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.
- The following text is in the standard outline-format that I have used for other posts.
Dragon Fruit Appearance:
- The fruit just looks amazing.
- From the outside, the fruit resembles a very large egg laid by some kind of mythical creature. Hum, I wonder how the plant got its name.
- Anyhow, on the inside, the flesh is usually white or red with black specks. The red variety is really more of a psychedelic deep purple/red. This deep color is rather unbelievable for a fruit.
- An individual fruit weighs between ½ pound to over 3 pounds.
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. At this point the fruit will detach from the vine with a twist. Note, if you wait for the fruit to fall off the plant, it will be over ripe.
Dragon Fruit Taste:
- The skin is inedible… at least no one that I know of eats it. The skin peels off 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.
- 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 commercially so it can survive the transport time to the stores.
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.
Dragon Fruit Season:
- In Southern California, the main fruit season seems to be in the summer and fall.
- However, my plants didn’t seem to get the memo and I currently have many fruit that are ready to pick now (July).
- None the less, there are also lots of other flower buds all over the cactus at the moment, so I expect the fruiting season will be long.
Dragon Fruit Pollination:
- Because the flowers only open at night they are normally pollinated by nocturnal critters.
- However, the specific jungle night dwelling animals that pollinate them (nectar eating bats) are not found in Southern California (at least not that I know of). That leaves us with moths, wind, confused native bats, and us to pollinate them.
- With this information in mind, last year I tried multiple different ways of hand pollination. However, none of it seemed to do anything. Some flowers started to make fruit, and then the fruit fell off the cactus-vine prematurely. 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 so I then thought that I just needed to find the right technique. However, I tried every pollination method that I have heard of with little success.
- In protest, this year I didn’t try to pollinate the flowers at all and I now have lots of fruit growing. So what’s the difference? Read on.
- 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. Check the label.
- From what I understand, most of the purple/red fleshed fruiting ones are self fruitful. This is the type I have and it is likely the reason why my hand pollination didn’t seem to make a 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.
- 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 from flower to ripe fruit.
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 the Dragon Fruit Cactus as well. Check out the video below.
Dragon Fruit Cactus Cultivation:
- The big picture here is that the plant should not be treated like a cactus.
- This cactus evolved in (and is best adapted to) a hot and wet tropical environment. Treat this unique cactus like a tropical/subtropical plant and it will be very happy.
- My method is to duplicate the plants native habitat as much as possible and it has been very fruitful (so to speak).
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 undatus is a tropical cactus that lives in the jungle. Yea, its a bit odd. In its native central/South America, the dragon fruit cactus 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, 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.
- 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 cactus 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 cactus 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 this cactus in its native habitat.
- 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.
Dragon Fruit Cactus Growing Support:
- Since this cactus-vine is an epiphyte, it prefers to have something to grow on.
- I have seen where 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.
- Therefore, I used redwood because its 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.
- Specifically, the structure 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.
- 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 wire or string that will cut into the flesh of the cactus. Eventually, fibrous arial roots from the Dragon Fruit Cactus 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.
Dragon Fruit Cactus Pruning:
- Stems may grow more than 20feet 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.
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 mild tropical aroma. For more about the Dragon Fruit flower, click on this hyper text link.
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 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).
- I planted mine in full sun.
- Side note: Full sun may not be the best option if you are in more of an 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 we get in Southern California.
- I have read academic publications stating that it will survive temps down to 28 F.
- To be safe, you could plant the Dragon Fruit Cactus in a warm part of your yard such as near a south facing wall. However, 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 Pests:
- Overall there are not a lot of pests on the plant that I have noticed with the exception of the occasional snail which doesn’t seem to do much damage.
- However, the fruit itself attracts aphids and their courier-accomplice the ant. 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.
Dragon Fruit Cactus Food use:
- Just eat them fresh and enjoy.
- Also used in fruit salads, ice cream and refreshments.
- I have heard that unopened flower buds are sometimes cooked and eaten as vegetables. What a shame.
- There are >25 species of Hylocereus identified with numerous different cultivars and hybrids. The major species that are grown commercially are H. polyrhizus and H. undatus.
- There are reported to be more than 100 varieties in California alone.
- There is ongoing academic research being done to figure out which varieties are the best and the details of their optimal growing characteristics.
- 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.