At my last visit to Mexico, the locals introduced me to the ‘Dragon fruit.’ Tasting slightly sweet – a cross between pear and kiwi, the exotic looking fruit immediately grabbed my attention with its vibrant pink, scaled skin.
However, the dragon fruit tree is typically not very popular in North America, while local grocers rarely stock up on these goodies. You will also find them quite expensive – up to $10 a piece, according to the Food Network.
Luckily, those living in warm and humid climates such as Florida, Southern California, and Hawaii can experiment growing the plant and enjoy both – its beauty and nutrients of the fruit.
Here is how you can get started:
Dragon Fruit Overview
Dragon fruits are native to Central and South America. They are cactus and need year-round heat. However, unlike other varieties of cactus – they require ample amounts of water. Since it’s a vining plant, the dragon tree needs plenty of space to climb on as well.
It is also heavy and you can expect a mature plant to reach approximately 25 feet and several hundred pounds, while each fruit weights 150 – 600 grams.
The blooms of this plant are one of the largest flowers in the world. It is also unique as the blooms open only for one night. Usually between the nights in early summer and mid-autumn is considered the dragon fruit growing season. Besides the spectacular display, the scent you will experience during this one specific night is surreal. In fact, I suggest going out and checking up on the plant during the blooming period so you don’t miss the special experience.
Dragon Fruit Varieties
The Dragon fruit goes by many names including pitaya, pitahaya, strawberry pear, cactus fruit, buha naga, and Belle of the Night. The three main types of dragon fruit you will find include:
- Hylocereus Megalanthus – This type of dragon plant will have a yellow shell, which is thornier than other types. For this reason, you will rarely find them in home gardens.
- Hylocereus Undatus – This variation of dragon fruit has an exterior of red.
- Hylocereus Costaricensis – This fruit is deep red on both – the shell and the flesh.
Regardless of the variety, the dragon fruit remains green until it is fully ripe and edible – after which, it will either turn bright yellow or pink.
The pulp of the fruit is similar though, with small black seeds and a texture resembling a kiwi fruit. To use the fruit, all you have to do is cut the fruit in half and scoop out the pulp. Apart from enjoying it ‘as is,’ you can add pieces of the fruit in salad, yogurt, and other healthy meals.
Dragon Fruit Benefits
Not many of you may be aware but dragon fruit contains many important nutrients and is great for health. In fact, a serving of 100 grams or 3.5 ounces will give you:
|Vitamin C||3% of the RDI|
|Iron||4% of the RDI|
|Magnesium||10% of the RDI|
Additionally, the dragon fruit contains several antioxidants that are linked with better brain health, improved cardiovascular health, and improved symptoms of aging. Hydroxycinnamates is another antioxidant present in the dragon fruit that has demonstrated anti-cancer activity in test tubes and animals.
Adverse Effects of Eating Dragon Fruit
While the dragon fruit benefits may outweigh the side effects, eating too much of the fruit can sometimes cause an allergic reaction.
To date, two severe allergic reactions from consuming a fruit mixture that contained dragon fruit has been reported while minor cases are common.
Growing a Dragon Fruit Tree
Dragon plants begin flowering in six to eight months. However, if you are growing them in a container, you may have to wait up to two years to enjoy the fruit. It will also take longer for the fruits to show up if you are planting straight from the seeds.
But once the plant is mature, you can expect around four to six fruiting cycles in a year from the plant that has the ability to produce fruit for 20 to 30 years.
There are several ways to start a tree for dragon fruits. This includes:
Starting from Seeds
To grow a dragon fruit from the seeds, simply purchase a couple of dragon fruits from your local grocers and slice them in half. Use a spoon and scrape out the seeds. Rinse the seeds. However, you will notice some pulp attached to the seed and its okay to plant with it along.
Take a small pot, filled with soil. Moisten the soil and spread the seeds on the top. You will find the plant starting the germination process within two weeks.
However, planting from seeds takes approximately 5 years for the tree to start bearing fruit. Therefore, it’s an unpopular method for most home gardeners.
Propagating the Dragon Fruit
Another way to start the pitaya tree is by propagating it from cuttings. If you have a friend who owns a dragon tree or have access to a nursery, just snip off a 30 cm section from the tree there. Leave the cutting to dry for 5 – 6 days or until the ends of the stem turn white in color.
Once you find it dry, place the cut-down side into a soil. The plant will grow out roots within a month and you can expect it to start flowering between one to three years.
Dragon Fruit Growing Zone
As we mentioned above, dragon fruit plants require warm and humid climate. Typically, the ideal dragon fruit growing zone in the USA is 10 and 11, but you can try growing them indoors with proper arrangement at a growing zone of 9 as well.
The dragon fruit likes full sun but some shade is also vital as extreme sunlight can cause the stems to burn and cause a great deal of damage to the plants. In fact, ideal temperatures for dragon fruits is between 65 degrees and 75 degrees Fahrenheit.
During the winter months, it can tolerate a bit of frost. However, prolonged exposure to temperatures below the freezing temperature can harm the plant. If you are planting the tree in a pot, you can bring it indoors during the colder months to protect the plant.
Growing in pot vs. outdoors
Dragon plants can be grown in both – pots and outdoor yards. If you are planning on establishing a container garden, make sure to invest in a pot that is at least 40 cm. also provide it something to climb on, like a stake for a healthier growth.
Similarly, if you have chosen the great outdoors for the plant, make sure there is a fence or a trellis nearby so the plant has something to climb on. Also, keep in mind that these plants are heavy and thus, any support you provide should be sturdy enough. Clear the chosen area from weeds and rocks before planting.
When it comes to soil, the dragon fruits prefer soil that is bit sandy and slightly acidic with a pH level between 6.1 and 7.5.
The soil should be well-draining as well. You can also add a bit of potting mix to make the soil cacti-proof.
Monthly fertilizers is essential, especially in the dragon fruit growing season. However, you can halt the feeding during winter months since most plants go in their dormant stage in the colder season.
Watering the Plant
Sufficient watering makes up a great part of dragon fruit tree care. Make sure to water it thoroughly after 2 – 3 days. But just like any other plant, avoid overwatering and only water when the top part of the soil is dry to touch.
Additionally, don’t let plant sit in the water for too long. The soil should be moist – not soaked!
The autumn season is the best time to prune dragon plants. These are vigorous growing plants and if you neglect regular grooming, the plant can grow 20 feet high. To prune, take shears and remove any dead foliage or stems that come in view.
Harvesting the Dragon Fruits
The dragon fruit is ready when you see the color changing to either yellow or pink. Generally, they are ready a month after they flower but touch the fruit to check if they are ripe enough to eat.
The leaves or the ‘wings’ on the side of the fruit are another indicator of the fruit’s readiness. If the leaves are drooping downwards, the fruit is likely to be ripe while healthy and colorful leaves show that the fruit is not ready for harvesting.
To pick the fruit, use a pair of sharp secateurs to remove it from stem. Avoid using your hands to twist off the fruit as the thorns present on the skin can cause injury.
You can also use shears or brush to remove the thorns from the yellow-variety of dragon fruit before taking them off.
Dragon Fruit Pollination
Most of the dragon fruit varieties are self-pollinating so you don’t have to worry about hand pollinating to enhance reproductive growth of the plants. However, manually doing the same is fun and vital for a few types of dragon fruit tree.
To do this, you will need to collect the pollen from two different fruit plants. Then, gently use a cotton swab to paint it on the stigma of the opposite plant to cross pollinate. Do this at night and use a new cotton swab for each dragon fruit pollination.
Troubleshooting the Dragon Fruit Plant Pests and Diseases
The pitaya plants are susceptible to a few diseases that usually aggravate from improper dragon fruit tree care.
Anthracnose – This is a fungal disease that causes dark lesions in stems, leaves, flowers, and fruits. It spreads rapidly – especially in the rainy season. You can identify it by brown and yellow irregular spots on the leaves. It may also produce dark, sunken spots on the fruit, which ultimately would lead it to rot.
To control and prevent this disease, make sure to prune the plants annually. Remove any infected areas of the tree to avoid spreading. You can also spray copper-based fungicide on the plant but remember, that fungicides often give room for pests to grow alongside.
Bipoaris Cactivora – Exclusive to dragon fruit plants, the bipoaris cactivora causes stem rot. It grows fast in humid environment and currently there are no fungicides labeled for the prevention of disease available in the USA.
However, you can prevent the growth of this disease by allowing the plant to thoroughly dry in the day time. It is also a good idea to keep sufficient space between the dragon fruit plant and others to avoid spreading.
Enterobacteria – This disease affects the tips of the tree’s branch. The telltale symptom of the enterobacteria is soft and yellow tips that begin to show up in about 15 days of the infection and continues to spread as it progresses.
The disease is usually benign and results from deficiency of calcium and nitrogen in plants. However, it is best to cut off the branches that are affected to avoid reinfection.
Botryosphaeria Dothidea – Another common fungal infection that causes red or brown lesions on the stems of the plant. It is usually a result of using unsterile pruning shears and other tools.
To avoid this problem, sterilize the equipment you use in all your plants with rubbing alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, and a diluted solution of bleach.
Bugs and Pests
Dragon fruits attract several bugs including aphids and mealy bugs. Leaf-footed leptoglossus is also common and can be carriers of the Botryosphaeria Dothidea. Mites are also a hindrance, though they don’t kill the plant. But yes, having too many bugs feeding off your plant can impact the overall health of your tree.
Ready to Start With Your Own Dragon Fruit Tree
These tips must have intrigued you to keep a plant of your own as well. So why wait? If you have the environment suitable for growing a dragon fruit plant, take the initiative and grow your own. They do need extra care but the aesthetics and eating the exotic fruit from your own garden is well worth the effort.
Good luck and let us know your experience with the dragon fruit plant.
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