Pitaya (Stenocereus thurberi)
Pitaya is a fruit that grows on the organ pipe cactus in Mexico and in the southwest region of the United States. This fleshy and colorful fruit has a refreshing and slightly tart taste. The bright red fruit is also referred to as ‘pitaya dulce’. The genus of this cactus is Stenocereus.
Now, not to confuse you – but there is another closely related fruit, that is called pitahaya. Pitahaya is also known as dragon fruit. Pitahaya (note the extra ‘h’ in the spelling) also grows on cactus and, is also native to Mexico. However, pitahaya (dragon fruit) was exported during the age of exploration and now grows all over the world. Pitahaya has now integrated into the culinary culture of southeast Asia, Polynesia, Australia and many other nations. The genus of pitahaya (dragon fruit) is Hylocereus.
Okay, back to discussing pitaya.
Pitaya fruit grows on the organ pipe cactus
The organ pipe cactus is notable for its long sprawling branches that resemble pipes on an organ. These pipe-like branches can reach 30 feet in height. If you ever want to visit this plant, head down to southern Arizona and visit Organ Pipe National Park. This cactus stands out prominently on the desert landscape near the Mexican border.
Creamy, white flowers appear on the cactus branches in late spring. A few months later, just before the summer rains appear, a pulpy fruit emerges. This fruit usually has scarlet colored skin with purple colored flesh. Large seeds are embedded in the pulp.
Pitaya dulce fruit was a favorite food for Native Americans
The pitaya fruit was an important food source for Native Americans in Baja and southern California. In fact, remaining members of the Seri tribe still harvest the fruit.
The Papago and Pima people collected pitaya fruits from the tops of the organ pipe cactus. They ate this fruit in a few different ways. The seeds and purple flesh were mashed together to form a sweet paste. This paste could be eaten raw or dried out to form a spreadable jelly.
The seeds were often parched in the dry, desert sunlight. These parched seeds were then stored for long-term use in jars or baskets. Months later, the seeds could be ground into meal for seed cakes.
Both the Pima and the Papago people also enjoyed making wine from pitaya fruits.
The Seri people were very fond of eating pitaya fruit. However, not content to only use the fruits, the Seri also combined dried organ pipe branches with sea lion oil to make a form of caulking compound. This caulk was used to weatherproof their shelters.
A young organ pipe cactus (Stenocereus gummosus) grows from the desert floor. This species is referred to as ‘pitaya agria’ in Sonora, Mexico.