The pitaya, also known as the dragon fruit, is a fruit native to Central America. It is oval, with thorns on the outside and three varieties can be found: yellow on the outside and white pulp with seeds on the inside, red on the outside, and white pulp or red pulp with seeds on the inside. It is very aromatic and its flavor is very sweet and pleasant.

When consuming the Sonora pitahaya, one must keep in mind that it is a completely organic fruit and that the characteristics of its ecosystem provide it with a flavor and properties different from other parts of Mexico. The pitahaya has antioxidant properties, which is mainly attributed to the presence of betalains that give it the red color; therefore the fruit represents an alternative to increase and diversify the intake of antioxidants among the population of arid and semi-arid areas of Mexico.

The pitaya is a treasure from the nutritional point of view, it contains antioxidants, mucilage, ascorbic acid, phenols. It is rich in Vitamin C, it also contains B vitamins, minerals such as calcium, phosphorus, iron, and it has high water content and has vegetable protein and soluble fiber. The edible seeds contain beneficial fatty acids. And one of its most outstanding properties is its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant action, which is why the WHO recommends its consumption.

Despite its peculiar appearance, the pitaya is eaten like any other fruit. It is cut in half and the pulp is spooned out, and the seeds are also eaten. It can be incorporated into the preparation of smoothies, ice cream, and cakes, and is also used to make jams and competes. If pitahaya is bought in the public streets, it is necessary to pay attention to the state of maturity of the fruit and to check that its peel is not burst, to avoid consuming a product that could have been contaminated during its collection, transport, handling, and commercialization, and cause intestinal infections.

The term pitaya or its variants such as pitalla, pitahaya, pitahalla, pitajalla, pitajaya, pitaya de mayo, pitaya xoconostle, among others, is commonly used in the different states of Mexico to refer to the fruits of several species of the genus Stenocereus that produce the fruit called pitaya, and "pitahayas" or "pitajayas" to the fruits of Hylocereus Selenicereus. The former are also known as columnar cacti and the latter as vine cacti.

Nutritional value per 100 grams

Calories 54.

Water 84,40 %.

Carbohydrates 13.20 g.

Protein 1,4 g.

Total fat 0,40 g.

Fibre 0,5 g.

Vitamin C 8mg.

Calcium 10mg.

Iron 1,3 mg.

Phosphorus 26 mg.

Dragon fruit colors.
Dragon fruit colors. Photo: Wikimedia

Properties and benefits

Delays cellular aging.

Strengthens the immune system by stimulating the production of white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets

It has an anti-inflammatory effect.

It helps us to regulate intestinal transit, and its seeds have a laxative effect.

It helps us prevent kidney stones.

It regulates the level of sugar in the blood.

Stimulates the production of collagen.

It improves the absorption of iron (essential to avoid or fight iron deficiency anemia).

Excellent for the formation of bones and teeth.

As it is rich in water and low in carbohydrates, it is excellent for people on weight loss diets.

Dragon fruit thorns.
Dragon fruit thorns: Pitaya and pitahaya are not the same, but they are equally rich and nutritious. Image by Rattakarn_ from Pixabay

Pitaya and Pitahaya: aren't they the same?

The pitaya and the pitahaya are considered exotic; they are grown both as ornamental plants and for harvesting the fruit and they produce beautiful flowers. Both come from Central America and Mexico and belong to the Cactaceae family. The pitaya and pitahaya contain nutritional properties in terms of vitamins C, B (B1 or thiamine, B3 or niacin, and B2 or riboflavin), potassium, iron, calcium, and phosphorus, in addition to being low in calories and helping digestion by being rich in fiber.

Their main difference lies in the gender they belong to. The pitaya comes from the genus Stenocereus, while the pitahaya is from the Hylocereus. Spines are also a distinguishing feature; even though the pitahaya comes from a cactus, it has no spines. If you are a fan of cactus, you will know that they give the most beautiful flowers. The flower of these fruits is white and fragrant, nocturnal, and lasts only one night. In particular, the flower of the pitahaya is the largest of all cactuses.

The word pitahaya is of Antillean origin and means scaly fruit, its fruit is ovoid, round, and elongated, with red, white, or yellow flesh and small black seeds; its taste is less sweet than that of the pitaya. The growth habit of the pitahaya is climbing, so it is internationally known as the fruit of the dragon or Thanh Long, of Vietnamese origin, and that is because of the plant that produces it climbs on the trunks of the trees and intertwines giving the shape to the body of a dragon, a mythological animal very popular in Asia, mainly in China.

The name of the pitaya is given to the fruit that is covered with thorns; its fruit is ovoid and semi-rounded, with white, red, yellow, purple, and red-violet flesh and a large number of black seeds (just like the pitahaya). Its taste is very sweet and its growth habit is columnar cactus (organ).

Uses and national production

Pitaya is a fruit that can be consumed as a fresh product or processed in different ways, either the preparation of soft drinks, snow, juices, ice cream, atole, yogurt, ate, cakes, jellies, liquors, sparkling wines, syrup, and jams, among others. Therefore, these species are highly appreciated by producers in the regions where they are produced, as in some cases they are their main economic livelihood. In 2015, for the case of Pitaya, a planted area of 1,484.78 hectares was reported, with a production of 4,077.54 tons which meant an economic value of 54,958.75 billion pesos (SIAP, 2015).

The fruits of pitahayas are extremely eye-catching, among the most exotic in the world due to their size, color, and foliaceous bracts. The fruit can be industrialized; to obtain jams, nectars, and liqueurs, among other products. The tender stems and flowers are consumed as a vegetable; the mature stems are used as fodder. Medicinal properties are attributed to stems, flowers, and fruits; the large size of its flowers and its fragrance are of ornamental importance (Castillo, et al., 1996; Ortiz, 1999; Rodríguez, 1996). Regarding Pitahaya, a planted area of 605.63 hectares was reported, with a production of 2,342.53 tons which meant an economic value of 24,721.97 billion pesos (SIAP, 2015).