Caribbean Apple Cactus

17 Sep

Harrisia fragrans



Howya like them apples?  Today’s photos by John Bradford.


William Harris was a botanist/horticulturist in Jamaica.  Fragrans means fragrant.

This blazing day went to the purpose of searching the western margins of Savannas Preserve State Park and nearby near Jensen Beach, Florida, for the rare and probably-not-native Agave neglecta.   Let’s neglect the agave for today’s story.   Searching for an agave sounds like a mission to Mexico, and the scrubby ridge along the Florida East Coast RR is so high, dry,  bleached,  white,  and glaring it hurts the eyes. (Of course that may have had something to do with a prior trip to the eye doctor today. Never visit scrub when dilated.)   Today’s motorized posse were John, Savannas SP Biologist Doug Rogers, and George Rogers.

The joy of a mission is the journey, and today’s journey had a desert ambiance reinforced at every turn with multiple species of agaves, prickly pear cacti,  and best of all,  Caribbean apple cactus  I’ll bet within a stone’s throw of where Florida botanist John Kunkel Small discovered it in 1917.


Traditionally Harrisia cacti in Florida comprised a trio:  H. fragrans confined to the area we visited today,  H. simpsonii at the southern tip of the state, and H. aboriginum on the Gulf Coast.   Studies have suggested interpreting H. simpsonii and H. fragrans to be a single species.

The name H. aboriginum hints at a fun fact—Harrisia cacti in Florida have association with pre-European middens, and the tasty fruits must have been a pleasure to the earliest humans in town.   Did humans long ago perhaps bring Apple Cacti from the Caribbean, as they might have brought papayas, agaves, and who knows what?



In an evolutionary sense, Harrisia flowers were probably originally bat-pollinated, but hang on, even though they look bat-ish divergence from such possible beginnings seems to have occurred.  Botanist J. R. Sandoval and E. M. Ackerman recently studied  Harrisia portoricensis in Puerto Rico, and their observations are puzzlers:  Animal visits were infrequent, and the flowers are not matched to the needs nor ways of bats.   Those botanists, noting that most Harrisia species live on Caribbean islands, suspected that hurricane-disruption of bat populations forced the cacti to diversify their pollination help.

That is one fancy wind-pollinated flower! Maybe.   Illustration from Britton and Rose, Illustrated Cacti,  public domain via Creative Commons.

Disappointingly though, they found the flowers to be not great matches to hawk moths either, although hawk moths do pitch in. The most important floral visitor was  wind, causing self-pollination by knocking the pollen-making stamens and pollen-receptive stigmas together in the same flowers.  They called it a “wind-aided self-pollination system.”   Island dwellers learn to make-do.

Pollination study of the  Apple Cacti here in Florida might be fun and illustrative.  We don’t have much or any (?) bat-pollination. Biologist Jon Moore found beetles in the blossoms.      We have plenty of wind.

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Posted by on September 17, 2016 in Uncategorized


5 responses to “Caribbean Apple Cactus

  1. theshrubqueen

    September 17, 2016 at 8:02 am

    But can you make a pie with the fruit? It looks like Dragon Fruit.

    • George Rogers

      September 17, 2016 at 10:35 am

      Hi Amelia, Sure…how about a cactus pie a la mode. Don’t forget some dahoon tea, and a scrub inspired floral arrangement.

      • theshrubqueen

        September 17, 2016 at 1:45 pm

        Sounds like a party!

  2. Annie Hite

    September 17, 2016 at 10:03 am

    This sure looks like my dragon fruit – both fruit and flowers – and the flowers are very like the flowers of my night blooming cereus. Is the fruit edible? Are there animals who like this fruit?

  3. George Rogers

    September 17, 2016 at 10:44 am

    Well, yea, they are all related, all cacti, the similarity a reflection of relationship, like cukes resemble zukes and apples resemble pears. Yes it is edible, but not that exciting. And very seedy. Animals, including birds, gobble the fruit. I’m sure it is fair to guess raccoons and gopher tortoises enjoy the treats. .


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