Israel is often in the news, but rarely as the center of some of the greenest advances in modern agriculture. But Israel is also hard at work testing fruiting plants from dry climates around the world. Its dwindling water supply demands new and innovative dryland crops that offer new types of food. Among the most promising fruits for arid-zone American gardens is the apple cactus, Cereus peruvianus. This large, branching treelike columnar cactus produces some of the most delicious and beautiful fruits for gardens.
The species originates in Peru, which is evidenced by its botanical name. There it is known as pitaya. They were imported into Southern California long ago and are well established in both residential and botanical gardens.
Salinity in the water is a common problem in the Middle East, so these seedlings were tested for tolerance of alkaline conditions. The cactus was also studied for spine density, for those with few spines would be far less painful to cultivate and harvest. Finally, the density of flowers and ease of pollination were observed to ensure the parent plants would be prolific. Ultimately, these plants passed their tests and became one of the most innovative crops for Israel and elsewhere in the world where heat, drought, alkalinity and poor soils limit human food supply.
In Southern California, many very old apple-cactus plants have become massive specimens. However, this vegetative prosperity is offset by the fact that the fruit tastes rather bland. Only in the blistering desert, as is the case in Israel, does the apple cactus reach its maximum sweetness.
In the inland valleys and deserts, this cactus is a more open, sparsely branched plant. They tend to flower better in the extreme heat of the summer months when they are most actively growing. This is the result of climate stress, which forces plants to work harder to attract bats and birds that relish the fruit and help spread the seed.
Due to the fact that the apple-cactus fruit does not have spines or glochids like that of the common prickly pear, it makes a far better residential fruit plant. It is simple to propagate in well-drained ground or pot.