Dragon fruit on a farm

Dragon fruit, also known as pitaya, is a delicious and nutritious fruit that can be grown in a tropical climate. It is becoming more and more popular all over the world, and for good reason! Dragon fruit also known as ‘strawberry pear,’ and is packed with antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and fiber. It is low in calories and has a sweet, but not-too-sweet flavour that is easy to enjoy and delicious.

The plant is native to Mexico, Central America, and South America and was introduced to Vietnam in the 19th century. Dragon fruit is now grown throughout Southeast Asia, Hawaii, the Caribbean, Africa, Israel, India, Australia, and the Pacific Islands.

The great thing about dragon fruit is that once your first plant bears fruit, you can see several fruiting cycles each year and the plant will continue to bear fruit for many years to come, as many as two to three decades. This means that after the initial work of establishing your pitaya plants, you will reap the benefits for many years with minimal work. What more can you ask for?

Origin and Characteristics

Dragon fruit is native to Central America, where it grows in the tropical rainforest. It is a climbing cactus vine that can reach up to 30 feet in height. Because of the weight of both the plant itself and the fruits, it requires some type of support, like a thick stake or trellis. Here, in Latin America, the local people often plant it directly in a tree stump because it provides it a stable base, or next to an existing tree so that it has a ready post to climb on. The taller the stump, the better, because your plant will need some height to be able to spread itself out by cascading downwards and sideways. The fruit is oval-shaped and has a scaly skin that ranges in color from red to yellow or green, and can be as small as an apple or as large as a grapefruit. The flesh is white and has pitaya seeds. Dragon fruit is a member of the cactus family and is related to the pitahaya plant.

Varieties

There are many different varieties of dragon fruit, but the most common ones include pitaya blanca, pitaya roja, and pitaya morada. Each of these varieties has different colored skin and flesh, with pitaya blanca having white flesh, pitaya roja having red flesh, and pitaya morada having purple flesh.

The three most common types of dragon fruit are:

Pitaya Blanca: This type of dragon fruit has white skin and white flesh. It is the most common type of dragon fruit and is native to Mexico.

Pitaya Roja: This type of dragon fruit has red skin and red flesh. It is native to South America and is the second most common type of dragon fruit.

Pitaya Morada: This type of dragon fruit has purple skin and purple flesh. It is native to Asia and is the third most common type of dragon fruit.

Climate

Dragon fruit is a tropical fruit that thrives in hot, humid climates, as long as it receives at least six hours of sunlight per day. The ideal temperature for growing dragon fruit is between 70-85 degrees Fahrenheit. Pitaya will not tolerate frost and will die if exposed to temperatures below 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

The best place to grow dragon fruit is in a location that gets full sun and has well-drained soil. Dragon fruit can be grown in pots or in the ground, but it must be in a location where the temperature does not drop below freezing. It is one of the tropical fruits that can be grown in the middle of a field and will survive dry season as long as you give it a good amount of water.

THE BASICS

Common NameDragon fruit, pitaya, pitahaya, strawberry pear, night-blooming cereus
Botanical NameHylocereus undatus
ClimateTropical or subtropical, USDA zones 9-12 (with frost protection in zone 9)
Best Time to PlantEarly spring to summer
LightFull sun or partial shade (in extreme heat with low humidity)
SoilPineapples like well drained, sandy loam that is rich in compost
Pests and DiseasesCactus rust, root rot, scale insects and mealybugs
LikesSunlight, something to climb on, pruning
DislikesSoggy soil, frost

Planting

To plant dragon fruit in a pot, dig a hole that is twice as wide as the pot and just as deep. Make sure the plant has a lot of space to expand in the pot, as it will grow to an impressive size. Although the roots are not very big before the plant starts to produce fruit, it needs a strong and stable base to hold it in place. Place the pot in the hole and fill around it with soil, making sure to pack it down well. Water generously and keep the soil moist until the plant has taken root.

If you are planting it directly in your garden, leave enough space to be able to walk comfortably in between the plants when they mature. Although they do not take much space when they are young, eventually they will turn into a beautiful cactus-like cascade – you don’t want to have to squeeze in between the plants to pick the fruit. It will not be a good experience, I promise.

Dragon fruit planted at the base of a tree

If you are planting a large patch of dragonfruit, it’s best to plant it beside strong posts. However, if you simply want to spread some dragonfruit around your property, the easiest way would be to plant it right beside existing trees. This way, the trees become the posts and you don’t have to do any extra work

When To Plant

The best time to plant pitaya is during the late spring or early summer. If you live in an area with a tropical climate, you can plant pitaya all year round, as long as you remember that it’s much easier to start your plants at the beginning of rainy season. It will be much less work for you and less stress on the plants. However, if you live in an area with a temperate climate, it’s best to wait until the weather is warm enough to support this plant’s growth. Pitaya needs temperatures that are consistently above 70 degrees Fahrenheit to thrive.

Spacing

The dragon fruit can be planted in groups.

If you are growing dragon fruit in a pot, choose a pot that is at least 18 inches wide and 18 inches deep. Fill the pot with a well-draining potting mix and add a slow-release fertilizer to the mix, or a good bit of compost and manure.

Fertilizing

Pitaya is a heavy feeder and will like to be fertilized every two weeks during the growing season. Use a balanced fertilizer or one that is high in phosphorus. Apply the fertilizer around the base of the plant, being careful not to get any on the leaves or stems of the plant.

Propagating

Pitaya can be grown from seed, but it is easier to start with a young plant. Growing from seed means that you may wait a few years until your plant bears fruit. Should you want to attempt to grow it from seeds, look for pitaya that has already begun to develop red flesh; these will fruit quicker than white-fleshed pitayas.

How to Grow From Seeds

If you are starting with a seed, soak it in water for 24 hours before planting. Plant the seed in rich, well-drained soil and water regularly.

How to Grow From Cuttings

If you are starting with a young plant, dig a hole that is twice as wide as the root ball and mix in compost or manure before planting. Water the plant well and continue to water regularly.

Plant it in a large pot of at least 18 inches, or directly in your garden either beside an existing tree or with a trellis beside it.

Caring

Soil

Pitaya is happiest in soil that is rich in organic matter and well drained. Add compost or manure to the soil before planting and mix it in well. If your soil is heavy or clay-based, you can add sand or perlite to improve drainage. The dragon fruit plant does not like stagnant water, and heavy soil has a knack for holding on to it for too long.

Watering

The dragon fruit plant is a tropical cactus, instead of your average variety of cactus, which means it will need a bit more water than a typical desert cactus would. Although it is able to withstand some prolonged periods of time without water, it does not mean that it will love it. Water the plant deeply and regularly, making sure the soil stays moist but not soggy.

However, this does not mean a great deal of water.

Watering well once or twice a week will be sufficient, as long as you make sure the soil is thoroughly dry before you water it. If the weather is particularly hot or dry, you may need to water more often. Similarly, it may require more water when the fruit is developing. Get your hands in the soil, dig around a bit, and feel it out yourself. This is the best way to learn how much water your plant will need.

Pruning and Training

To encourage blooming, keep the dragon fruit plant in an area that receives full sun for at least six hours per day. If you live in a climate that is too cold for pitaya, you can grow the plant in a greenhouse or indoors near a sunny window.

When the dragon fruit plant blooms, it will produce large, white flowers that smell like vanilla. The flowers only bloom at night and usually only last for one night. After the flower blooms, the pitaya will begin to form. It takes about four to six months for the pitaya to mature and be ready to harvest.

Pruning is optional, but it will definitely encourage new growth and produce more fruit. We highly recommend it.

Pruning also helps to keep the plant a manageable size, and helps the plant focus its efforts on producing flowers and fruits. Prune pitaya in the late winter or early spring, before new growth begins. Cut back any dead or damaged branches and thin out the plant if it is too dense. Generally, this means clipping any new growth from the main stem of the plant while it is still growing upwards. You will feel like a traitor, a destroyer of life, a criminal. Take a deep breath and do it anyway.

The upper parts of the plant will have more energy to continue growing upwards and will spread into a beautiful canopy full of fruit.

Some people are more sensitive to the stem juice than others, which can cause skin irritation. In this case, make sure to wear gloves while you are pruning.

Harvesting and Storing

Harvesting

Pineapples can be harvested at any stage of ripeness, but they will taste best if they are allowed to ripen on the plant. The fruit can be picked when it is green or yellow, but it will continue to ripen after being harvested.

  • To harvest a pineapple, cut off the top of the fruit with a sharp knife
  • The fruit can be stored at room temperature or in the refrigerator
  • It also does very well frozen and will last for a few months, ready for a smoothie or to be blended into a marinade or sauce

Pests and Diseases

Pitaya is relatively resistant to pests and diseases, but there are a few that can cause problems for your plants. The most common pests are scale insects and mealybugs. These pests suck the sap from the leaves and stems of the plant, causing them to turn yellow and wilt.

To control pests, start by spraying your plants with water to remove any insects that are already present. Then, use an organic insecticide or neem oil to prevent further infestations.

Cactus Rust

Another very serious and common problem for dragon fruit is Cactus Rust. Everything will be going seemingly well, and then your dragon fruit will start developing small rust spots, at first barely noticeable, and then larger and raised, like pustules. If left untreated, these will soon spread, get bigger and burn through the leaves of your dragon fruit plant.

If you are able to catch cactus rust when it first appears, you can use a spray bottle with hydrogen peroxide mixed with water. A half water, half hydrogen peroxide mix with 3% concentration works well.

At this early point, you can alternatively try spraying your plant with a sodium bicarbonate and water mix, in a 2 tablespoon sodium bicarbonate to 1 gallon water ratio.

Observe each of these treatments for a few days to one week to see if the cactus rust is halted in its tracks.

If not, the next better options are either an organic fungicide or a standard copper fungicide.

Root Rot

The most common disease of pitaya is root rot, which is caused by too much water in the soil. To prevent this disease, make sure that your plants are getting enough drainage and air circulation. If you notice that your plant is starting to show signs of root rot, you can try using a fungicide to control the problem.

In the Kitchen

Food Uses

There are many ways to use dragon fruit in your kitchen, as its mild flavour is easy to work with.

Fruit tart with dragon fruit

Dragon fruit can be eaten fresh or used in smoothies, juices, or desserts. Here are a few recipes to get you started:

  • Dragon Fruit Smoothie: Blend 1/2 cup dragon fruit, 1 banana, and 1 cup of ice.
  • Dragon Fruit Popsicles: Puree 1/2 cup dragon fruit with 1/4 cup honey in a blender. Pour the mixture into popsicle molds and freeze for several hours.
  • Dragon Fruit Salad: Toss 1/2 cup diced dragon fruit with 2 tablespoons lime juice, 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro, and a pinch of salt.

Nutritional Benefits

  • Rich in vitamins and minerals.
  • A good source of fiber, vitamin C, potassium and calcium.

Medicinal Uses

Dragon fruit has a variety of medicinal properties that can be helpful for treating various conditions. Dragon fruit is a rich source of antioxidants, which help protect the body against damage caused by harmful molecules called free radicals. This makes dragon fruit a valuable tool in the prevention of conditions such as cancer and heart disease. Additionally, the antioxidants present in dragon fruit may help to improve cognitive function and protect the brain from age-related damage.

Dragon fruit is also a good source of vitamins and minerals. It is high in vitamin C, providing nearly 100% of the daily recommended intake in a single serving. Dragon fruit is also a good source of B vitamins, including thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin. These vitamins are essential for energy production, metabolism, and nerve function. Dragon fruit is also a good source of minerals like potassium, calcium, and phosphorus.

The high fiber content of dragon fruit can also be beneficial for digestive health. Fiber helps to add bulk to the stool and prevents constipation. Additionally, fiber may help to reduce the risk of colon cancer. The prebiotic effect of dragon fruit may also promote the growth of healthy gut bacteria.

Pitaya is a beautiful and delicious fruit that can be grown in a tropical climate. With a little care, you can enjoy fresh pitaya right from your own backyard. Find a friendly neighbour who can give you a cutting or two, and start your dragon fruit patch.

FAQ

How long does it take for dragon fruit to produce fruits?

Dragon fruit may take up to two years to produce fruits, but there are plenty of reports of people getting fruits out of their first plantings within eight months.

If you plant dragon fruit from seed, it may take up to 4 years, while planting from cuttings will yield fruit much faster. 

What is the different between dragon fruit and pitaya?

Pitaya and dragon fruit are the same fruit. Dragon fruit is the English name, and pitaya is the common name for the Philippine regional variety of this fruit.

The pitayas in Mexico, Central America, and South America are typically called pitahaya or pitai and sometimes pearl fruit. The pitayas in Brazil may also be referred to by specific names like fruta do conde, pitaya roxa or pitaya vermelha.

The scientific name for dragon fruit is Hylocereus undatus. It is also sometimes called strawberry pear or pitahaya blanca.

Is dragon fruit a cactus?

No, dragon fruit is not a cactus. It is a member of the Cactaceae family, but is more closely related to the Passifloraceae family.

The pitaya plant is a climbing vine that needs something to climb on, such as a trellis, fence, or wall. Pitaya flowers are nocturnal, meaning they bloom at night and are pollinated by bats or moths.

About US

We are a family of avid gardeners, lost and then found again in the majestic landscape of the tropics. Each day, we try to share bits and pieces of our journey, so that you too, can possess the confidence and ease to grow your own food in a tropical climate.

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