The Dragon; a versatile fruit
Dr. Parveen Kumar, Dr. R. K. Arora and
Dr. Pawan Kumar Sharma
Dragon fruit is a versatile fruit indigenous to Central America. It is one of the several cactus species belonging to the genus Hylocerus of the Cactaceae family. The fruit is grown and exported from several Southeast Asian countries, such as Thailand and Vietnam, in Florida, the Caribbean Australia throughout tropical and subtropical world regions. It is a rich source of various nutrients considered to be a health bonanza.
The plant: Also called as ‘Pitaya’ or ‘Pitahaya’ the fruit has a succulent stem that provides a uniquely delicious fruit with moisture in the arid climates where it typically grows. It is one of nature’s most unique plants, with a flower like an explosion of flame and a fruit like a pink rosebud. Dragon fruit looks like a soft pineapple with spikes, and can have pink, red or yellow skin and white or red flesh.
Planting: Seeds grow well in compost or even as a potted indoor plant. Pitaya cacti usually germinate after between 11 and 14 days after shallow planting. As they are cacti, at home overwatering should be prevented. As their growth continues, these climbing plants will find something to climb on, which can involve putting aerial roots down from the branches in addition to the basal roots. Once the plant reaches a mature 10 pounds in weight, the plant may flower. Commercial plantings can be done at high density with between 1,100 and 1,350 plants per hectare. Plants can take up to five years to come into full commercial production, at which stage yields of 20 to 30 tons per hectare can be expected. The plants can flower between three and six times in a year depending on growing conditions. Like other cacti, if a healthy piece of the stem is broken off, it may take root in soil and become its own plant. The plants can endure temperatures up to 40 °C (104 °F) and very short periods of frost, but will not survive long exposure to freezing temperatures. In numerous regions of the world, it has also escaped cultivation to become a weed and is classified as an invasive weed in some countries.
The fruit also has overlaid or scale-like leaves, similar to an artichoke, and an abundance of small, black edible seeds. Its flavor is mildly sweet, like a blend of kiwifruit and pear, and has a crunchy texture. The fruit normally weighs from 150 to 600 grams (5.3 to 21.2 oz); some may reach 1 kilogram (2.2 lb). The seeds have a nutty taste. The seeds are also rich in lipids. Dragon fruit is also used to flavor (and color) juices and alcoholic beverages, such as “Dragon’s Blood Punch” and the “Dragotini”. The flowers can also be eaten or steeped as tea. The red and purple colors of Hylocereus fruits are due to betacyanins, a family of pigments that includes betanin, the same substance that gives beets, Swiss chard, and amaranth their red colour.
Health benefits of Dragon fruit: A 2011 study from the ‘Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention’, where the researchers assessed the relationship between a healthy diet containing fruits and vegetables, lifetime physical activity and oxidative DNA damage linked to prostate cancer. The conclusion was that exercise and a diet of fresh fruits and vegetables, especially those containing lycopene like dragon fruit, were found to be protective against the disease. Another study published in ‘Drug Metabolism and Disposition’ in 2004 where the researchers discovered that tropical fruits like dragon fruit may inhibit the activity of the human cytochrome P45. This substance can often be seen in the liver, but may also be found in other tissues such as in the small intestine, lungs and kidneys, and mutations of this particular substance have been associated with development of congenital glaucoma
Low in cholesterol: Dragon fruit is both low in cholesterol and has little to no unhealthy cholesterol producing fats
Vitamin C: The amount of vitamin C in dragon fruit is high, and because the dragon fruit is a natural fruit providing us with a rich balance of nutrients coming along with the vitamin C, we can absorb the Vitamin C in dragon fruit efficiently when we eat dragon fruit as part of our fruit healthy diet.
Anti Oxidants: It is also as good natural source of anti-oxidants which help to prevent the dangers of free radicals which can cause cancer and other undesirable health detriments. The number, quantity, and variety of antioxidants in Dragon fruit is completely unmatched by any food supplement or pills even those claiming to have ‘antioxidant’ health benefits.
Fats: Dragon fruit does have a small amount of fats because there are so many seeds in the edible part of the fruit. There can be literally thousands of the small black seeds in any given dragon fruit, and like most seeds and nuts they have both fats and protein in them while the flesh of the fruit itself has virtually none. These are mostly the healthy mono-unsaturated fats as, of course, they are not processed in any way and therefore are none of the dangerously unhealthy trans-fats seen in most junk food and processed foods.
Dietary fiber: Dragon Fruit is also an important source of fibers. The dietary fibres present in the fruit prevent us from various ailments of the digestive tract.
(The writers are from Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology of Jammu)