Sunday, August 29, 2010

Harrisia fragrans – Fragrant Prickly-Apple

Harrisia fragrans is a rare, federally-listed endangered cactus of sandy coastal areas and recorded from Volusia, Brevard, Indian River, and St. Lucie counties along the east coast of peninsular Florida. It is now extremely rare in the wild and it has been reduced to approximately 320 plants in St. Lucie County (Possley 2010), with all other occurrences having been eliminated as a result of habitat destruction. The prospects for this plant appear dim since the wild populations show high death rates for mature plants and low rates of recruitment and establishment for seedlings (Rae & Ebert 2002).

The plant is characterized by narrowly columnar stems with 10–12 ribs and growing 3–5 meters (9.8–16.4 feet) long. Such lengths appear to be the result of plants trying to grow above the surrounding vegetation since cultivated plants in full sun tend to remain much shorter. Young shoots are very showy as a result of the bright yellow spines that contrast beautifully with the dark green stems. The spines darken as they age but even on very old stems, the spines will usually retain yellow tips.

Disproportionately large, fragrant, white flowers are produced in late spring and these quickly develop into huge, rounded, orange-red fruits that take several months to ripen. The fruits are sparsely covered with small scales and are filled with numerous seeds embedded in a mildly sweet white flesh with a pleasing flavor. Fruits can be cut in half and the flesh and seeds scooped out and eaten in the same manner as kiwi fruits and, like kiwi fruits, the flavor can be enhanced by adding a squeeze or two of lime. Plants are equally ornamental in flower and in fruit and the latter are "a great attraction as food for birds, many of whom are ravenously fond of the seeds" (Small 1932 quoted in Parfitt & Gibson 2003).

Harrisia fragrans is very easily cultivated from seeds and young plants about two years old and only 30.5 centimeters (12 inches) tall will readily flower and set fruit in a small pot. Plants are also easily propagated by stem cuttings that have had their cut ends allowed to dry for a day or two and then inserted into sandy soil. If one has the room, it should be grown in large groups where quantities of large white flowers will present a very attractive sight and many fruits can be produced, to the gastronomic delight of the gardener, assorted mammals, and birds.

Harrisia fragrans, under the name Cereus eriophorus var. fragrans, was formerly treated as a variety of Harrisia eriophorus; however, the latter is now regarded as an exclusively Caribbean species that differs in its 8–9-ribbed stems and longer, black-tipped spines (Parfitt & Gibson 2003).


  • Britton, N.L. and J.N. Rose. 1920. The Cactaceae: Descriptions and Illustrations of the Cactus Family. Volume II. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution of Washington Publication No. 248. Internet
  • Parfitt, B.D. and A.C. Gibson. 2003. Harrisia. pp. 152–153. In Flora of North America Editorial Committee (eds.) Flora of North America: Volume 4. New York: Oxford University Press. Internet
  • Possley, J. 2010. CPC National Collection Plant Profile: Cereus eriophorus var. fragrans. St. Louis: Center for Plant Conservation. Internet
  • Rae, J.G. and T.A. Ebert. 2002. Demography of the Endangered Fragrant Prickly Apple Cactus, Harrisia fragrans [abstract]. International Journal of Plant Sciences 163(4): 631–640. Internet
  • Small, J. K. 1932. Harrisia fragrans—fragrant prickly-apple. Addisonia 17: 29–30.

A plant that survived hurricanes Frances and Jeanne in 2004 produces new shoots in the spring of 2005.

Image published prior to 1923 (Britton & Rose) and now in the public domain. Text © 2010 Rufino Osorio.

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