For those wanting something different in their fruit orchard, these little known members of the Cactaceae family might be what you're looking for. They require an old tree stump or a trellis as the pitaya has a self-supporting climbing habit. It is a vigorous growing plant capable of obtaining nourishment from wherever the active aerial root system adheres itself. The fleshy deep green stems will branch anywhere along the main stem, these branches or joints of all sizes often reaching 5 metres. The stems are triangular, 2 - 10 cm in diameter, more or less wavy with the rounded edges having short ash-coloured spines.
The two species imported to North Queensland from Colombia are: Hylocereus oncampensis, Red pitaya and Cereus triangularis, yellow pitaya. Pitaya fruits are globose to oval, 5 - 15 cm long, with spongy pulp containing numerous small black seeds. The yellow pitaya is the smaller of the two fruit, and is distinct in that it is covered with many small clusters of spines, which are easily brushed off the fully ripe fruit. The red pitaya has no spines, but instead large leaf like scales on its surface. Both pitayas have a delicious juicy sweet flesh which separates easily from the skin. Red pitaya has a staining red-to-purple flesh, and yellow pitaya has a translucent white flesh. The fragrant red pulp of H. oncampensis is not appealing to all, whilst C. triangularis has a flavour readily acceptable to European tastes.
Pitayas produce large showy nocturnal flowers 25 - 30 cm long. These strongly-scented trumpet-like flowers are freely produced in late summer with some flowering occurring throughout the year. These fruit mature in 4 - 8 weeks from anthesis.
Pitayas are naturally hardy, growing in arid or fertile areas, the latter producing a larger fruit and crop size. They are easily propagated by stem cuttings or seeds, both of which take about 2 - 4 years to produce fruit.
Many varieties of pitayas exist, one of which has the size and shape of H. oncampensis and the appealing translucent white flesh of C. triangularis, which raises the need for selecting and cloning the best varieties. Pitayas are not tropical climate requiring, and do well in sub-tropical and temperate climates to 0°C without any major damage. No yield figures have been documented for pitaya, however, existing North Queensland plantings have produced 20 Kg of fruit in a season, on young plants.
The fruit would be a good market-place attraction having good ornamental qualities and a delicious juicy flavour. They are in season when most tropical fruits are finished, and store well under refrigeration. A lot of research is yet to be done on Pitaya, however initial response is promising for commercial prospects.
DATE: July 1983
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