If you're looking for a truly other-worldly fruit to grow on a plant that blooms only at night with large fragrant flowers, look no further than the dragon fruit cactus. Also sometimes known as pitahaya, the dragon fruit plant is native to Mexico, Central America, and South America, and is one of several different fruits grown from cacti.
Known for its bright pink, leathery skin, dragon fruit is sweet on the inside, featuring bright white flesh and tiny black seeds. Not only will you have a harvest of this unusual, nutritious, and showy fruit if you grow a dragon fruit cactus, but these fast-growing perennial cacti also have ornamental value in your garden landscape or in your home.
Best planted in spring, dragon fruit cacti can grow up to 20 feet tall and produce aerial roots that allow them to cling to surfaces, creating their creeping, climbing habit. This plant is considered invasive in parts of Florida.
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|Common Name||Dragon fruit, pitahaya, strawberry pear, Honolulu queen, moonlight cactus|
|Botanical Name||Hylocereus undatus|
|Plant Type||Cactus, perennial|
|Mature Size||8–20 ft. tall, 3–10 ft. wide|
|Sun Exposure||Full, partial|
|Soil Type||Sandy, well-drained|
|Soil pH||Neutral, acidic|
|Bloom Time||Spring, summer, fall, winter|
|Hardiness Zones||10–12 (USDA)|
|Native Area||North America, Central America, South America|
Dragon Fruit Cactus Care
To successfully grow your own dragon fruit plant, you'll need to live in a warm and sunny region and have ample space in your garden—this is a heavy cactus with a spreading habit and long stems. Make sure it's planted far enough away from your home, electrical lines, and any other hazardous objects it could interact with. It will also usually need to be supported by a strong trellis.
Although dragon fruit plants enjoy warm weather and are often planted in full sunlight, too much intense sun in dry or especially hot regions can cause stem damage. If temperatures in your area are frequently near 100 degrees Fahrenheit, it's best to plant your cactus in a spot that boasts partial shade. Likewise, it's important to be aware that too much shade can result in less abundant fruit production and the quality of your harvest may not be as impressive.
Dragon fruit cacti are not terribly fussy when it comes to their soil type or pH level. The key is that their soil is moist, rich in organic matter, and well-draining. Cacti experts also recommend mulching around the base of the plant—especially in drier regions—to help the soil retain its moisture.
Don't make the mistake of thinking that because this plant is a cactus, you can slack on the watering front. While dragon fruit cacti do have some drought tolerance, in order to produce a good fruit crop, it's best to water them consistently from when they start producing their flowers until you harvest your dragon fruit crop. However, excessive watering can also result in root rot and various forms of fungal disease. During the winter and into early spring, give the plant a necessary dry spell to induce prolific flowering.
Temperature and Humidity
Dragon fruit plants are not suitable for every garden. Because they are native to tropical regions, they won't do well in areas that experience freezing weather, especially if that freeze is prolonged. Temperatures ranging from 65 degrees Fahrenheit to 80 degrees Fahrenheit at the highest are considered optimal growing conditions for dragon fruit cacti.
Dragon fruit cacti are rather hungry plants, and feeding them every couple of months during their first year, using a balanced 20-20-20 fertilizer, is recommended. Once the plants are well-established, they should do fine with just a few applications of fertilizer annually. You should also plan to amend the soil with compost or organic matter a couple of times a year, too.
Types of Dragon Fruit Cactus
There are about 15 species of dragon fruit cacti, each has varying color fruits and shells, a few of which are noted below. However, there are many hybrid varieties, including 'Edgar's Baby' (Hylocereus stenopterus and Hylocereus guatemalensis) or 'Tricia' (Hylocereus ocamponis and Hylocereus undatus).
- Hylocereus megalanthus: Rare to see, this dragon fruit grows sweet white fruit flesh inside of a yellow, thorny shell.
- Hylocereus costaricensis: The fruit flesh and shell can both look like a deep, blood red or deep pink.
- Hylocereus guatemalensis: The fruit flesh of this dragon fruit is bright purple and the shell is deep pink punctuated with greenish fins.
- Hylocereus polyrhizus: This fruit also has deep red flesh and a green thorny shell.
- Hylocereus stenopterus: This dragon fruit produces red, yellow, or orange fruits.
Pruning a Dragon Fruit Cactus
If you neglect to prune your dragon fruit cactus, the chances of fungal disease and insect infestation will increase. It can also result in poor light penetration for the tangled center stems, which can impact fruit production. Regular pruning also encourages prolific flowering and prevents the plant from becoming too heavy for the trellis it's growing up.
Plan to periodically cut back any overly long, damaged, tangled, or dead stems as often as two or three times per year. If you're lucky (or have a younger plant), you may be able to get away with a single annual pruning session, which can be done after you're through harvesting the fruit.
Propagating a Dragon Fruit Cactus
Some dragon fruit cultivars are self-incompatible, which means you may need a few different types to ensure a better chance of fruit production through cross-pollination. Once they begin to bloom, put them outdoors so they can be naturally pollinated nocturnally by bees, bats, or moths. Even with this method, it can take years before dragon fruit cacti begin fruit-bearing if started from seed.
Fortunately, it's easy to propagate new plants from stem cuttings. To do so, take these steps.
- Take a decent-sized cutting (around 10-12 inches in length) from a healthy stem.
- Treat the cut end with a fungicide.
- Plant the cutting cut-side down in a pot that has been filled with a combination of potting soil and a bit of sand.
- Water the cutting slightly (do not soak) and set the pot in a shady location to "cure" for around a week.
You can expect the cutting to grow quickly, develop blooms, and you may find that it begins bearing fruit in under a year if the plant has been properly pollinated.
Harvesting Dragon Fruit
You will know your dragon fruit is ready to harvest when the flaps on the pink outer skin start to develop a withered appearance. If it's ripe, you should be able to twist it from the stem with ease—any fruit that has fallen from the stem on its own tends to be overripe, so timing your harvest properly is important. If kept in the refrigerator, dragon fruit can last up to two weeks.
Dragon fruit is rather exotic and may not be to everyone's taste. For those who do enjoy it, it's packed with vitamin C and lots of other beneficial minerals and antioxidants. The large, edible flowers that are produced by the cactus are also impressive—they tend to be white and have a strong fragrance. However, they are usually nocturnal, so you'll only get to enjoy (and pick) them once the sun has gone down.
Common Pests & Diseases
Depending on where you live, wild animals could find your dragon fruit crop appealing. You may need to take measures to protect your cactus and its fruit from rats, raccoons, birds, and more. The plants are also attractive to ants, mealybugs, mites, and thrips.
Stem and fruit canker and rot can be an issue for dragon fruit cacti as well. To avoid these types of issues, ensure your cactus gets the right amount of sun, moisture, and air circulation.
Common Problems With Dragon Fruit Cactus
Though dragon fruit cactus can be easy to grow, it may present a few problems. Here's what to do if you're encountering these issues.
No Fruit Production
Depending on if you planted it via seed or cutting, if you are not seeing any fruit, it usually means the plant is not getting enough sun.
No Flowers Forming
In order for the cactus to fruit, it will need to flower in early summer through early to mid-fall. If you are not seeing any flowers, or the flowers that formed are not blooming, the plant may be too cold or it is not growing in enough sunlight. Try putting the plant in a brighter spot or in a greenhouse. In addition, your cactus may not form productive blooms if you don't prune the dead branches because the plant is busy expending energy on supporting dead weight.
Lesions on Stems and Blades
Your plant may have stem rot or canker if you see spots and lesions on the stems and blades (leaves) that are reddish brown, yellowish, or even white. Rot and canker can be difficult to contain on a dragon fruit plant. Remove the damaged, infected parts and treat the plant with an appropriate fungicide for this type of plant.
How long does it take for a dragon fruit cactus to produce fruit?
Dragon fruit cacti can take up to seven years to produce fruit from seeds, but if you plant a cutting, you may have a harvest within one to three years.
Can you grow a dragon tree cactus indoors?
Yes, the dragon fruit plant can grow indoors in specific locations, such as a sunroom or large window that gets six to eight hours of sunlight daily. You'll need a heavy and large container plus you'll need to keep up on pruning this fast-growing cactus. Be aware that an indoor plant needs hand pollination or it will not bear fruit.
How long can a dragon fruit cactus live?
A dragon fruit plant can live up to 20 years.
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PITAYA (DRAGON FRUIT) (HYLOCEREUS UNDATUS) PESTS AND BENEFICIAL INSECTS. University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
Pitaya (Dragonfruit) Growing in the Florida Home Landscape. University of Florida Extension.