Dragon Fruit Cactus
Aka: Pitaya or Pitahaya
Dragon Fruit Cactus Growing Overview:
- Dragon Fruit look amazing and taste wonderful.
- Unfortunately, like many others, I have had difficulty finding useful information on how to get these plants to produce fruit.
- Therefore, I did some deep research and some experimentation to figure out what makes these plants tick. After a few years of effort, I am now happy to report that my plants are producing lots of fruit. This article covers the method (and madness) of what works for me.
Dragon Fruit Appearance:
- The fruit just looks amazing.
- An individual fruit weighs between ½ pound to over 3 pounds.
- From the outside, the fruit resembles a very large egg laid by some kind of mythical creature. Hum, I wonder if that is how the plant got its name?
- Anyhow, depending on the plant, the flesh of the fruit can be a variety of colors ranging from white, pink, red or dark purple. The red and purple variety is really more of a psychedelic bright red/deep purple. This deep color is rather unbelievable and may indicate the presence of strong antioxidants… or so people say.
- The fruit flesh is also dotted with black specks which are the small seeds.
Scientific name and the color of the fruit flesh:
- I have seen many references call the white fleshed variety by the scientific name (Hylocereus undatus) and the red fleshed variety (Hylocereus costaricensis).
- After years of growing the white, pink, red and purple varieties of dragon fruit, I have not been able to appreciate significant difference in the external appearance of the plants. Therefore, this makes me wonder if the provided nomenclature/taxonomy might be a bit artificial for these plants. I have not heard anyone else mention this before… but I strongly suspect that these different colored fruits are just variations in color of the same plant species. Which would actually make them different varieties of plants/fruits and not different species.
- This then brings me to the next point, what about the pink fleshed variety? What scientific name do you give that one? Regardless, it is very possible that the pink variety is a hybrid between the red and the white varieties.
When is the Dragon Fruit Ripe?
- The fruit is ripe when its wings start to wither (The wings are those leafy things that extend off from the fruit) and the fruit is red like the picture below (note: All of the Hylocereus spp fruit look this way when ripe even if their flesh is white, pink, red or purple).
- At this point in ripeness the fruit will detach from the vine with a twist or two. Note, if you wait for the fruit to fall off the plant, it will be over ripe and a waste.
Dragon Fruit Taste:
- The skin is inedible… at least no one that I know of eats it. The skin peels off very easily.
- The texture of the edible flesh seems to defy physics; the flesh is firm and dense but melting and very juicy.
- The fruit is sweet-and not tart. There are subtle mild layers of tropical flavors-and an almost melon like overtone.
- There is definitely a difference in the taste between the different colored varieties of dragon fruit.
- The small pleasantly crunchy black seeds are similar to Kiwi seeds but not as hard.
- Allowing the fruit to ripen properly on the vine gives you a much better flavor than any store bought Dragon Fruit that I have ever tried. I think this is b/c the fruit is picked too early for the commercially grown stuff so that it can survive the transport time to the stores.
Video tasting below was setup to be as if you were eating it yourself (8/16/15):
Video Taste with friend:
A great friend of mine (Stasi Seay) is a wine education expert and as a result she has an excellent palate for all kinds of food. I recently had her try a Dragon Fruit for the first time and videotaped her perspectives on the unique flavors. This YouTube video captures that moment.
More tasting references:
Dragon Fruit Season:
- In Southern California, the main fruit harvest season is summer to fall.
Dragon Fruit Cactus Food use:
- Just eat them fresh and enjoy.
- Also used in fruit salads, ice cream and as blended fruit drinks.
- I have heard that unopened flower buds are sometimes cooked and eaten as vegetables. What a shame.
Dragon Fruit Flowers:
- Its a shame the Dragon Fruit Flowers only bloom at night and only last for one day. They are really large and beautiful. The flowers also have a wonderful tropical aroma. For more info about Dragon Fruit flowers, click on this link.
Time lapse video of dragon fruit flowers opening (August 20, 2014):
- Here’s a video I put together of beautiful dragon fruit flowers opening (see below).
- The following 20 second video was created by taking a picture every 15 min for 2 days.
- But I didnt stay up all night taking pictures with a stopwatch; I just set things up to happen automatically and walked away.
- FYI: If you want to make a cool time-lapse video like this yourself, you just need to get a simple plug-in device for your SLR.
- The tool is called a “Release Timer Remote Control” and it is what allows you to set the time and interval for when the pictures will be taken automatically.
- The prices for this category of product is all over the map. The one I got has great reviews and is very reasonable compared to the others. It was only about $30 on Amazon. Here’s the link if you are interested; Release Timer Remote Control
- This particular Release Timer also has a ton of other-additional features that I am only starting to explore.
- Its actually pretty darn cool.
- The only major drawback about this product that I have read about on the reviews is that it doesn’t have an on/off button. Therefore, you need to take the two AAA batteries out between uses… Which is probability a good idea anyways.
Natural Dragon Fruit Pollinators:
- In their native South/Central American jungle environment, there are nocturnal bats that have a fondness for the large Dragon Fruit flowers. Specifically, in their natural habitat, the nectar-feeding bats Leptonycteris curasoae and Choeronycteris mexicana pollinate the large white flowers. This is rather interesting because Dragon Fruit flowers seem to have lost their ability to produce nectar. So one could then surmise that these bats are after the huge amount of flower pollen as a food source. Or perhaps they did not get the memo that these flowers (are just a tease and) have no nectar to share.
- There are also big nocturnal moths in the jungle that pollinate these flowers as well.
- In California, things are a bit different. Sure, we have nocturnal bats, but most of our bats are the ones that hunt flying bugs and don’t really care about flowers. Interestingly, some of those Choeronycteris mexicana bats mentioned above have also been known to also be found in Southern California and Southern Arizona. However, from a pollination perspective, I would not count on them being around when you need them for your dragon fruit needs.
- We also have some big moths such as the sphinx moth/hawkmoth that are quite common in our area. I have witnessed a lot of these big moths getting buried into the dragon fruit flowers at night.
- Although the dragon fruit cactus produces a one night nocturnal flower, it does tend to stay open for a while in the morning before is shrivels up. I often see honey bees going nuts inside and around these huge flowers during this early morning window. Those ecstatic bees seem dwarfed by the flower size and look almost intoxicated by their surroundings.
Hand Pollination of Dragon Fruit Flowers:
- A few years ago, I tried multiple different ways of hand pollination. However, none of it seemed to do anything significant to improve the amount of fruit that set. My results were all over the map. Some of the flowers that I pollinated fell off quickly and some of the flowers that I didn’t pollinate bore fruit. Go figure.
- Then I read that Dragon Fruit are notoriously difficult to pollinate. With that new info, I then thought for sure that I just needed to find the right pollination technique. However, even though I tried every pollination method that I have heard of, I still had not made a large difference in the amount of fruit that set.
- By the way, once the early fruit turns yellowish you can also expect that it will feel boggy. This is an indication that the fruit will fall off soon (see pic below).
- In protest, last year I didn’t hand pollinate any of the flowers. The surprising result was that I suddenly had a ton of fruit growing.
- So what’s the difference? Well, there is more to the story and I made some additional changes that seemed to have a greater impact on my success than my pollination technique.
- In general, fruiting success seems depend more on the happiness of the plant than just the mechanical process of putting the male and female parts together. Ahem… Yes, it is a lot like sex. You have to be happy and healthy to have a successful union. More specific info about keeping your dragon happy for this type of success is discussed in the sections further down in this article.
- All of that being said, once you have your plants in a happy place… may start to see the benefits of cross pollination. For example, even among the self pollinating varieties of dragon fruit, cross-pollination, (either within a species or by crossing pollen between species), has been reported to result in more/ larger fruit than those obtained by just self-pollination in a controlled greenhouse environment. However, I have not noticed this myself, likely because I have a lot of natural pollinators around and that type of controlled comparison is not possible for me unless I get a greenhouse which would allow me to isolate some plants for comparison.
- I recently caught a local critter on video that was pollinating a nearby columnar cactus. This other cactus (Cereus Peruvianus) has a very very similar flower. Therefore, I suspect the same thing is pollinating my Dragon Fruit cacti as well. Check out that video below.
Pollination Update #2: (July 27, 2014):
- Today I noticed that my dragon fruit cacti are at different stages of flowering & fruiting.
- Therefore, I thought it might be cool to do a video that will take you through the process of dragon fruit formation.
- In this video, I also touched on some pollination concepts as well as important flower anatomy.
- However, the follow up video done on July 29th is even better (its the next video down on the page). Therefore, if you only watch one video, I would check out the follow up video from July 29th titled “How dragon fruit are formed”.
Pollination Update #3 (July 29, 2014):
- If you are only going to watch one video, I would pick this one (below).
- This is basically a 2 day follow up video to the one done above… This time at night.
- In this video you get to see how quickly things change in a relatively short amount of time.
- But as an added bonus, you get to inspect a dragon fruit flower in full bloom.
- As a result, you get a better look at some of the important flower anatomy for pollination.
- We also get to virtually eat some delicious dragon fruit at the end of the video. Yum!
Pollination side note:
- It is also important to note that there are some varieties of Dragon Fruit that definitely do need to be pollinated to make fruit. However, there are also many varieties of Dragon Fruit that do not need to be pollinated (they are self-fruitful). This is an important consideration to keep in mind when getting your plants.
- From what I understand, most of the cacti that produce the purple/red fleshed fruit are self fruitful. This is the type I have the most of and it is likely the reason why my hand pollination didn’t seem to make a big difference for me. Therefore, the success of the fruit was all about the happiness of the plant.
- That being said, I suspect that pollination will likely boost overall fruit size-because this has been documented in many other types of fruit as well.
- For those who are interested, Dragon Fruit flower pollen may be stored in the refrigerator for up to two weeks and can be kept in the freezer for up to 30 days.
- It takes about 45 days to go from flower to ripe fruit.
Dragon Fruit Cactus Cultivation:
- The big picture here is that this plant should not be treated like a cactus.
- This cactus evolved in (and is best adapted to) a hot/warm and wet tropical environment. Treat this unique cactus like a tropical/subtropical plant and it will be very happy.
- My cultivation method is to duplicate the plants native habitat as much as possible and it has been very fruitful (so to speak). See the following sections below for more detailed info.
- I planted my plants in full sun.
- Side note: Full sun may not be the best option if you are living in the inland desert environment because the sun may be too strong without the moisture in the air to deflect some of the strong Southern California sun’s rays. Again, this is not your typical cactus and it does not belong in the desert. However, if you have some ocean/marine influence to your climate, full sun or perhaps partial shade would be the way to go. Full sun works for me and I am 10 miles inland from the ocean.
- It’s a tropical jungle plant so it doesn’t like the cold.
- However, it will tolerate the occasional cold spell/light frost that we sometimes get during the Southern California winter.
- I have read academic publications stating that it will survive temps down to 28 F.
- To be safe, you could plant your Dragon Fruit Cactus in a warm part of your yard such as near a south facing wall. In that position, you would also have to be concerned about over heating in the summer.
- I planted the ones that I have on the top of a hill, far away from any other structures, and that has been fine.
- Don’t plant this cactus in a low part of your property where cold air can collect in the winter months.
Dragon Fruit Cactus Soil:
- Unfortunately, there is conflicting information about how to grow the Dragon.
- I was initially naïve and treated this plant like a typical cactus. However, the plant barely grew in sandy soil and it looked really sad. I knew something was wrong but I wasn’t sure what.
- Therefore, I decided to go to the source; I researched the plants native habitat.
- Hylocereus spp cacti live in the jungle. Yea, its a bit odd. In its native central/South America, the dragon fruit cacti tends to grow in and on other trees (the scientific name for a plant that grows upon another plant is epiphyte).
- If you happen to be in the jungle down South of the border, you might see these guys growing out of the organic leaf litter that has piled up in the branch crevices of large trees. These cacti will climb their way to the top of the supporting trees and drop their roots wherever they can find soil or a place to grab on.
- In this elevated tree canopy, the plant also seems to do better than elsewhere which is likely a result of the improved sun exposure and perhaps the lack of competition for soil nutrients. The highest points of the trees not only offer the best sunlight, the elevated location also offers lots of organic fertilizer from the droppings of roosting birds.
- Therefore, the Dragon Fruit Cactus is built to grow in rich, well draining, organic soil.
- I planted the cacti that I have with a soil mix containing lots of organic material. For the most part, this is the method that I use for most of the fruit trees in my yard. The only difference from my normal mix is that I added in about 10% peat moss for the Dragon. My thinking here is that the peat moss would be a good way to keep the soil airy and moist with the added benefit of mild acidification.
Dragon Fruit Cactus Fertilization:
- I am sure there are many different opinions about how to best fertilize this plant. However, in my method I have tried to mimic the plants native conditions and it has been working very well.
- Specifically, I cover the ground (root zone) around the cacti with lots of compost and grow mulch that I pour straight out of the bag. I look for the type of grow mulch that has chicken manure in it because bird poo is likely the major form of fertilizer for these cacti in their native habitat.
- I also frequently add doses of chicken manure to the top of the soil just before and during the growing season.
- I then water in the compost/mulch regularly throughout the year to let the nutrients soak down in.
Dragon Fruit Cactus Water:
- This jungle cactus likes to have moist soil that doesn’t dry out.
- The soil also needs to be loose and well draining. This plant does not like standing water.
- I also spray the branches with water on particularly hot-dry days for a jungle effect. However, I think this spraying is more for me than actually doing anything useful for the plants.
Dragon Fruit Propagation:
- Dragon Fruit Cactus vines are easily started from cuttings. I just put some recently cut branches in soil and they rooted without anything other than regular water (and the above noted soil mixture). One year old cuttings about 1 foot long seem to work well. Cuttings may fruit in as little as one years time.
- You can also start Dragon Fruit Cactus from seed but it takes a lot longer for them to grow and reach fruiting maturity (It can take up to 6 years to fruit).
- 8/27/15: I am growing dragon fruit cacti from seed now and will update on the progress when I get some more info.
Dragon Fruit Cactus Growing Support:
- Since this cactus-vine is an epiphyte, it prefers to have something to grow on… But it will also meander along the ground.
- People have successfully used support methods ranging from fences and arbors to palm trees.
- In South East Asia, (where this fruit is very popular) many commercial growers use a “top branching pole” structure. In Vietnam they use cement poles so they don’t rot in the naturally wet tropical climate of SE Asia. However, cement poles in my yard did not seem that appealing so I went with wood (see next section for details).
- Regardless of the supporting method, most commercial structures are 5-8 feet high with about 8 feet spacing between plants.
- Initially, the cactus-vine will need some help staying on whatever support structure you go with. I have used both rope and velcro plant ties to secure the branches close to the main pole. Don’t use thin wire or string that will cut into the flesh of the cacti. Eventually, fibrous arial roots from the Dragon Fruit cacti branches will reach out and grab on to the structure and the ties will no longer be needed. Note: the arial roots wont attach to metal or pressure treated wood.
My dragon fruit cactus support structure:
- I used redwood because it has a great natural resistance to water damage/rot.
- I did not use pressure treated wood because (in my opinion) there are way too many odd chemicals in there to preserve that wood and I didnt want those toxins leaching into the soil and then into my food.
- Specifically, the structure I like to use is a 4×4 post with smaller cut lengths of wood secured to the top. These smaller cut pieces of wood at the top give the vine support to drape off of (see picture).
- When fully grown, the plant and pole resembles an exotic palm tree.
Dragon Fruit Cactus Pruning:
- Stems may grow more than 20 feet and will eventually need pruning.
- I try to prune at the natural joints formed on the stems.
- Some have reported that pruning 1 month before fruiting will increase number of flowers and fruit size. I have not really noticed that to be true or false, but I have not been measuring this possible effect either.
- By the way, I have used and abused countless pruning instruments. After a long trail of broken cutting tools, I have finally found my favorite pruners of all time which is the Corona brand Bypass Pruner. There are knockoffs that look similar, but the others are not even in the same league in regards to durability and quality.
Also: sterilize your pruners!
- It is really important to sterilize your trimmers/pruners between plants. There are several infectious plant diseases that are unknowingly spread from plant to plant by cutting/trimming instruments. This is true for any plant, but particularly so for Dragon Fruit cacti… many of which have been infected with systemic diseases because of sub-optimal sanitizing techniques (see my resent article on Dragon Fruit Diseases for more info).
- There are a many sanitizing options for your pruners including household cleaning solutions, alcohol, and hydrogen peroxide. These only need to be applied to the cutting blade. Many of these liquids require some application time that you have to wait for them to be sterilized.
- Another faster option is heat sterilization of your cutting blade with a hand held torch. The torch technique, is convenient and fast, but obviously results in the tips of your trimmers being hot… Which are then obviously a potential burn hazard to you and to your plants.. as well as being a general fire hazard. Definitely don’t try burning things in your garden/yard if you are in a fire danger area.. which is most of California. And my favorite disclaimer of all, “don’t try this at home.”
- Interestingly, I just found this other tool that actually spritzes your hand pruners with sterilizing fluid with each cut. I have no idea how well this product works, but it is an interesting take on addressing the problem. For reference, here is a link to that product Hand Pruners with Spray Applicator.
- While I was getting my hair cut today another thought came to mind. I wonder if that chemical they put hair cutting scissors in would also kill any plant microbes. Seems like it should and apparently it is fully biodegradable. As a disclaimer, I have never heard of anyone using a barbers/hair salon disinfectant such as Barbicide for this purpose.
Dragon Fruit Diseases:
- There are several important Dragon Fruit diseases to be aware of. Since I have had a lot of difficulty finding a complete source of information on the subject, I decided to create one myself. For more information, please check out that article titled Dragon Fruit Diseases.
Dragon Fruit Pests:
- Overall there are not a lot of buggy-pests on the plant that I have noticed with the exception of the occasional snail which doesn’t seem to do significant damage.
- However, the fruit itself attracts aphids and their courier-accomplice ants. However, these sap suckers are easy to remove with a strong spray of water from the garden hose.
- Gophers will eat the roots. Caging the roots is relatively easy at planting.
- I would also expect squirrels to be a problem once they figure out that this fruit is tasty. I have only seen a few rodent bite marks on ripening Dragon Fruit. Not sure if this would represent squirrels or mice or something else. Might be best to pluck the fruit on the ground early so the rodents don’t learn that this is something worth jumping up for.
- There is cultural evidence and biologic evidence that dragon fruits have been cultivated by native Central and South America people since ancient (pre-columbian) times.
- There are >25 species of Hylocereus spp identified with numerous different cultivars and hybrids.
- There are reported to be more than 100 varieties in California alone.
- The major species that are grown commercially are H. polyrhizus and H. undatus.
- The genus name undatus is derived from the Latin word unda meaning ‘wavy or waved’ like water. This name is in reference to the wavy appearance of the cactus branches/stems.
- There is ongoing academic research being done to figure out which varieties are the best and the details of their optimal growing characteristics.
- See the section above labeled “Scientific name and the color of the fruit flesh” for my take on the scientific naming convention.
- Some varieties are self-pollinating and many others require cross-pollination from another species,variety or cultivar. Ask when you buy and (if it was me) get the self-pollinating varieties.
- Red fleshed and pink fleshed fruit contain high levels of antioxidants.
- Hylocereus undatus is native to tropical deciduous forests of Mexico, the West Indies, Central America and northern South America ( Bravo-Hollis, 1978;Nobel and de la Barrera, 2002).
- Interesting, scientific papers have mentioned that Dragon fruit cactus flowers don’t produce nectar… and that trait may have been lost in the plant domestication process.
Stefanie from Southern California has sent in some lovely pictures of her dragon fruit cacti in bloom (see below). Thanks Stefanie!