Purple, Spiny and Heading Your Way

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The mango did it. The Meyer lemon did it. Over the years, many fruits have crossed the barrier from exotic rarity to become available to all of us. First prized by immigrants or backyard hobbyists, they're seized upon by farmers looking for lucrative new crops. Then, they're propelled into supermarkets.

Now there's a new one poised to make the leap, and it's safe to say it is the strangest one yet.

The pitahaya--a.k.a. the dragon fruit--is an outlandishly flaming pink, spineless cactus fruit that looks like an artichoke from Mars. Improbably enough, it's now the object of a mad scramble, one of the most colorful booms in California's agricultural history, replete with paranoia and intrigue. Many doubters scoffed, but the first commercial harvest is arriving at stores this week.

The texture of the flesh is similar to kiwifruit, though its subtle flavor and refreshing juiciness are really more reminiscent of watermelon. The first type to be marketed domestically is the white-fleshed dragon fruit, which has translucent pulp dotted with tiny, edible black seeds; these are soft and not at all gritty, as are those in common prickly cactus pears.

Two dozen similar-looking species, some with red-colored flesh, vary considerably in quality, from insipid gelatinized mousse to delightfully sweet strawberry-flavored pulp.

Pitahayas mostly are eaten fresh, sliced in wedges or cut in half and scooped out with a spoon. Some people like them refrigerated or with a dash of lemon or lime to add balance. In tropical lands where they are abundant, the fruits are juiced for drinks and made into sorbet and ice cream. They keep for a week or more in the fridge, though they gradually lose firmness and acidity and turn flabby.

Although few chefs have yet seen or tasted dragon fruit, those who have are eagerly awaiting its availability.

"It's so visually stunning that our customers are intrigued by it," said Bill Yosses, pastry chef of Citarella restaurant in New York, who has used wedges of the fruit to garnish a trifle. "I'd love to try making a confit of that scaly skin--I have a hunch that it's edible."

Pitahayas, also called pitayas, are climbing cacti native to the tropical forests of Mexico, Central America and parts of South America. California gardeners have grown the plants for decades, often as backyard ornamentals. Until recently, however, no one thought to establish a commercial orchard here. The plants were reputed to be tricky to grow here and to require labor-intensive hand-pollination to bear fruits.

California pitahaya cultivation is still in its infancy, as growers determine the best techniques to nourish their plants and protect them against sunburn, cold, wind and gophers.

The planting that is largest and furthest along is the 18 acres grown by the Dragon Fruit Co. in Borrego Springs, 25 miles west of the Salton Sea. Surrounded by grapefruit groves and swathed in shadecloth to protect the plants from the scorching sun, it has been dubbed the "skunkworks" by rare fruit fanciers after the top-secret Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co. facilities in Burbank and Palmdale. The company is eager to keep competitors from learning its technology, and posted signs warn against trespassing.

"We're out in the middle of nowhere for a reason," said Ron Bunch, a plant breeder for D'Arrigo Bros., a large grower and produce wholesaler and the senior partner in the pitahaya venture.

A parade of uninvited visitors--some competitors, others just curious--have come snooping in the last year, according to Thomas Antel, another partner who owns the land. Some have even sliced the netting around the facility to spy inside, he said, so he recently installed infrared cameras and motion sensors.

The partners have battled hard freezes and 120-degree days, both potentially fatal to pitahayas. The harsh climate is rough on humans too. "Above 115 degrees, it starts to get to you a bit," Antel said. "When you roll down the window your eyes turn to poached eggs."

The partners are determined to be the first commercial producers of pitahayas and dominate the market, before supplies increase and prices drop. Dragon fruit from backyard growers currently fetch $5 a pound wholesale, but Coosemans Los Angeles, a specialty produce wholesaler, has been marketing pitahaya (ranging from half a pound to 2 pounds each) from a small planting in Carpenteria to high-end hotels such as the Bellagio in Las Vegas and the Beverly Hills Hotel for $15 to $17 a pound. "For something this special, they don't care what it costs," said Omar Reynaga, a salesman.

Already at least a dozen more California growers have pitahaya plantings in various stages of development. Some hang up the phone as soon as the subject of pitahaya is broached, but others readily share their information and plant materials.

Sven Merten, 33, left a career in biotechnology to grow exotic fruit on a farm on a stony hillside in Rainbow, in north San Diego County. His license plates read DRGNFRT and PITAYA.

"I was looking for a crop that would do well here, that no one else was growing," he said.

Three years ago he assembled an experimental collection of 60 pitahaya selections, mostly from fellow members of California Rare Fruit Growers, an organization of fruit gardening enthusiasts. Once he figures out which varieties from this half-acre test plot offer the best combination of productivity and good flavor, Merten plans to put in five acres of pitahaya. It will take two years after this planting, he said, for a commercial crop.

Most of his plants bear round or slightly oblong fruits, with waxy, pinkish-red skin and fleshy scales that might well befit a tropical dragon. Each sports a showy "tail," actually the dried flower from which it is formed.

The French brought pitahayas to Vietnam a century ago, and many new California growers are immigrants who knew the fruit in their homeland. Not far from Merten, in Fallbrook, Dziep Dang of Bien Hoa Farm tends 10 steamy greenhouses packed with 3,000 healthy pitahaya plants. She and her husband, Harold Do, though, call the cactus thanh long, meaning "green dragon." Dangling over wooden and metal pipe supports, the plants bear vivid pink fruits.

The farm's season started three weeks ago and runs through October. Dang sells the plants and fruits on weekends, and brokers also distribute them to Vietnamese markets in Little Saigon, Westminster and Garden Grove.

Dang's dragon fruit plants are self-pollinating, a crucial convenience for commercial farmers. In the tropics bats and moths pollinate the pitahaya's large, fragrant white flowers, which open only once near sunset and close just after sunrise. Here, however, the insects required by many pitahaya types seem to be absent, and they must be pollinated by hand.

The pitahayas prevalent in Central America have red, violet or fluorescent fuchsia pulp. Compared to the white-fleshed types, many are sweeter and have more complex, interesting flavors. But so far, at least, California growers have favored the more readily available white-fleshed type, which yields larger fruits, comes into bearing earlier and generally does not require hand pollination.

One of the few American growers of red-fleshed pitahaya, Jim Weiss, demonstrated hand pollination at his four tangles of cacti sprawling underneath buzzing power lines in Torrance. Just after sunrise recently, he took some pollen from a flower's stamen between his thumb and forefinger and rubbed it on the pistil.

"Simple enough," he said. "My biggest challenge is remembering when they are going to bloom and getting over here in time."

While California growers are putting in their orchards, some fear that they may soon be undercut by foreign fruit. Although widely grown in many tropical countries, fresh pitahaya has not been legally imported into the United States because it is a host of fruit flies that could damage domestic agriculture. Foreign growers have concentrated on Europe and Canada, but as American demand increases, that may change.

Colombian growers, who raise an oblong, yellow-skinned form of pitahaya that is sweeter and more luscious than any other (but very vulnerable to freezes), have already applied to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to export fruit fumigated with methyl bromide.

Companies in Vietnam and Thailand recently signed contracts for the construction of electron beam irradiation facilities that could zap the pests in pitahaya and other fruits, allowing them to be exported to the U.S. Meanwhile, there are a few small-scale plantings in Hawaii, and interest is increasing in Florida.

In addition to fresh fruit, products made with processed pitahaya are now on the market. Nicaragua, in the heart of the pitahaya's home range, has 2,000 acres of red-fleshed fruit--more than the export market can absorb.

Seeking to make use of this surplus, a Nicaraguan company markets frozen pitahaya pulp and concentrate as a flavoring and coloring.

A few creative chefs have used them in sorbet and bakery goods, but the major use has been in manufacturing drinks.

Snapple Beverage Corp. now offers a drink made with "dragon fruit juice" called Fire, which tastes like Hawaiian Punch, and SoBe Beverages sells Dragon, a "dragon fruit blend." The Vietnamese maintain that only white-fleshed varieties should properly be called dragon fruit, but so far no dragons have sued for trademark infringement.

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