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St. John Virgin Islands Flora: Night Blooming Cerius

St. John Flora: Night Blooming Cerius

st john flora: pitaya
pitaya (chickenette)

There is a delicious fruit that grows wild on St. John that not many people know about. Old time St. Johnians call it a chickenette; others with roots in the British Virgin Islands and down island call it a strawberry or sometimes a strawberry pear. Latinos call it a pitaya and another common name is dragon fruit.

The pitaya is a red oval-shaped fruit about six inches long, tasting something like a kiwi, but sweeter and juicier. The fruit is produced by the night blooming cereus, the thorny vine-like cactus that you see growing along the ground and over bushes in dense tangled clumps or climbing up tree trunks or dangling down from branches.

The night blooming cereus is also called sweet-scented cactus, vanilla cactus, large-flowered cactus and reina de la noche (queen of the night) in Spanish. It blooms once a year, usually in late summer, and bears the largest flower found on St. John. The flower, which is white with yellow stamens, smells like vanilla and can reach as much as one foot in diameter. It opens up so quickly that you can literally watch it unfold right before your very eyes.

The giant flower stays open just for that one night and wilts by the dawn. The fruit develops from where the flower falls. It is green at first and turns red when it ripens.

Getting your hands on the night blooming cereus fruit is not so easy. Although the fruit itself is not thorny, the cactus vine that it grows on has many clusters of small spines, and to get at the fruit you usually have to get your hand past thorny tangles of the parent vine. Not only is the cereus itself uninviting and formidable, but it also seems to grow in the most unfriendly of St. John environments. Its neighbors are invariably the worst denizens of the St. John plant world, villains such as, catch and keep, Christmas bush, which causes severe skin irritation on contact and pinguin, or false pineapple, a plant so thorny and hard to get past that it is sometimes planted as a natural fence. Moreover, the night blooming cereus's neighborhood is often the home of our local wasp, the hard-stinging Jack Spaniard, whose nests often hang at face level hidden underneath leaves and branches.

If you're not entirely put off by all these thorns and stings and barbs, you'll still need to have good timing. You'll have to wait until the fruit begins to ripen before you can pick it, and this must be done before someone else beats you to it. That someone, by the way, may well be a thrushie bird that can get in to such places a lot easier than you can. But even the thrushie bird seems to be deterred by the extremely difficult locales preferred by the night blooming cereus.

st john flora: dragon fruit
Night Blooming Cerius Fruits

st john flora: pitaya sliced
Fruit Sliced

Once you pick the fruit, the rest is easy. Peel off the thick red skin and slice up the white fruit with its many tiny black seeds or cut the fruit in half and eat the inside with a spoon. This latter method is usually how the fruit is presented in hotels and restaurants in South and Central America. It's really a tasty treat, so don't miss the chance to try one if the opportunity presents itself.

The night blooming cereus may very well seem scraggly, unfriendly and unruly, but it is certainly not without redeeming value. Not only does it produce a magnificent flower and delicious fruit, but it also has important medicinal qualities. It can be a potent heart medicine and serves as a partial substitute for the plant-based drug, digitalis. The Native American Shoshone tribe calls the night blooming cereus, "pain in the heart", and use it to treat the severe pains caused by angina pectoris. Homeopathists prescribe it to treat a variety of heart problems such as tachycardia, palpitations, arrhythmia and anxiety or panic attacks.

Like other commonly found and often ignored items on St. John, the night blooming cereus fetches a hefty price stateside. The young tender stems and the flowers can be pounded out to make a milky white juice. This is mixed with alcohol to produce the tincture that is used as the heart medicine. Vitality Works Inc. in Albuquerque, New Mexico sells a tiny one-ounce bottle of night blooming cereus tincture for $10.00.

"One of the latest foods to satisfy the United States’ appetite for the exotic [is] the dragon fruit (pitaya)….recently U.S. manufacturers of bottled juices began importing a frozen puree of the fruit to use as a flavoring. But concerns about fruit-fly infestations keep the fruit itself from being imported. So with savvy consumers and trendy chefs willing to pay up to ten dollars for just one piece of fruit, boutique farmers and backyard gardeners in the U.S. are planting as fast as they can."
From National Geographic August 2003, "Enter the Dragon Fruit" by A.R. Williams

If you would like to have a night blooming cereus of your very own, it's easy to do. Just cut off a segment or two of a wild plant and stick it in the ground. It will root easily and within a year or two, you may have the pleasure of observing one of nature's most beautiful and grandiose flowers, of feasting on the sweet and juicy chickenette and, possibly, of getting rich in the burgeoning medicinal plant industry, all right in your own backyard.