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Have a Cup of Cactus
When I retired to Central America 3 years ago, I was surprised to find that it does not have the cactus/agave culture
that Mexico and indigenous Arizona have. The principal exception to this is the fruit drink known in Nicaragua as
"refresco de pitaya". I will use this spelling as it is closer to the actual pronunciation of the
Spanish word "pitahaya".
Pitaya is the fruit of several varieties of Hylocereus cactus that grow in the general area. Hylocereus costaricensis
is the most common native and is very often found growing up trees or on rock walls in the country. However, fruit bought at
the market may be from any number of species or cultivars, so in this article I will just refer to them as pitaya or Hylocereus Sp.
The pulp of the fruit sold here has a bright red or purple color. This is part of the attraction of the drink as the color is
unmistakable. Actually, the pulp, which is used seeds and all, has little flavor and so it is mixed with lime juice and
sugar to make the beverage.
Fruit purchased in the United States may have white flesh and be from another variety such as Hylocereus undulatus.
It is grown as a specialty fruit in East Asia and the Mediterranean; often under the name "dragon fruit".
Whichever color you find at your local market, add lime juice and sweetener to suit your tastes.
Looking for something to do, I planted some of the seeds in slightly damp coarse sand in pots made out of 4 ounce styrofoam
cups with holes punched in the bottoms with a pencil. During the rainy season here the ambient humidity is high and
they sprouted with no problem. They were moved to larger pots and fed with very dilute liquid fertilizer. After a year
they were set out on some trees at the back of my property, where they have continued to make good growth. Someday I'll
have fruit from these, as will the wildlife if they get there first.
If you wanted to, this could be turned into a fun project to give a child his or her first introduction to growing cactus:
make the beverage and then plant the seeds. As a house plant these will get too big in a few years, but if you live in a
frost-free area they could be set out in the garden. If not, you could treat them as some people do rubber trees.
When they get too big, either take tip cuttings and discard the original plant, or prune the plant heavily and let it re-sprout.
Perhaps in a greenhouse you would someday see the beautiful foot-wide flowers.
Incidently, in other Spanish-speaking countries, the term "pitaya" is used for the fruit of other species of
cactus, including some of the big columnars in Mexico.