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A pitaya or pitahaya is the fruit of several different cactus species indigenous to the Americas. Pitaya usually refers to fruit of the genus Stenocereus, while Pitahaya or dragon fruit refers to fruit of the genus Selenicereus (formerly Hylocereus), both in the family Cactaceae. Dragon fruit is cultivated in Mexico, Southeast Asia, India, the United States, the Caribbean, Australia, Mesoamerica and throughout tropical and subtropical world regions.These fruits are commonly known in English as "dragon fruit," a name used since about 1963, apparently derived from the leather-like skin and prominent scaly spikes on the outside of the fruit. The results of various researches show that dragon fruit has preventive activity for several diseases that affect humans, such as cancer, digestive problems, diabetes. Further studies however on dragon fruit are needed to confirm and expand the knowledge about the medicinal qualities of the plant and fruit for the prevention and alternative treatment of various diseases.
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Indian Journal of Natural Sciences www.tnsroindia.org.in ©IJONS
Vol.12 / Issue 70 / February / 2022 International Bimonthly (Print) ISSN: 0976 – 0997
37731
Yashoda
Pitahaya a New Superfood: Cultivation Methods and Medicinal
Properties of the Fruit
Domenico Prisa*
CREA Research Centre for Vegetable and Ornamental Crops, Council for Agricultural Research and
Economics, Pescia, Italy
Received: 19 Nov 2021 Revised: 22 Dec 2021 Accepted: 12 Jan 2022
*Address for Correspondence
Domenico Prisa
CREA Research Centre for Vegetable and Ornamental Crops,
Council for Agricultural Research and Economics,
Pescia, Italy
Email: domenico.prisa@crea.gov.it
This is an Open Access Journal / article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License
(CC BY-NC-ND 3.0) which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited. All rights reserved.
A pitaya or pitahaya is the fruit of several different cactus species indigenous to the Americas. Pitaya
usually refers to fruit of the genus Stenocereus, while Pitahaya or dragon fruit refers to fruit of the genus
Selenicereus (formerly Hylocereus), both in the family Cactaceae. Dragon fruit is cultivated in Mexico,
Southeast Asia, India, the United States, the Caribbean, Australia, Mesoamerica and throughout tropical
and subtropical world regions.These fruits are commonly known in English as "dragon fruit," a name
used since about 1963, apparently derived from the leather-like skin and prominent scaly spikes on the
outside of the fruit. The results of various researches show that dragon fruit has preventive activity for
several diseases that affect humans, such as cancer, digestive problems, diabetes. Further studies
however on dragon fruit are needed to confirm and expand the knowledge about the medicinal qualities
of the plant and fruit for the prevention and alternative treatment of various diseases.
Keywords: Pitahaya; Cactus plants; Medicinal extracts; Hylocereus; Anti-cancer fruits
INTRODUCTION
Hylocereus undatus Britt, also known as Pitahaya fruit, Jade dragon fruit, red dragon fruit and dragon pearl fruit,
belongs to the genus Trigonocarpus in the Cactaceae. It is a type of cactaceous plant with ornamental flowers and
edible fruits. Native to Costa Rica, Cuba, Mexico and other tropical areas of Central America, also present in China
and Taiwan. Pitahaya is a species of perennial climbing succulent. The rootstock is dark green, very sturdy and
triangular in shape. It has a wavy edge and clings to other plants. The flower is white and the huge ovary is lower,
which has the name of "king flower". The fruit is similar to an olive, the outer surface has the fleshy scale that curls
outward, and the flesh is covered with small black seeds. The texture is mild and the flavor is fragrant. The stem of
ABSTRACT
RESEARCH ARTICLE
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the pitahaya is rich in plant polysaccharides and accounts for about 7% of the dried product [1]. The cultivation of
pitahaya is pretty recent, the qualities of the fruit are known since no more than 50 years. for a long time its
cultivation, thanks to the remarkable qualities of rusticity demonstrated by the plant, has been limited to ornamental
purposes only. Although it is native to the desert areas of Central America (Mexico, Costa Rica) it has easily adapted
to humid tropical areas as well (Colombia, Panama, Uruguay and Brazil). This adaptability may mean that pitahaya
has remarkable and interesting characteristics of acclimatization which suggest a much wider range of cultivation
than the present one. In Colombia it has found an ideal habitat in an area which is between 800 and 1900 meters
above sea level, where average annual temperatures are recorded between 21 and 22°C. Specialized cultivations are
in fact found at 50-150 Km from Bogotà together with those of bananas, coffee and citrus fruits [2-3].
PITAHAYA BOTANICAL CHARACTERISTICS
Pitahaya, like cactus, has the characteristic metamorphosis of the leaf apparatus: the leaves are transformed into
thorns, which is an important defense against the loss of water through stomata. Chlorophyll photosynthesis is done
by the stem and by the branches which are fleshy and green because they are provided with chloroplasts. This
metamorphosis has occurred through a long, but gradual, evolutionary process caused by the desert environment
with very low humidity, in which cacti have survived. Pitahaya is structurally similar to the prickly pear plant; it is
formed by spiny triangular section branches, they are similar in function to the prickly pear blades, but they differ
morphologically in the shape which appears more elongated. The branches originate from the axillary buds. their
length can reach and exceed one meter, but normally they are 50-70 cm. Some branches emit fleshy filaments, a kind
of aerial roots, a couple of millimeters thick and 5 to 10 cm long, which probably perform an anchoring function [4].
The stem has secondary lateral ramifications such as not to allow at first glance a distinction from the main axis. The
plant, however, is not in a condition to stand up, so it needs a brace. The main characteristic of pitahaya is the
presence on all the length of its branches of particular convex "aureoles" in the shape of C; above the aureoles there
are the thorns at whose axils are located the buds which can give origin to branches or flowers and then to fruits.
Roots are superficial, however they are able to quickly absorb the rare rain which falls in desert areas typical of the
original environment of the plant. Pitahaya can also emit roots at the base of the stem (aerial roots) which have the
task of better anchoring the plant to the ground, and on the branches [5-6].
In Colombia it is relatively easy to observe 20 years old pitahaya plants with a root system that covers an area of soil
extended from 2 to 3 m, of the same diameter, but not deeper than 12 cm. The flower, hermaphrodite, is tubular
shaped. The color of the tepals varies from white to pink; remarkable are its dimensions: about 20 cm wide and long
up to 30-40 cm. The flower opens at night, for 1-2 nights, and gives off a scent that attracts numerous insects; during
the day, however, it remains closed. Pollination is autogamous, that is it happens through the pollen of the same
flower; it is not rare however the crossed pollination by some pollinating insects. From the formation of the floral
button to the opening of the flower it takes an average of 60 days. Flowering in Italy, normally takes place in the first
ten days of September. The fruit is a berry with epicarp sprinkled with squamiform areas, in relief, provided with
thorns, which are necessarily removed at the time of marketing. In the pulp of mucilaginous consistency (the color is
white or red according to the species) are contained many seeds, about 200, edible, dark colored [7-8]. From the
fertilization to the complete maturation it takes from 4 to 8 months according to the climatic conditions in which the
plant grows. In Colombia this period goes from June to October and from August to January, whereas in Italy from
September to January. For pitahaya it is important the temperature does not undergo sudden changes during the
whole period of the formation of the fruit until its complete ripening. Pitahaya has proven to bear considerable
temperature changes even in greenhouses (from -2°C minimum to +15°C maximum in November), but it is necessary
to point out that flowering and fruit set require high temperatures and limited changes. The pulp of the fruit contains
a substance, captin, which has an invigorating effect on the heart and on blood pressure; in practice it acts as a
regulator and, at the same time, as a nervous calming agent. Seeds, instead, contain an oil with laxative and diuretic
action with a positive effect on the digestive system [9].
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PITAHAYA SPECIES
The main species of pitahaya which can be cultivated and consumed are: yellow pitahaya (Hylocereus triangularis)
and red pitahaya (Hylocereus ocamponis). Yellow pitahaya is the most important species from a commercial point of
view (the fruit resists to manipulation and transportation). Size of berries is variable: there are some which measure
longitudinally 12 cm and transversely 5-8 cm: average values are respectively 10 and 6 cm. Botanical descriptions
and cultivation techniques refer exclusively to yellow and red pitahaya [1]. In Colombia, where specialized
cultivations are expanding, yellow pitahaya is considered as one of the best fruits being produced in the country.
Red pitahaya is a climbing plant, with branches having a triangular section, and produces very sweet fruits (berries).
Both the scales of the skin and the pulp are red in color. Unfortunately the fruits are very delicate: they do not lend
themselves to transportation and frigoconservation, therefore from a commercial point of view it has inferior
prospects compared to the yellow pulp species [10-11-12]. The interest in cultivating pitahaya in Italy was born in the
'90s, when some companies which commercialized exotic fruits, started receiving some plateaux of pitahaya from
Colombia. The request for the new exotic fruit, having an exquisite taste, was not long in coming, however it was not
possible to count on a continuous availability from the exporting country. It was therefore necessary to know more
about the plant and to start experimental trials in our country as well [13]. The purpose of this new research was to
promote the necessary agronomic and environmental indications which could ensure the adaptation of the new
species to our regions. From the experience acquired, it emerged that in the warm areas of Central-Southern Italy it is
possible to cultivate pitahaya; obviously it is necessary to deepen the research in order to obtain further data for the
evaluation and acclimatization in our country.If we consider that in a cold greenhouse the plant has resisted to -2°C,
it is possible to deduce that there are interesting prospects of cultivation in a central-southern area, similar to the one
reported for prickly pear [14-15].
CULTIVATION SOIL AND CLIMATE
Pitahaya which is a plant native to desert environments, obviously prefers tropical climates. In Colombian
environments, where minimum temperatures rarely go down below 18°C and exceed 27°C, pitahaya has found its
best habitat. Experiences of cultivation carried out in the same country (Bogotà), where minimum temperatures close
to 0°C have been recorded, did not however show serious damages to the plants, if anything a decrease in plant
production was noticed. First of all, in spite of the minimum temperature values, it is not possible to establish with
accuracy the extremes of temperature (minimum and maximum) within which the plant can live without suffering
serious damages to the vegetative apparatus; however, it is possible to confirm the high degree of adaptability of the
species even to the occurrence of temperature decreases [16]. Therefore, considering the possible risks of thermal
lowering in our country, the most suitable environments for the cultivation of pitahaya can coincide with those of
prickly pear. Also with regard to water needs pitahaya has shown easy adaptability. As a matter of fact, despite its
desert origins, it has proven to live well in humid tropical areas, such as some areas of Colombia, where
precipitations of 2500 mm per year are recorded. However all the specialized plants of pitahaya should always be
provided with an irrigation system in order to meet the water needs of the plant in the intervals between one rain
and another in order to face possible drought periods. The critical period coincides with the maximum vegetative
activity of the plant; in Italy from July to the end of August [17].
The plant, having a superficial root system, requires loose soils, where both water and oxygen circulate well;
therefore soils suitable for cultivation are permeable and with perfect water drainage. In soils having a slow water
drainage or subject to water stagnation, plants get sick of bacteriosis and other pathological forms caused by fungal
parasites, which can lead, in most cases, to the death of plants because of collar rot. Loose and medium-textured soils
are suitable, as long as they are well endowed with organic substance (2%) [1-18]. In clayey soils, on the contrary, it is
necessary to assure a good drainage and, if necessary, to make some baulature. As far as the pH is concerned, the
ideal range is between 6.5 and 5.5, therefore from sub-acidic to acidic. The plant proved to adapt well where it was
possible to administer short shifts (2-3 days) of irrigation water during the hottest months (July-August). Vegetative
development results were also interesting. It can therefore be deduced that sandy soils are very suitable for the
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cultivation of pitahaya [19]. In Colombia the soils where the cactacea is cultivated have a more clayey and silty
texture compared to Italian cultivations (Table 1).
PLANTS PROPAGATION
Pitahaya is propagated almost exclusively by agamic means using the branches. The use of the seed is not a
practicable method or at least it is not advisable because of the long time needed to obtain plants suitable for
transplantation; moreover, plants reproduced by seed do not produce fruits with the same characteristics of the
mother plant. The beginning of production is very late: sometimes 7 years pass from sowing: it is mainly for this
reason that it is preferred to resort to agamic or vegetative reproduction. Mature branches are used, strong, formed
the previous year or during the year, because they will be the support of the plant and portions of them are taken 20-
30 cm long. A sterilized mixture of sand (30%), peat (30%), agroperlite (40%) or sand (40%) is usually used as a
substrate. Cuttings do not need to be treated with a rhizogenic hormone prior to planting. Planting takes place
between April and September. It is advisable to have 2-3 fungicide treatments done to avoid the onset of dangerous
rottenness [1-20-21]. At the same time it is good to keep the substrate humid without, however, exceeding the water
supply. A very popular method in Colombia is to raise the cuttings individually in polyethylene pots (diameter 14
cm); operating according to the indications given, the emission of the roots occurs within 2-4 to 6 weeks. It is
necessary to keep in mind that the cuttings placed in a small pot can be planted after the rooting; if the cuttings
should be left for a long period in the pots it is advisable to change the container using a bigger one. We also point
out that normal ramifications can also be had on a branch of reduced cross section, even only 1 cm [22-23].
SOIL PREPARATION AND PLANTING
The preparation of the ground which will host the pitahaya plants is done in February-March, preferably by digging
(60 cm) in order to create those conditions of aeration and easy percolation of water, both rain and irrigation, which
are indispensable for the good development of the root system of the young plants. In any case, it is advisable to
avoid bringing layers of soil of different structure and chemical composition to the surface [24]. The digging is
followed by ploughing, which will be used to incorporate organic and mineral fertilizers into the soil. Pitahaya is a
demanding plant as far as organic matter is concerned: it is advisable to use 100 tons/ha of well-matured manure or 4
tons/ha of organic soil conditioner from humified and partially dehydrated stable manure for the basic fertilization,
while as far as phosphate and potassium mineral fertilizers are concerned, the dosages will have to come from the
chemical-physical analysis of the soil in order to fill possible deficiencies. Complementary work will be carried out
by the end of March to make the soil suitable to receive the young seedlings; while the planting for open field
cultivation can be done in April-May [25].
PLANT BREEDING FORMS
In order to cultivate pitahaya it is necessary to choose the cultivation system and, as a consequence, the type of
support structure needed, as the plant is not able to stand upright. The main forms of cultivation adopted in
Colombia are: the pergola or "T bar", the espalier, the enclosure system. The same forms of cultivation can be
considered valid for the cultivation in Italy as well; however, as in our country are common forms of cultivation for
vine and kiwi awning, it is advisable to consider this form of cultivation as well. For small plantations the best forms
of cultivation are espalier and modified pergola [26-27].
PLANTS PRUNING
Pruning of pitahaya must be considered fundamental in order to aim at the formation of the plant according to the
chosen breeding system, as well as for an adequate production. the topping of the plant is usually done manually,
branches which are excessively heavy, deteriorated and in an undesirable position must be eliminated [1]. All
pruning interventions are done between spring and summer when the plant is in full vegetative activity. Pitahaya
tolerates well the removal of branches, and it is able to easily emit new shoots. With the pruning we also tie the
branches to the brace and to the galvanized iron wires of the scaffold, both because the pitahaya is not able to
support itself, and in order to correctly set the form of breeding we have decided to adopt. Colombian technicians
consider pergola training for pitahayas to be better than the other systems mentioned, because it is closer to the
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natural arrangement of the branches of the cactus. In fact, the branches arranged on a horizontal plane receive better
sunlight; moreover, the pergola system facilitates the normal pruning and harvesting operations and the transit of
mechanical means in the orchard inter-row [28-29].
PITAHAYA CULTIVATION TECHNIQUES
The root system of pitahaya is expanded, but superficial (it mainly develops in the first 20-30 cm of soil), therefore
deep tillage should not be done. In order to control weeds or to bury fertilizers, light hoeing around the plants or in
the whole field is necessary, limited to the first centimeters of depth in order not to risk to damage the most
superficial roots of the cactus [30-31-32]. As far as organic fertilization is concerned, it is recommended to apply 25
tons/ha of well matured manure or 2,5 tons/ha of organic soil conditioner per year; or for each single plant it is
possible to distribute about 2 Kg of organic soil conditioner.Particular attention should also be paid to mineral
fertilization. Fertilizers should be distributed 30-50 cm from the stem, over an area of 1 m2 for the first year of plant
life. In the second and third year, fertilizer should be administered over an area of 2 m2; from the fourth year on,
fertilizers should be distributed over the entire field. Irrigation during the periods of maximum plant activity must
be frequent, avoiding occasional excesses in late autumn and winter [33]. A possible example of open field
fertilization per hectare could be 450-600 kg of ammonium sulfate, 350-450 kg of mineral superphosphate, 240-300 kg
of potassium sulfate.
PITAHAYA IN POT
Pitahaya lends itself well to be cultivated at home for ornamental purposes, provided it is grown in large pots
(diameter 50 cm). The potted plant bears fruit in a few years: it is sufficient to use a good potting soil and keep the
plants exposed to light, but sheltered from bad weather or sudden drops in temperature. The pitahaya grows well in
an apartment at a temperature of 20°C and bears gradual drops down to -2°C. It is essential to use a brace to bind the
plants, and the soil must remain damp. Liquid fertilizers used in floriculture lend themselves well to periodic (every
15 days) addition of the main fertilizers [34].
HARVESTING AND ADVERSITY
In its environment of origin a Pitahaya plant after 20 months from transplanting can produce 1-1,5 Kg of fruits; if the
pedoclimatic conditions are ideal for the cultivation, in a hectare can be obtained 1,1-1,6 t; this production increases
gradually so that a plantation in full production provides on average 10 t/ha of fruits.
Pitahaya fruit has an interesting commercial potential as it is characterized by high quality requirements. It is not by
chance that Colombians have defined it as the best among the fruits produced in Colombia.
In Colombia the simplest method is to pick fruits having a homogeneous ripening, which is thus identified:
fruits with 25% of the epicarp colored yellow and 75% green, are destined for foreign countries;
fruits with 50% of the epicarp colored yellow and 50% green, are destined for the domestic market of Colombia.
Fruits are harvested wearing gloves made of sturdy material. The fruits, before being put on the domestic and
international markets, are selected and cleaned of flower residues and thorns. The selection and packaging of fruits
for marketing is done respecting the homogeneity of maturity of the same and that is: 25-50-75% referred to the
yellow color of the epicarp [35]. For the exportation the fruits are packed in special cardboard boxes, where they are
housed in special plastic alveoli. It is always convenient to cover the box with a polyethylene sheet, in order to
maintain a suitable percentage of humidity to avoid the dehydration of the fruits and therefore their wrinkling. The
net weight is 3 Kg. As for the frigoconservation it is good that the packed fruits are stored in a refrigerated
environment at a temperature of 10 ° C, the storage time is around 3 weeks. The main diseases affecting the plant are
fruit fly (Anatrepa spp.). The adult of this insect lays its eggs in the flower; afterwards the larvae invade the pulp
causing the fruit's disintegration. Anthracnose (Colletotrichum spp.), fungal disease affecting branches and fruits,
manifested by black circular spots [36].
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PLANT NUTRITIVE VALUE
Evaluation of fruit analysis (Table 2) showed that Pitahaya fruits contained average moisture (85 g/100 g), protein
(1,1 g/100 g), lipid (0,40 g/100 g), vitamin C (20,5 mg/100 g), vitamin A (0,12 mg/100 g), ash (0,56 g/100 g), fibers (3,0
g/100 g), glucose (5,0 g/100 g), fructose (2,0 g/100 g), sorbitol (0,33 g/100 g), and carbohydrates (11,0 g/100 g). Pitahaya
fruits also contain several minerals such as iron (1,9 mg/100 g), potassium (190 mg/100 g), niacin (3 mg/100 g),
calcium (8,5 mg/100 g), magnesium (40,0 mg/100 g), phosphorus (22,5 mg/100 g), sodium (6,0 mg/100 g), and zinc
(0.30 mg/100 g).
MEDICINAL PLANT VALUE
Today we know that the consumption of fruits and vegetables can serve to reduce the incidence of diseases in
particular cancer and cardiological problems. The use of dragon fruit can be a strategy to reduce the incidence of
diseases because the content of phytochemicals that have a positive impact on health is high. Especially the content
of nutrients such as vitamin B2, vitamin B3, vitamin B1, vitamin C, fats, carbohydrates, proteins, betacyanins,
polyphenols, iron, phytoalbumin, carotene, cobalamin, glucose and phenols. Pitahaya has positive effects on the
digestive process, as an anti-diabetic, lowers blood pressure, neutralizes toxins in the body, especially heavy metal
toxins, helps treat asthma as well as cough and prevents various types of cancer especially colon cancer [37].
Dragon fruit contains phytoalbumin which has a protective effect against cancer and the iron content sche i also
found in red dragon fruit is able to increase the levels of erythrocytes and hemoglobin so it can be used as a
treatment for anemia [38].In addition to the presence of polyphenols and flavonoids, there are also other
phytochemicals in Pitahaya called betacyanins and betaxanthins that are part of the betalains. Studies show that
betacyanins in dragon fruit have an action against free radicals. As is well known, free radicals damage the body. As
they are capable of causing neurodegenerative diseases, aging or heart problems. The white dragon fruit (Hyolecerus
undatus) in the medical field plays a role in the wound healing process especially the leaves and water extract of the
flowers which were mixed in topical preparations [39].
ANTI-CANCER ACTIVITY
Studies have shown that the presence of flavonoids, dibetanin and polyphenols in dragon fruit provide an anti-
cancer effect. The skin of dragon fruit showed antiproliferative activity against human hepatocellular carcinoma cells
in a single dose. Several researches have shown that the effect of polyphenols can affect antioxidant mechanisms,
anti-inflammatory, inhibition of angiogenesis, cell cycle arrest and induction of apoptosis, and activation of protein
kinases. Pitahaya red fruits contain lycopene, which is a natural antioxidant recognized for fighting cancer.
Antioxidants protect cells from reactive oxygen species that can cause harmful effects and prevent the formation of
cancer-causing free radicals. The flesh and skin of red pitahaya are rich in polyphenols and are a good source of
antioxidants and while white pitahaya is richer in flavonoids [40].
CONCLUSION
Hyolocereus spp., commonly known as pitahaya or dragon fruit is one of the most important nutraceutical level fruits,
widely consumed by the world community. The main cultivation areas of dragon fruit are located in Southeast Asia,
America, Vietnam, Canary Islands and Thailand, but nowadays it is also gaining a lot of interest for its nutritional
properties in European countries. Dragon fruit contains nutrients and phytochemicals that are good for health and
protect against various degenerative diseases. The results of various researches show that dragon fruit has
preventive activity for several diseases that affect humans, such as cancer, digestive problems, diabetes. So dragon
fruit can be classified as a super fruit that has medicinal activities and can be used as an alternative to the use of
chemical based drugs. Further studies however on dragon fruit are needed to confirm and expand the knowledge
about the medicinal qualities of the plant and fruit for the prevention and alternative treatment of various diseases.
Indian Journal of Natural Sciences www.tnsroindia.org.in ©IJONS
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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
The research is part of the project “MicroSuc: microorganisms for the growth and protection of cacti and succulent
plants”.
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37738
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Table 1 - Example of soil for Pitahaya growth
Soil analysis for Pitahaya growth
Value
Soil structure
0,50 (%)
Fine soil
99,50 (%)
Clay
20,00 (%)
Silt
9,80 (%)
Total sand
70,00 (%)
pH
6,50
Total limestone
1,16 (%)
Indian Journal of Natural Sciences www.tnsroindia.org.in ©IJONS
Vol.12 / Issue 70 / February / 2022 International Bimonthly (Print) ISSN: 0976 – 0997
37739
Table 2- Energy value and content of Pitahaya fruit per 100 g of pulp
Figure 1
Pitahaya plant
Figure 2
Pitahaya
stems and thorns
Figure 3
Pitahaya roots
Figure 4
Pitahaya fruits harvest and detail of the
inside of the fruit
Energy value and contents
Value
Energy value and contents
Value
Calories (Kcal)
60,00
Fibers (g)
3,0
Water (%)
87,00
Cholesterol (mg)
0
Protein (g)
1,1
Ca (mg)
8,5
Lipid (g)
0,4
Fe (mg)
1,9
Mg (mg)
40,00
P (mg)
22,5
Vitamin B
1
(mg)
0,04
Vitamin C (mg)
20,5
Vitamin B
2
(mg)
0,05
Vitamin B3 (mg)
0,16
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