A two-hectare plot of land near the sea in Cacela Velha (Vila Real de Santo António) is being used to test whether pitayas (commonly known as devil fruit or dragon fruit) can be successfully grown in the Algarve.
One of the people in charge of the study is Ana Trindade, a 24-year-old from São Brás de Alportel who has a degree in Agricultural Engineering and is currently completing her Master’s degree in Horticulture at the University of the Algarve.
She was invited to take part in the project as the only student researcher and is being guided by Professor Amílcar Duarte.
“My role is to figure out the plant’s production potential because there is not much known about it, especially within the Algarve’s conditions. We want to understand which are the needs of pitayas, the problems that this crop faces in this region, its water needs, and how it adapts,” Ana told Barlavento newspaper.
The investigation is backed by community funding as part of the PDR 2020 programme and is led by Grupo Operacional ‘Fruta Dragão’ (Dragon Fruit).
As Ana explains, “there has been the need in recent years to diversify the Algarve’s fruit production.
“Besides, we have the issue of water shortages, which we will have to deal with in the future,” she said, adding that pitayas could potentially grow with a “more efficient use of this resource”.
During the summer, pitayas only require between 800 and 2,000 cubic metres of water while avocados can require up to 6,000 cubic metres – a “very significant difference”, as the young researcher points out.
Furthermore, pitayas may only need to be watered once a day or every two days for 10 minutes.
Another advantage is that the fruit is not blighted by pests, although there are still snails and ants that feed off it, which are dealt with using organic granulated compounds.
It can also be affected by funguses caused by humidity, rain and cold weather, although they can be treated with fungicides.
In fact, the “number one enemy” of this fruit is frost, which can accumulate on the plant.
Explains Trindade, another issue is that growing devil fruit requires “a lot of manpower” despite being a cactus.
On the plus side, it is a crop that can be “easily” grown organically or with a low environmental impact and which can last around 15 years. Even after that, the cladodes (photosynthetic branches) can be removed and will grow back, she says.
Apart from the outdoor plantation in Cacela Velha, there are also 600 plants being grown in a greenhouse in Estoi (Faro) by Viveiro Mil Plantas, a partner of the project. The goal is to compare the differences of pitayas grown outdoors and pitayas grown in a greenhouse. Every aspect is being studied, from the texture of the soil to the support structures, the distance between plants, some varieties of the fruit and even whether pollination is best done manually or left up to “bees and other pollinating agents”.
Different devil fruit varieties are also being tested; from the more easily found white pulp pitayas to the red pulp variety.
So far, the fruit seems to be “adapting well” to the Algarve, although the researcher says it is still too early to draw any conclusions as there is no “concrete data”.
While some farmers in the Algarve have started testing the production of pitayas, they are still few and far between. And the devil fruit that is sold at national supermarkets often fails to live up to expectations and is expensive, the researcher says.
“The fruit comes from Vietnam, Thailand and Brazil. In those countries, it is harvested as soon as it changes colour very early on so that they survive the journey and arrive here in more appealing visual conditions. People try them, spend a lot of money because it is an expensive fruit, and are disappointed by the lack of flavour.”
Hopes are that the study will lead to the production of pitayas which are of “high quality, produced nationally and with a high economic value.”
Original article written by Maria Simiris for Barlavento newspaper.
Photos: MARIA SIMIRIS/OPEN MEDIA GROUP