalensis

No

0.75-1.0

Bright pink, green scales

White

Sweet and tangy flavor

M

Makisupa

Central America

H. undatus x H. polyrhizus

No

0.75-1.0

Pink, green scales

Dark Pink

Sweet, slightly astringent

Y

Neitzl

California

H. undatus

No

0.75-1.0

Bright pink, green scales

White

Sweet

Y

Physical Graffiti

California

H. polyrhizus x H. undatus

No

0.75-1.5

Dark pink, green scales

Pink

Sweet, good flavor

Y

Purple Haze

California

H. undatus

No

1.0-2.0

Dark pink, green scales

Dark pink

Sweet grape/kiwi- like flavor

Y

Red Jaina

Florida

H. ployrhizus

Yes

0.5-0.75

Dark pink, dark pink scales

Red

Semisweet, good flavor

N

Seoul Kitchen

Florida

H. undatus

No

0.75-1.0

Bright pink, light green scales

White

Sweet

Y

Thompson

California

H. undatus

No

0.75-1.5

Bright pink, green scales

White

Sweet, good flavor

Y

Vietnam Jaina

Vietnam

H. undatus

No

0.5-1.5

Bright pink, green scales

White

Semisweet

Y

Voodoo Child

Florida

H. ployrhizus

No

0.15-0.25

Dark pink, green scales

Dark pink

Sweet, grape-like flavor

M

Yellow Dragon

Florida

Selenicereus megalanthus

No

0.5-0.75

Bright yellow, green tinged scales

White

Sweet, very good flavor

Y

Zamorano

Honduras

H. ployrhizus

No

0.5-1.0

Red, scales with green margins

Red

Sweet, mild flavor

Y

1 Selected and named in Florida.

2 Recommendation for planting in the home landscape; Y, yes; M, maybe; and N, no.

Table 3. 

Cultural calendar for pitaya production in the home landscape.

Operation

Jan

Feb

March

April

May

June

July

Aug

Sept

Oct

Nov

Dec

General NPK1

  Apply NPK   Apply NPK   Apply NPK   Apply NPK   Apply NPK   Apply NPK

Nutritional sprays2

    Apply 4 to 6 minor element nutritional sprays during the warm period of the year.      
Iron applications    

Apply dry ferrous (iron) sulfate to plants growing in neutral to low-pH soils and apply soil drenches of chelated iron to vines growing in high-pH soils.

   
Watering  

Do not water during this time unless the plant is flowering.

Water only during periods of prolonged dry periods.
Insect control Monitor for insect pests year round. Contact your local county extension agent for current control recommendations.
Disease control Monitor for insect pests year round. Do not overwater pitaya. Contact your local county extension agent for current control recommendations.
Pruning

Remove damaged and weak stems. Selectively remove some stems to enhance growth and vigor of remaining stems and to induce flowering.

1 NPK, nitrogen-phosphate-potash.

2 Nutritional sprays should contain manganese, zinc, and other micro-nutrients.

Table 4. 

Nutrient value per 100 g (3.5 oz) of fresh pitaya pulp.

Consitutent

Species

 

H. guatemalensis1

H. undatus1

S. megalanthus2

Water

83%

89%

85%

Protein

0.16-0.23 g

0.5 g

0.4 g

Fat

0.21-0.61 g

0.1 g

0.1 g

Fiber

0.7-0.9 g

0.3 g

0.5 g

Ash

0.54-0.68 g

0.5 g

0.4 g

Calcium

6.3-8.8 mg

6.0 mg

10.0 mg

Phosphorus

30.2-36.1 mg

19.0 mg

16.0 mg

Iron

0.55-0.65 mg

0.4 mg

0.3 mg

Carotene

0.005-0.012 mg

NR

NR

Thiamine

0.28-0.43 mg

0 mg

0 mg

Riboflavin

0.28-0.45 mg

0 mg

0 mg

Niacin

0.297-0.430 mg

0.2 mg

0.2 mg

Ascorbic acid

8-9 mg

25 mg

4 mg

1 From: Julia F. Morton. 1987. Fruits of Warm Climates. p. 505.

2 From: Tabla de Composicion de Alimentos. 1992. ICBF.6ta Ed. INCAPYFAO y FAO (From: El Cultivo de Pitaya y su Posicionamiento en el Mercado. p19, http://www.angelfire.com/ia2/ingenieriaagricola/ pitaya.htm).

Footnotes

1.

This document is HS1068, one of a series of the Horticultural Sciences Department, Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida. Original publication date November 2005. Reviewed November 2009 and July 2013. Visit the EDIS website at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu.

2.

Jonathan H. Crane, Professor and Tropical Fruit Crops Extension Specialist, Tropical Research and Education Center, Homestead, FL; Carlos F. Balerdi, Professor and Multi-County Fruit Crops Extension Agent IV, Miami-Dade County, Homestead, FL; Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL 32611.


The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is an Equal Opportunity Institution authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function with non-discrimination with respect to race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations. For more information on obtaining other UF/IFAS Extension publications, contact your county's UF/IFAS Extension office.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, UF/IFAS Extension Service, University of Florida, IFAS, Florida A & M University Cooperative Extension Program, and Boards of County Commissioners Cooperating. Nick T. Place, dean for UF/IFAS Extension.