There are fruits from several different cactus species that are referred to as pitaya. The juicy sour variety has the botanical name Stenocereus. There are also three sweet varieties. The most well-known and widely available is Hylocereus undatus, and this is the one most commonly referred to as dragonfruit or pitahaya.
Known for their pink, leathery skin and white flesh, it is possible to cultivate these plants in the warmer regions of North America, like Florida. Not only will you have a harvest of this unusual, nutritious and showy fruit, but these fast-growing, vine-like, perennial cacti also have ornamental value in your garden landscape.
The cactus-type stems on the dragonfruit plants are green, thick, and long. They can grow up to six meters in the right conditions, and they produce aerial roots that allow them to cling on to surfaces creating their creeping, climbing habit.
The large, edible flowers that are produced are also impressive. They tend to be white and have a strong fragrance. They are, however, usually nocturnal, so you will only get to enjoy them once the sun has gone down.
The fruit that is produced by the Hylocereus undatus is rather exotic, and may not be to everyone's taste. For those that do enjoy it, it is packed with vitamin C and lots of other beneficial minerals and antioxidants.
|Botanical Name||Hylocereus undatus|
|Common Name||Dragonfruit, Pitahaya|
|Plant Type||Succulent, Cactus, Fruit|
|Mature Size||Up to 6m. tall|
|Sun Exposure||Full Sun, Partial Shade|
|Soil pH||Acid, Neutral|
|Bloom Time||Spring, Summer|
|Hardiness Zones||10 - 12, USA|
|Native Area||Tropical America|
How to Plant Dragonfruit
To grow your own pitahaya plant, you will need to live in a warm and sunny region and have enough space in your garden. This is a fast-growing and heavy cactus with a spreading habit and long stems. Make sure it is planted far enough away from your home, electrical lines, and other utilities. It will usually need to be supported by a strong trellis.
Dragonfruit Plant Care
Warm weather, full sun (without being overly intense), well-drained soil that is moist but not excessively watered, and regular fertilization will all contribute to the production of an abundant and healthy crop.
Although dragonfruit plants enjoy warm weather and are often planted in full sunlight, too much intense sun in dry regions can cause stem damage. This means that a very light shade position could be best. Be aware, however, that too much shade will result in less abundant fruit production and the quality of the harvest may not be as impressive.
Pitahayas are not terribly fussy when it comes to soil type. The key is that it is moist, fertile, and well-drained.
Enthusiasts recommended mulching around the plant, especially in dry regions, to help the soil retain its moisture.
Don't make the mistake of thinking that because this plant is a cactus, you can neglect it on the watering front. They do have some drought tolerance, but, to produce a good fruit crop, it is best to water them occasionally from when they start producing their flowers until you harvest your crop.
Be aware that excessive watering, however, can result in root rot and fungal disease development. Also, during the winter and into early spring, they need a dry spell to induce prolific flowering.
Temperature and Humidity
Dragonfruit plants are not suitable for every garden. They are native to tropical American regions, and they won't do well in areas that experience freezing conditions, especially if the freeze is prolonged. Temperatures from around 65°F–80°F are considered optimal growing conditions for this species.
This is a rather hungry plant, and feeding your pitahaya every couple of months during their first year is recommended. Once the plants are well-established, they should do fine with just a few applications of fertilizer annually. They will appreciate the soil being enriched with compost or other suitable organic matter a couple of times a year too.
Pitahayas are fast-growing and heavy plants. If you neglect to prune them, it can increase the chances of fungal disease and insect infestation. It can also result in poor light penetration for tangled stems, and this can impact fruit production.
Regular pruning will also encourage prolific flowering and prevent the plant from becoming too heavy for the trellis that it is growing up.
You may have to cut back overly long, damaged, excessively tangled, or dead stems as often as two or three times per year. If you are lucky, you might get away with an annual pruning session that should be done after harvesting the fruit.
Some dragonfruit cultivars are self-incompatible. This means that you might 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, when growing dragonfruit from seeds, it can take up to six or seven years before they will be fruit-bearing.
Fortunately, it is easy to propagate new plants from stem cutting. It is best to take a decent-sized cutting from a healthy stem - up to 15 inches in length. Normally, after cutting, the stem is left to cure for around a week in a shady location after being treated with a fungicide.
Once the cutting is planted, expect it to grow quickly, and you could find that it is bearing fruit within less than a year.
Depending on where you are situated, wild animals could find your dragonfruit crop appealing. You may need to take measures to protect them from rats, raccoons, and birds. The plants are also attractive to ants, mealybugs, mites, and slugs.
Stem and fruit canker and rot can be problematic for these plants too. Making sure they get the right amount of sun, moisture, and air circulation all make a difference.