Pitahaya, California’s New Specialty Crop?

(This article was written by Shermain Hardesty and published in the University of California Cooperative Extensions, UC Small Farm Program blog on September 10, 2015.)

Declining profits from most agricultural crops grown combined with increasing restrictions on water use have forced many Southern California farmers to look for more water efficient and profitable crop alternatives to diversify their farming operations. Pitahaya or Dragon Fruit (Hylocereus spp.) meets these requirements and has emerged as a viable crop alternative with great profit potential for small-scale agricultural producers in the region.

Pitahaya is a vining cactus that adapts very well to arid southern California micro-climates and can survive with minimal amounts of water. Its fruit is highly prized by Southeast Asian consumers not only as a fresh fruit but also for its cultural importance. However, market trends and increasing demand for new, exotic and more nutritious fruits have increased the appeal of this fruit among mainstream American consumers and the demand currently exceeds the domestic supply.

flat of pitahaya

Most pitahaya consumed in the US has been traditionally imported from Southeast Asia with limited domestic production from Florida and California. However, most of this fruit has been from white-fleshed cultivars of Asian origin, which rarely met consumers’ flavor expectations based on the fruit’s exotic appearance.

Recognizing that more research-based information and tastier, more colorful varieties were needed to increase consumer demand and to help growers capitalize on this opportunity, UCCE Small Farm Advisor Ramiro Lobo initiated a pitahaya research and extension program with seed money from the former UC Small Farm Program. Subsequent grants from UC-ANR and from the UC Hansen Trust have allowed Farm Advisor Lobo to expand the geographic scope of this program into Riverside and Ventura Counties in collaboration with Jose Fernandez de Soto, Jose Aguiar, other Advisors and Specialists from UC Davis and UC Riverside and private growers and suppliers.

Research efforts to date have focused on the evaluation of pitahaya cultivars for adaptation to local micro-climates, the genetic characterization of a pitahaya germplasm collection, pest and disease management, irrigation and fertility management and post harvest management information. This research has demonstrated that pitahaya or dragon fruit adapts very well to field grown conditions in Southern California and that this drought-tolerant plant can be a profitable crop alternative for small-scale producers in Southern Coastal California.

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