Peruvian Apple Cactus

In the Florida summer garden there is nothing quite so magnificent as the night-blooming Peruvian Apple Cactus (Cereus repandus). By day these tree-like cacti appear rather lifeless with large cylindrical gray-green to blue stems reaching 10m (33 feet) or higher. On warm summer nights they come alive with these spectacular blooms. However, the blooms open for only one night, usually around 9:00 pm, and close forever with the first light of morning.

Because Peruvian Apple Cacti are not native to Florida their native pollinators are not available. There are few bats or large moths in suburban Florida to pollinate the enormous blooms. You can help, with a q-tip, if you'd like to experience the fruit in late summer. Remember that with this species you must cross-pollinate (move pollen from one plant to another).

The specimens pictured here were all from a truckload that I collected from the garbage several years ago. Someone had cut down a hedge of these giant cacti and tossed them all into the trash. I planted them in sand on a south-facing fence line that is in full sun 365 days/year. There, they flourish. In winter we occasionally have a 1 or 2 sub-32°F nights, but rarely. Neither the occasional cold nor the relentless heat seem to slow the growth of these cacti. My cultivars are nearly thornless while others can be quite thorny. Mine are nearly smooth, while some are very ruddy.

Native to the tropical and subtropical Americas the cacti were most likely originally from northern South American and the nearby ABC Islands. In the Caribbean they are cultivated as living fences and as an ornamental plant so it is difficult to know their native habitat. Most likely they originated in the western Caribbean, Venezuela, or Brazil.

The species is now common in gardens in tropical and subtropical countries around the world and has been planted commercially as a fruit crop on a small scale in Netherlands Antilles, other Caribbean, Mexico, Israel and USA and often sub spontaneous from abandoned cultivations. In South Africa it is considered a weed.

In spite of its nocturnal flower opening, daytime-active honey bees may act as pollinators using the few hours the flowers are open in the late evening or early morning.

Common names in English include: Hedge Cactus, Cadushi, Giant Club Cactus, Peruvian Apple Cactus, Peruvian tree, Peruvian apple, Apple cactus

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Description: The Peruvian apple cactus (Cereus repandus) more often known under the name of Cereus peruvianus, it is a tall, spreading columnar cactus well known to cactus fanciers throughout the world. It is grown mostly as an ornamental plant, but it has some local culinary importance, and is probably the most widely cultivated Cereus.

Ribs: 9-10, fairly low, rounded, somewhat compressed and undated, to 1 cm high.

Areoles: Small, widely separated.

Spines: Extremely variable, often numerous, sometimes absent, grey, needle-like, the longest to 5 cm.

Flowers: Nocturnal, each flower opens for just one night and then shrivels up, white with reddish tips, 12-15 cm long. It is self-incompatible and requires cross-pollination to obtain fruits.

Blooming season: During the warm season Cereus repandus produces several flower flushes.

Fruits: The fruits, known locally as "Pitaya", “Peruvian Apple” or “Koubo” are globose to elongate up to 4 cm long, thornless usually red with white pulp, but skin colour vary from yellow to deep violet-red. The edible flesh is white and contains small, edible, crunchy seeds. Fruits tend to crack during ripening and flesh sweetens as the fruit opens out fully. The optimum harvest stage is when the fruits are close to or at full ripeness. Once harvested, the ripe fruits must be eaten within twenty-four hours, or they begin to ferment. Fruit take about 40-50 days to swell and ripen, so there are often flowers and fruits on the plant at the same time. A single large plant may produces hundred of fruits every year.

Cultivation and Propagation: Cereus repandus is very easy to cultivate, easy to propagate, tolerates moderate frost, and produces numerous showy white flowers 15 cm across.

Growth rate: It grows quickly (a young plant will easily grow more than a 30 cm per year) and a plant grown in loose fertile soil with ample water availability may get up to 9 metres tall with dozens of branches in only 10 years.

Soils: For pot culture it needs standard cactus soil. Outdoors needs well drained spots, with deep soil, but will still thrive in less than ideal conditions. The species is sensitive to salinity.

Hardiness: Reputedly sensitive to frost , but less so if kept on the dry side prior to, and during, cold weather (hardy to 23° F (-5° C) for short periods). However some warmth throughout the year will increase the grower's success (minimum 40-45° F (5° to 8°C) during rest season).

Uther uses: Fruits and stems of Cereus repandus are edible, the cactus is cultivated for use as a living fence, its wood has been used in making furniture and for firewood, and sliced stems have been used as a soap substitute. The goose-egg-size fruits contain a delicately sweet white pulp with delightfully crunchy black seeds. They possess the added virtue that their husks are free of spines. The plant's rapid growth and fruit production apparently have made it attractive throughout the tropics.

Other similar-looking night-blooming cacti occur in Florida

Often called "Night-blooming Cereus," Epiphyllum oxypetalum, pictured here, is not closely related to any of the species in the tribe Cereeae.

Pests & diseases: In Florida this species has no problem with pests. Elsewhere it may be attractive to a variety of insects, but plants in good condition should be nearly pest-free, particularly if they are grown in a mineral potting-mix, with good exposure and ventilation. Nonetheless, there are several pests to watch for:

- Red spiders: Sensitive to red spider mite. Overhead watering is helpful in controlling mites.

- Mealy bugs: Occasionally mealy bugs they develop aerial into the new growth among the wool with disfiguring results, but the worst types develop underground on the roots and are invisible except by their effects.

- Scales: Scales are rarely a problem.

- Rot: Rot it is only a minor problem with cacti if the plants are watered and “aired” correctly. If they are not, fungicides won't help all that much.

Propagation: From cuttings in spring (let them dry till the ends callous well). Then replant them in fresh cactus soil that is ever so slightly moist, and keep them that way till they root), or by Seeds (Seeds should be sown in a well-drained soil mix. Surface sowing is the best; seeds germinate in 14-28 days at 25° C . The seedlings should not be disturbed until they are well rooted, after which they can be planted separately in small pots.