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Purple, Spiny and Heading Your Way

September 18, 2002|DAVID KARP | 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.

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