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A Progress Report on Commercialization in the USA of Purple-Fruited


Pitanga (Eugenia uniflora L.), an Underutilized Fruit Crop

J.L. Griffis, Jr.
1
, C.E. Sams
2
, M.M. Manners
3
, T.G. McDonald
4
and T.J. Radovich
4
1
Marine and Ecological Sciences Department, Florida Gulf Coast University, Fort Myers,
Florida, USA
2
Department of Plant Sciences, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tennessee, USA
3
Horticulture Department, Florida Southern College, Lakeland, Florida, USA
4
Tropical Plant and Soil Sciences Department, University of Hawaii, Manoa, Honolulu,
Hawaii, USA

Keywords: Myrtaceae, Surinam cherry, Pitangueira, Brazilian cherry, Nangapiri

Abstract
Fewer than 100 plant species yield almost all of the commercial food products
available worldwide. Why have so many other crops remained underutilized?
Examination of the ongoing commercialization project of purple-fruited pitanga
(Eugenia uniflora) in the USA yields some explanations that may aid others in
developing new crops in the future. Pitanga is not an entirely new crop. Although it
has been spread throughout the tropics by various means, it has seen only limited
commercialization of the fruits and foliage in its native Brazil. Factors that may
have limited further development of pitanga include considerable variation among
seedlings and their fruits, difficulty in clonal propagation, lack of recognizably
superior cultivars, limited production information, lack of pest and disease control
recommendations, difficulty in determining when to harvest the fruits or foliage,
lack of post-harvest handling information, lack of nutritional content information,
lack of marketing, limited development of commercial uses for the fruits and foliage
and lack of research funding. Our field research projects in progress on the island of
Hawaii and in Florida attempt to address these factors as the development and
commercialization of the crop moves forward.

STUDY
There are many edible crop plants produced around the world, but a relatively
small number of species, fewer than one hundred, provide almost all of the food products
that are generally available (Azam-Ali et al., 2001; Janick, 1999; Padulosi et al., 1999).
Other crops, often grown and eaten in restricted geographic areas, have not become more
widely produced and consumed. There are many reasons for this situation, distributed
across the hundreds of underutilized crops. Probably the absence of clear field production
and post-harvest handling information for any crop is a leading reason the crop has not
been successfully commercialized. An additional problem for commercialization is a lack
of improved cultivar development such that the plant products are predictably similar
each time they are available to the consumer. Pest and disease issues could also be an
additional reason a crop is not developed. A lack of research funding to support field
production research further restricts the amount of information available and limits
grower interest in attempting to produce commercial quantities of any crop. Pitanga
(Eugenia uniflora L.), distributed throughout the tropics worldwide many years ago
(Morton, 1987; Poponoe, 1920), seems to be limited by these factors. Only in Brazil,
where research funding and field space have been available for several decades, has the
crop had any significant commercial success (Bicas et al., 2011; Bourscheid et al., 2011;
Silva, 2006). Our research is aimed at increasing the amount of information available to
prospective growers in areas of the USA where the crop can be grown.
Pitanga, a tropical, perennial small tree of the family Myrtaceae, is one of the
most widely distributed edible-fruited Eugenia species (Poponoe, 1920; Morton, 1987).
The plant may reach upwards of eight meters in height and it generally has a spreading
growth habit, with aromatic foliage that is usually bronze or copper-colored when young,
Proc. 2
nd
Int. Symp. on Underutilized Plants Species
Crops for the Future Beyond Food Security
Eds.: F. Massawe et al.
Acta Hort. 979, ISHS 2013
808
but darker green and glossy when mature and with fruits that resemble small pumpkins,
changing in color from green to orange to red and in some cases, to dark purple as the
fruit matures (Bourscheid et al., 2011; Griffis et al., 2009; Lima et al., 2002; Morton,
1987; Santos et al., 2001). The plants are rather widely distributed throughout Eastern
South America from Surinam south to Uruguay (Poponoe, 1920; Morton, 1987) although
they are sometimes cultivated in other areas around the world such as Florida, California,
Hawaii, Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands as well as the Philippines and many of
the islands of the South Pacific (Morton, 1987).
This project started some years ago in response to a comment made by Carl
Campbell (1977) concerning fruit color inheritance in purple-fruited pitanga or Surinam
cherry. Several grafted pitanga plants of the purple-fruited cultivar Zill Dark were
installed on the campus of Florida Southern College in Lakeland, Florida, USA as
breeding parents. Self-pollinations of flowers on these plants resulted in many fruits and
approximately one hundred fifty seeds were planted in the campus greenhouses. After
about five years in containers, one hundred twenty individual plants were evaluated for
fruit color and eighty-eight of the seedling plants, about seventy five percent, produced
purple fruits (Griffis and Manners, 2005). These plants were installed as hedges at Florida
Southern College in 2004 and they have been observed and evaluated since that time.
Additional self-pollinations were made with the Zill Dark plants, and seeds were
collected and used to initiate tissue culture experiments (Griffis, 2006). The current field
research project at the Kona Research Station of the University of Hawaii was also
initiated using plants grown from seeds from another self-pollination of Zill Dark. The
field of 137 seedlings was planted in December 2006, and 20 veneer-grafted plants
(Manners et al., 2011) of the cultivar Zill Dark were added to the field a year later. The
original experiment was designed to evaluate the effects of several different organic and
inorganic fertilizers on plant growth and fruit production (Griffis et al., 2009; Smith et al.,
2009) and to allow selection of superior individual plants if any were discovered.
Superior clones are needed to ensure commercial dependability and acceptability. The
project was aimed at developing general production recommendations for purple-fruited
pitanga as a commercial crop to be grown with coffee. This project was actually a follow-
up to an earlier developmental project in Hawaii that had determined that several crops,
including pitanga, had significant potential for development (Love et al., 2007). It has
now been determined that more than 90% of the pitanga seedlings planted in the Kona
Experiment Station field are purple-fruited and that growth habit, yield, fruit size and fruit
taste vary considerably among the seedlings. Preliminary data and observations taken at
the current field project at the Kona Station allow us to develop some basic fertilizer
recommendations for prospective growers. These fertilizer recommendations can now be
made for the crop when it is grown in the Kona area. It appears that pitanga plants will
grow and produce acceptable crops using only half as much nitrogen fertilizer as is
recommended for coffee. The current recommendation for coffee production in Kona
using 10-5-20 fertilizer is 1100 kg/ha in the third year after planting, spread out over four
or more applications per year. A fertilizer increase to 1650 kg/ha in the fourth year for
coffee is recommended, with a further increase up to 2200 kg/ha in year five and
thereafter (Bittenbender and Smith, 2008). We have maintained seedling plants in our
pitanga field for several years using different fertilizers at the equivalent nitrogen rates of
550 kg/ha and 1100 kg/ha of fertilizer spread over four quarterly applications, and there
appear to be no differences in growth or production among the seedlings that can be
attributable to fertilizer type or rate of application. However, fruit harvest production
numbers are preliminary and are quite variable between plants at different times of the
year. This is not surprising, as researchers in Brazil have also noted considerable fruit
production variation among pitanga seedlings under their growing conditions (Bezerra et
al., 1995, 1997, 2004; Lira, Jr., et al., 2010). Since fruit size and mature fruit taste are also
highly variable among the plants, it is important that superior plants be selected from this
field (and from the Florida planting) for further propagation and production experiments.
One very important item discovered in the Kona pitanga field is that production of
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harvestable fruits (from different plants within the field, not the same plant) occurs
continuously year-round, not seasonally as in Florida or Brazil (Morton, 1987; Danner et
al., 2010a). Collection of dates of bloom data for all of the plants is being conducted so
that it can be determined if they are early, midseason, or late-blooming plants. It would be
significant to prospective growers if they knew they could have year-round production of
fruit rather than just once or twice a year as occurs in Florida and Brazil. Time from
pollination to harvest also seems to be different than what was previously reported.
Morton (1987) claims that red fruits ripen within three weeks of pollination in Florida
while Santos et al. (2001) claims it takes about 40-45 days for ripening of pitanga in
Puerto Rico. Preliminary data collected from the Kona field suggest that fruit ripening
may take up to 60 days in Hawaii, but there may be seasonal variations among fruits
harvested from the same plants at different times of the year.
It is also known that the pitanga crop fruiting cycle is asynchronous, with open
flowers, immature and mature fruits all present on the same plant at the same time
(Morton, 1987) so that harvesting is performed frequently over an extended period of
time. The pitanga is a non-climacteric fruit (Akamine and Goo, 1979) that must be
harvested fully ripe to obtain the best flavor and appearance for fresh consumption.
Harvest methods, post-harvest handling methods and shipping information still need to be
properly developed for the purple-fruited pitanga. The crop needs to be harvested by
hand. It is important that the fruits for fresh consumption be fully ripe before they are
removed from the plants; immature fruits often have an unpleasant, resinous flavor.
Harvest can be tricky as mature fruits will abscise and drop to the ground soon after
ripening. No really good method for harvesting the crop exists, so some ripe fruits are lost
and some fruits that are not entirely mature are included in the packages. The mature fruit
requires rather delicate handling similar to that of a raspberry or a strawberry; the
harvester should place the fruit carefully in the final package and it should not be touched
again. A close evaluation of the fruit being harvested has been performed, since
harvesting and post-harvest handling are such important factors in commercial success of
a crop. Ripe purple pitanga fruits have been placed in clamshell containers and both
sampled and sold at farmers markets around Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.
Processing of purple-fruited pitanga into other products is still not well developed.
A small business for producing jams and jellies already exists in Hawaii and the
producers would like to be able to produce more product. Additionally, chefs at resorts in
Hawaii are interested in using the fruits for various recipes. The purple-fruited pitanga
got a big publicity boost when the winning chef of a national cooking competition used
the fruits to prepare a sorbet (Adams, 2007). In our current trials, we are also
investigating how long the fresh fruit may be held in cold storage and how well the fruit
dries.
The purple fruits of the pitanga, but not the red ones, contain quite a range of
antioxidants (Oliveira et al., 2006; Reynertson et al., 2008), and several of them are in
considerable demand. This places the fruit into the group of antioxidant-rich super
fruits along with blueberries (Vaccinium spp. Rydb.), acai (Euterpe oleracea Mart.),
blackberries (Rubus fruticosus L.), and pomegranates (Punica granatum L.). Preliminary
investigations into the antioxidants and other phytonutrients contained in the fruits of
various seedling purple-fruited pitangas have been initiated to compare the fruits of
individual plants to each other and to other crops (Wheeler et al., 2011; Sams et al.,
unpublished data). An increased interest by several Brazilian researchers in the nutritional
qualities of the purple-fruited pitanga (Jacques et al., 2009; Santos et al., 2010) should
give a considerable boost to the crop. The potential for using the fruit juice (Nzeagwu and
Onimawo, 2010) and/or antioxidants in other products certainly needs to be investigated
further.
Some preliminary results obtained from evaluations of antioxidants found in fruits
harvested from individual purple-fruited pitanga plants, using methods previously
reported (Wheeler et al., 2011) show considerable variation among individual plants and
warrant substantial further research. Based on previous published works (Jacques et al.,
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2009; Santos et al., 2010) several flavonoids, including myricetin, quercetin and lutein,
were selected for further evalution. For one analysis, 100 mg of freeze dried fruit tissue
was added to 2.0 ml of acetonitrile, 1.2 ml of high purity deionized water (at least 18.1
megaohms) and 100 l of internal standard and capped in a tube. The tubes were rotary
mixed (Vortex Genie) and extracted for 2 h. Then 0.7 ml high purity water was added and
the sample vortexed again for 5 s. Samples were then centrifuged for 10 min at 2000 g
and 20C. The supernatant was removed and filtered though a nylon 0.45 m filter. The
samples were analyzed with a high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) unit with
a photodiode array detector (1100 212 series, Agilent Technologies, Santa Clara, CA)
using a reverse-phase 250~4.6 mm i.d. 5-m Luna C18 column (Phenomenex, Inc.,
Torrance, CA). Mature fruits harvested from Zill Dark pitanga were used for
comparison. The myricetin, quercetin and lutein content of some of the seedling mature
fruits are nearly double the content of each of these metabolites found in Zill Dark
(Table 1). Breeding work to increase concentrations of these metabolites should have a
high probability of success in further improving the nutritional content of purple-fruited
pitanga. (We do not have replicates of the samples, one fruit being too small for
individual analysis by these methods, so the only thing we can say about the variability
for all of the values reported is that the numbers in the table are means of three
subsamples from each of the individual seedling samples from a single harvest event. The
numbers of fruits per plant that were taken for each sample were not identical, so we
cannot say exactly how many fruits on average that each sample represents from each
plant.) It is clear from these analyses that there is considerable variation in flavonoid and
carotenoid content among purple-fruited pitanga selections. Methods are currently being
developed (Wheeler, pers. commun.) that may allow us to use small samples and perhaps
individual fruits for future analyses.
Collection of data about mature fruit size, as well as brix and acid content of
mature fruits has also been initiated (unpublished data). Comparison to Brazilian data on
mature pitanga fruits (Danner et al., 2010b) will eventually be possible when more data
collection is completed.
One major set of problems for development of purple-fruited pitanga as a
commercial crop is the propagation requirements. Although readily grown from seed,
pitanga seedlings will give fruits that are highly variable in fruit color, flavor, quality and
yield; many fruits are resinous and unpalatable. Seedling plants are widely used in Florida
as ornamental hedges and little effort has been made to select among the plants for flavor
or yield. In fact, most red fruits are not harvested at all. The Hawaiians seem to like the
fruits better than the Floridians and seedling plants are found on most of the islands.
Interested nurserymen both in Florida and in Hawaii introduced a few superior,
grafted, purple-fruited cultivars of the pitanga (Zill Dark in Florida, Kawahara in
Hawaii), but they have never been widely distributed. Seedling production of purple-
fruited pitanga is not desirable because the plants do not come true-to-seed and some of
the seedlings will produce the inferior, red fruits. Grafting superior purple-fruited
selections onto seedling rootstocks has proven to be somewhat difficult (Bezerra et al.,
2002; Franzon et al., 2010; Griffis et al, 2009; Manners et al., 2011), so there have not
been large numbers of plants available to interested growers. Testing has begun on a
range of factors that might have significant effects on the success of pitanga grafts. We
have determined at least one graft method (veneer) that appears to be sufficiently
successful for commercial production, although more trials need to be done (Manners et
al., 2011). A row of twenty veneer-grafted Zill Dark plants were added to the field at the
Kona Experiment Station and they are undergoing further evaluation. We have not made
any attempts to topwork any existing plantings of pitanga. We have also conducted
several in vitro micropropagation experiments with pitanga and it has proven to be very
difficult to propagate in the lab (Griffis, 2006; Lattuada, 2010); mature, adult selections
have never been successfully micropropagated. We believe we can make grafted plants
available to growers once we have settled on the best cultivar selections; probably one of
the most important factors in commercialization.
811
So what holds back the purple-fruited pitanga from successful commercialization?
There are numerous reasons why any particular fruit crop has remained underutilized or
neglected. Among these reasons would be characteristics such as poorly understood
production parameters, variable quality of harvested fruits with lack of distinctive
cultivars, difficult-to-harvest fruits, fruits with unusual flavors, unusual appearance of
fruits, short shelf life of fruits, few obvious culinary uses for the fruits, few if any
processed products. For the purple-fruited pitanga, it appears to be a combination of
things, but most likely it is a lack of superior, grafted cultivars being made available to
growers as well as a lack of published production procedures that would tell farmers how
to plant, grow, harvest, and deliver their delicious purple fruits to market. There just has
not been enough research completed and published that would provide production
information to interested parties. Additional field research, including pest and weed
management suggestions should provide the required production recommendations.
Additional laboratory research into the usefulness of the antioxidants contained within the
ripe purple fruits may also produce other uses for the crop that increase commercial
interest. After fields of superior, purple-fruited cultivars are planted and begin production,
fresh purple pitanga fruits and processed pitanga products may begin appearing on store
shelves.

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Tables





Table 1. Myricetin, quercetin and lutein content of mature fruits from fifteen randomly
selected sister seedlings of purple-fruited pitanga compared to mature Zill Dark
fruits.

Sample Myricetin Quercetin Lutein
AA 0.237 164.276 0.069
AB 0.294 80.593 0.149
AC 0.283 180.255 0.065
AD 0.419 239.520 0.097
AE 0.488 192.872 0.120
AF 0.427 238.061 0.106
AG 0.413 187.393 0.090
AH 0.417 320.871 0.053
AJ 0.264 303.405 0.021
AK 0.275 145.981 0.050
AL 0.319 116.441 0.021
AM 0.225 144.293 0.095
AN 0.171 93.439 0.030
AP 0.391 229.206 0.069
AQ 0.300 104.811 0.016
Zill Dark 0.250 172.745 0.012
Concentrations (molg
-1
DW), each value is the average of 3 sub-samples.






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