Pitaya: the new wonder fruit
For a tropical fruit that has often been described as bland in taste, the recent display of public interest in pitaya, better known as dragon fruit, has taken some fruit experts by surprise. In 1994, only scarce research existed on pitaya, as Professor Yosef Mizrahi, a dragon fruit expert from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel told participants in the recently concluded “International Workshop on Improving Pitaya Production and Marketing.” The articulate Mizrahi told the participants that the recent worldwide interest in this novel fruit is evident as numbers of pitaya-related publications have grown rapidly during the past decade.
Mizrahi is the keynote speaker in the workshop jointly sponsored by FFTC, Vietnam’s Southern Fruit Research Institute (SOFRI) and the Fengshan Tropical Horticultural Experiment Branch of the Taiwan District Agricultural Research Extension Station (TDARES) in Kaoshiung. In his almost two-hour talk, Mizrahi tried to clarify the big confusion about pitaya’s botanical and commercial name. In terms of taxonomy, the Israeli Professor said the vine-cacti belong to three separate genera. The three-ribbed shoots belong to Hylocerus, while the two-ribbed shoots belong to Epiphyllum, and the four and more ribbed shoots belong to Selenicereus genus. Through the years, Mizrahi and his staff has performed crosses between clones of the same species (inter-clonal hybrids), between different species (interspecific hybrids) and between different genera (inter-generic hybrids), in order to improve their taste and physical quality and many crosses were successful.
Mizrahi reported that in 1995, Vietnam was the first country to sell pitayas in world markets under the name Dragon Pearl Fruit. Today, it is already being marketed in around 20 countries all over the world and continues to be popular especially with the discovery of its various health benefits—from being a super antioxidant to containing phytonutrients from vitamins B and C to polyunsaturated (good) fats to carotene, protein, etc. Other than fruits, pitaya plants also serve other important human needs. For one, the red pigments of the red pitayas are used as food coloring agents. Its flowers, on the other hand, are also used as vegetables, health beverage and health food. Vietnam is still the leading producer and exporter of dragon fruit, far ahead of all other countries combined with hundreds of thousands of tons being shipped annually to different parts of the world.
In the said workshop, speakers and pitaya experts talked about the various doable technologies to address some of the production problems of the farmers in the region. Some of these are optimal spacing, trellising, disease diagnosis, integrated pest management, pruning, phenology manipulation and GAPs that increase pitaya productivity, safety and marketability. The speakers and participants also visited several pitaya farms in the southern part of Taiwan and interacted with farm owners regarding their best production and marketing practices.
Professor Mizrah believes that pitaya is indeed a rising star in the tropical fruits world due to the following reasons: it is an extremely visually attractive fruit which also nowadays has a good taste because of the new hybrids. The water use efficiency is the highest among all fruit trees. It contains many nutraceuticals which are now highly appreciated by consumers. The fruits can also be produced all-year round and the plants have other uses aside from its fruits. In his paper, the Israeli Professor also mentioned that an obstacle to its success is the marketing of the old bland clones which should be avoided in the emerging markets.
Pitaya workshop’s major findings and recommendations
1. Consider tissue culture for pitaya in the transfer and exchange of plant materials;
2. Run taste tests of pitaya fruit and make this an SOP in research work to find out more about consumers’ tastes and preferences;
3. Involve stakeholders in the formation of a pitaya network and make sure they are well-informed about the latest in dragon fruit research;
4. Develop strategies to strengthen R&D funding support and the promotion of pitaya in the international market;
5. Compile best practices in pitaya production and marketing and disseminate this using the internet and other forms of social media;
6. Develop capacity building modules on pitaya canopy management, handling of pests and diseases, pruning, grafting and breeding techniques;
7. Conduct further studies on economic losses in pitaya production and marketing as well as the linkages between and among farmers and other participants in the whole dragon fruit marketing chain;
8. Standardize SOPs for handling pests and diseases and conducting consumer surveys.
Twenty speakers from 10 countries, including 40 local observers and eight other delegates comprise the participants of the international workshop on “Improving Pitaya Production and Marketing.” Photo shows the whole team in Ru-Yuan fresh fruit orchard in Wandang Township, Pingtung County. The orchard produces red-flesh pitaya grown in neatly arranged trellises.
Professor Yosef Mizrahi of the Department of Life Sciences, Ben-Gurion University, University of the Negev Beer Sheva, Israel is the keynote speaker in the workshop. He delivered a lecture entitled "Thirty-One Years of Research and Development in the Vine Cacti Pitaya in Israel" and cheerfully shared his experiences and learnings in the production and marketing of dragon fruit.
The red-flesh pitaya (Hylocereus costaricensis) is starting to get popular in the Asian Pacific region. Aside from its sweet taste, antioxidant properties and other health benefits, it’s also used as food coloring agent.
Professor Yosef Mizrahi (middle in checkered shirt) listens to the owners of the pitaya orchard who talked about their production and marketing operations. The workshop participants visited several dragon fruit orchards during the one-day farm educational tour.
Pitaya farm orchard owners, most of whom are located in the southern part of Taiwan, individually wrap the mature dragon fruit with plastic or nylon nets to protect the fruits from insects and pests. The owners of the fruit orchard admit that the bags add up to their production expense but in the end, it is still cost efficient.