If you're looking for a truly other-worldly fruit to grow, look no further than dragon fruit. Also sometimes known as pitahaya, dragon fruit 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.
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. 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.
|Botanical Name||Hylocereus undatus|
|Common Name||Dragon fruit, pitahaya, strawberry pear, Honolulu queen, moonlight cactus|
|Mature Size||10–20 ft. tall, 5–10 ft. wide|
|Sun Exposure||Full sun, partial shade|
|Soil Type||Sandy, well-drained|
|Soil pH||Neutral to acidic|
|Bloom Time||Spring, summer, fall, winter|
|Hardiness Zones||10–12 (USDA)|
|Native Area||Mexico, 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 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.
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. Because most cultivars have a nocturnal flowering habit, you may need to hand-pollinate, as there may not be any bees or other pollinators around to do it for you. Even with this method, it can take up to six or seven 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, begin by taking a decent-sized cutting (up to 10 inches in length) from a healthy stem. Treat the cut end with a fungicide, then plant it 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 and may find that it begins bearing fruit in under a year.
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 slugs.
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.