When Israeli horticulturist Yossi Zaphrir first started experimenting with pitaya (aka dragon fruit) back in 1990, people often told him the flamboyant-looking fruit “tasted like wood.” Now, after decades of selective breeding, demand for his supersweet, purple-fleshed Bilu pitaya is so high that the 88-year-old has had to double production capabilities at his farm in Rehovot, Israel.
With an annual production of 460,000 tons, Vietnam is far and away the world’s largest producer of the purple-skinned (usually), white-fleshed (usually) fruit that has gained a reputation for being all looks and no substance. But Zaphrir and like-minded innovators in places as diverse as South Africa, Colombia and Nicaragua are showing that new strains of pitaya can look and taste amazing while also being incredibly good for your health and the gross profits of producers. In the last decade, Frieda’s Specialty Produce, a leading California wholesaler of exotic fruits, has “gone from selling 20,000 pounds of pitaya a year to 1 million pounds a year,” says assistant sales manager Alex Jackson Berkley.
Originally from Central America, pitayas were introduced to Indochina by French missionaries in the 19th century. The climbing cactus vines flourished in Vietnam’s tropical climate, and the fruit soon become known as dragon fruit — a name and association that not all producers are entirely comfortable with. Zaphrir tells his buyers “to talk about pitaya from Israel,” while U.S. importers Pitaya Plus are “hedging their bets,” says founder and CMO Ben Hiddlestone, by including “pitaya” in the company name but selling “dragon fruit” to consumers. Meanwhile, Amorentia Nursery in South Africa has trademarked the name Amorentia Sweet Dragon Fruit — with emphasis on the “Sweet.”
Semantics aside, this new breed of agriculturists share a common opposition to the large-scale, pesticide-reliant way in which dragon fruit tend to be farmed in Vietnam. But the alternative methods they espouse vary.
Zaphrir has dedicated decades to selectively crossbreeding the fruit to a point where his most successful varieties achieve astounding BRIX ratings (a measure of sugars and minerals in fruit) of between 16 and 18, as compared to the norm of 10 to 12 for dragon fruit. “It takes eight to 10 years to bring a new cultivar to market,” he says, “and that’s before you’ve convinced anyone to buy it.”
Pitaya Plus, on the other hand, imports only organic-certified, red-fleshed pitaya. Starting with 15 small-scale farmers in Nicaragua, the company has swelled to now include 650 (430 of whom are already certified organic). It also employs more than 250 single mothers at its processing facilities. And the firm has recently expanded its model to Vietnam. “Once we’ve helped families convert to organic practices,” says Hiddlestone, “they soon start producing smaller fruit with more concentrated sugar, magnesium and potassium content.” And because — for now — Pitaya Plus only sells processed fruit (smoothie packs, cubes and a sorbet), they are able to pick at “maximum ripeness.”
Amorentia — already a well-established avocado and macadamia nursery — has bought the South African rights to a collection of new cultivars that self-pollinate (most pitayas have to be hand-pollinated) and boast impressive BRIX ratings. They are marketing the fruit to farmers on a joint-venture basis as a water-wise and potentially lucrative alternative to macadamias, avocados and bananas. It’s early days, says nursery manager Sarie Espach, “but we already have growers in four provinces and are confident the industry will grow in leaps and bounds as soon as the first real crop comes onto the market.”
Agriculturally, pitayas are “fairly easy to grow,” says Espach, but establishment costs are high due to very specific planting and trellising requirements. And the preference for hand pollination means labor can be expensive, especially in First World countries like Israel. In the right conditions, plants will yield their first fruit at 2 years old and be in full production by Year Five. From then on, growers can expect at least 15 years of moneymaking fruit.
Pitaya already enjoys the reputation of a profitable niche fruit. But the massive growth in the global health and wellness market has everyone — including Zaphrir, who cut his teeth in agriculture with avocados in the ’70s and ’80s — hoping it’ll be the next mango or avocado. Both those fruits also took off commercially only when new, better-eating varieties proliferated the global market.
Pitaya, often referred to as a superfruit, has been shown to boost immunity, aid digestion, prevent cancer, boost metabolism and improve cardiovascular health. And there’s a growing body of evidence to suggest that it could help sufferers of type 2 diabetes manage their blood sugar levels. “Dragon fruit will go beyond pitaya bowls, smoothies and centerpieces and go into salsas, breakfast fruit plates and salads,” predicts Frieda’s Berkeley.
The final barrier the fruit needs to conquer is a market of consumers who’re either too afraid to try the weird-looking fruit or who’ve been disappointed by flavorless imports in the past. But the new wave of producers is confident. Hiddlestone believes that Pitaya Plus’ 130 percent year-on-year growth since its inception in 2009 is “only the beginning” for the firm. And for pitaya.