The Pitahaya or Dragon Fruit (Selenicereus undatus (Haw.) D.R.Hunt) is a succulent species belonging to the Cactaceae family.
From a systematic point of view it belongs to:
S. undatus species.
The term is basionym:
– Cereus undatus Haw..
The terms are synonyms:
– Cereus tricostatus Rol. – Goss.;
– Cereus undatus Pfeiff.;
– Cereus undulatus Hort.Berol.;
– Cereus undulatus Hort.Berol. ex D.Dietr.;
– Hyalocereus undatus (Haw.) Britton & Rose;
– Hylocereus tricostatus Britton & Rose;
– Hylocereus undatus (Haw.) Britton & Rose;
– Hylocereus undatus subsp. luteocarpus Cálix de Dios;
– Selenicereus undatus subsp. luteocarpus (Cálix de Dios) M.H.J.van der Meer..
The term Selenicereus comes from the Greek Σελήνη Seléne Selene, goddess of the Moon, and from Cereus (from cēreus cero: due to the columnar shape of many species of this genus) cereo: Cereus with nocturnal flowering.
The specific epithet undatus comes from úndo swaying, rising like the waves, in turn from únda onda: wavy, swaying, due to the wavy margin of the leaves.
Geographic Distribution and Habitat –
Selenicereus undatus is a lithophytic or semi-epiphytic plant native to the neotropical arid zones (Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica) and subsequently introduced in Central America and in other areas of the world.
This plant is grown in east and south Asian countries such as Cambodia, Thailand, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Philippines, New Guinea, Indonesia and Bangladesh, and are also found in Okinawa, Hawaii, Israel , Northern Australia, Southern China and Cyprus.
The habitat of this plant is that of woods, hedges, where it grows on rocks or rocky walls, at altitudes up to 2000 meters.
Selenicereus undatus is a cacti that can grow up to 5 meters in height with “branches” even 6-12 meters long, with a creeping or hanging habit, very branched. These are about 10–12 cm thick and show three ribs. The small areas bearing the spines are about 2 mm wide. Thorns on adult branches are 1–4 mm long, acicular to nearly conical in shape, grayish to black in color.
This plant forms aerial roots with which it manages to attach itself, for example, to trees (epiphytic plant) or rocks (lithophytic plant).
The flowers are greenish white, about 25-30 cm long with a diameter that varies between 15 and 20 cm. The stamens are 5–10 cm long. The flowers produce nectar to attract pollinators. During flowering they give off a strong “vanilla” scent. The flowering of a single flower lasts about 2 days and occurs at night; during the day the flower closes. Lag flowering causes the cactus to stay in bloom longer.
The fruit is a fleshy berry 5 to 12 cm long with a diameter of 4-9 cm; it is of a color that varies from intense pink to red, with large greenish bracts. The pulp inside the fruit is generally white or red with very numerous and very small black seeds, which are edible. The pulp has a soft consistency and has a sweet and delicate taste and a pleasant scent.
Selenicereus undatus is a succulent climbing shrub that can grow between tree branches or on the ground. This species is known only as a cultivated plant, occasionally sub-spontaneous or escaped cultivation.
It is frequently cultivated in the tropical and subtropical zones (especially in America), both for its edible fruits, often sold in the American markets, and as an ornamental plant.
The fruits are produced in Central and South America, mainly in Nicaragua, Colombia and Ecuador. In Asia the main producer is Vietnam. Other countries such as Israel, South Africa and Australia have also entered the market.
For ornamental purposes it is also cultivated in areas unsuitable for commercial fruiting, such as in the Mediterranean area for example.
The plant is pollinated by some bats and moths and its suitable fruiting habitat is that of the warm tropical lowlands with low to high rainfall.
Self-incompatibility has been reported in several cultivars available in nurseries. To increase fruit production potential, it is recommended to plant 2 or 3 different genetic types (not the same clone or variety). Cross-pollination between the different types in the plantation will ensure better fruit set and size. Moths and bats are good pollinators, as the flowers open at night when there is no bee activity. However, pollination by moths and bats has not been commonly observed. The flowers of some cultivars remain open during the early morning hours and can be visited by bees. Alternatively, hand pollination can be done during the night and early morning by collecting pollen (or entire stamens) from one flower and applying it to the stigma of other flowers.
It grows best in areas where annual daytime temperatures are between 18 and 28°C, but can tolerate 12-34°C.
It grows with an average annual rainfall between 300 and 3,500 mm.
It often behaves like an epiphytic plant, although it can grow directly on the ground. From the pedological point of view it requires a well drained soil and a pH of 6 or lower; in particular it prefers a pH between 5.3 and 6.7, tolerating between 5 and 7.5.
This plant is widely cultivated in tropical and subtropical areas and has often escaped cultivation and naturalized. It has been classified as ‘invasive’ in some areas, where it often spreads vegetatively.
The plants grow well, but do not always bear good fruit, when grown in the wetter areas of the tropics.
To obtain the maximum production of healthy and good quality fruit it is necessary to carry out two types of pruning. The first involves nurturing the growing plants until they reach the trellis. This involves shedding any side stems along the main stem until they reach the truss and tying the main stem to the truss post. Soon after the plants reach the top of the trellis, their tips should be clipped to induce branching. The plants are vigorous and may require pruning one to three times a year.
With reference to the need for irrigation, it is important to water the plant during the flowering and fruiting season at least once a week.
In addition, severe damage to the stem due to sunburn has been reported in some growing regions with low humidity or high altitudes. For this reason a shading of about 30% is recommended during the first 3 or 4 months after sowing and where the insolation is at harmful levels.
As far as the harvest is concerned, this is carried out in different periods according to the area where it is grown. In Florida it typically fruits from May to September. A single plant can produce more than 50 fruits per season. The fruit ripens approximately 40 days after flowering and should not be harvested until it has reached full colour.
With reference to the propagation, it is noted that this is often propagated by cuttings, obtained by severing lateral branches about 0.30 cm long in correspondence with a segment of the stem.
Making an oblique cut on the end of the stem to be inserted into the ground is said to improve rooting. Cuttings should be cured in a cool, dry area for 5-7 days before planting. Mature stems are preferred for making cuttings, as they are more resistant to insect and snail damage. The cuttings can be planted directly in the field or in pots using a well-drained potting soil.
Customs and Traditions –
The first description of this plant was as Cereus undatus and was made in 1830 by Adrian Hardy Haworth. Subsequently, Nathaniel Lord Britton and Joseph Nelson Rose, in 1918, classified it in the genus Hylocereus.
This plant takes various names: pitahaya, dragon fruit, night blooming cereus, strawberry pear, Belle of the Night, Cinderella plant, Jesus in the cradle, moonflower in Anglo-Saxon countries; pitahaya roja (Costa Rica, Colombia, Mexico, Venezuela); flor de caliz, pitajava (Puerto Rico); junco, junco tapatio, pitahaya orejona, reina de la noche, tasajo (Mexico). Due to its flowering this plant is also called queen of the night.
This plant, as well as as an ornamental, is cultivated for its fruits which are eaten raw or cooked.
They taste delicious, sweet and pleasant.
The fruit is rich in mineral salts, but also very caloric: 100 g correspond to 264 Kcalories.
Even unopened flower buds can be cooked and eaten as a vegetable.
The flower buds and flowers are eaten in China, dried or fresh.
This plant also has medicinal uses.
The sap from the stems of H. undatus has been used as a vermifuge but is said to be caustic and dangerous.
The fruit of H. undatus is known to be beneficial in fighting anemia. The stems of the species are sold in homeopathy. The air-dried and powdered stems contain B-sitosterol.
Other uses include agroforestry. The plant can be used to create voluminous and choreographic flowering hedges.
Method of Preparation –
Selenicereus undatus is a plant cultivated both for food and for ornamental purposes.
Both the fruits and the buds are consumed from this plant.
Ripe fruit is highly prized, especially when cooled and cut in half so that the pulp can be eaten with a spoon. The juice is enjoyed as a cool drink. A syrup made from whole fruit is used to color pastries and candies.
The unopened bud can be cooked and eaten as a vegetable.
However, there are also medicinal uses. In this case the sap of the stems is used as a vermifuge even if it seems to be caustic and dangerous.
The fruit is useful in the fight against anemia. The stems of the species are sold in homeopathy. The air-dried and powdered stems contain B-sitosterol.
– Acta Plantarum – Flora of the Italian Regions.
– Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
– GBIF, the Global Biodiversity Information Facility.
– Useful Tropical Plants Database.
– Conti F., Abbate G., Alessandrini A., Blasi C. (ed.), 2005. An annotated checklist of the Italian vascular flora, Palombi Editore.
– Pignatti S., 1982. Flora of Italy, Edagricole, Bologna.
– Treben M., 2000. Health from the Lord’s Pharmacy, Advice and experiences with medicinal herbs, Ennsthaler Editore.
Attention: The pharmaceutical applications and alimurgical uses are indicated for informational purposes only, they do not in any way represent a medical prescription; we therefore decline all responsibility for their use for curative, aesthetic or food purposes.