In the world of intriguing and captivating fruits, few contenders can match the enchanting charm of the dragon fruit. This tropical delicacy has taken the culinary world by storm with its vibrant hues, unique shape, and subtly sweet flavor. But what if we told you that you don't have to travel to far-off lands to savor the magic of dragon fruit? Imagine cultivating these otherworldly beauties right in your backyard or even indoors. Yes, you read that right – you can grow your very own dragon fruit plant and embark on a gardening journey that's as rewarding as it is mesmerizing.
Hailing from the tropical forests of Central and South America, the dragon fruit, also known as pitaya or pitahaya, has gained worldwide popularity not only for its visual appeal but also for its numerous health benefits. From its succulent flesh to its strikingly intricate exterior, this cactus species has an aura of mystique that continues to enchant gardeners and health-conscious individuals alike.
In this comprehensive guide, we will delve into the art of cultivating your own dragon fruit cactus, exploring everything from selecting the right variety and setting up the ideal growing conditions to nurturing the plant as it flourishes and bears its unique, delectable fruit. Whether you're aiming to create a lush garden oasis or simply looking to add a touch of exotic allure to your living space, growing a dragon fruit plant might be the perfect endeavor for you.
USDA Zones 9-12
What Is A Dragon Fruit Plant?
Dragon fruit, scientifically known as Hylocereus, originates from tropical regions in Mexico, Central America, and South America. This remarkable plant is recognized by various names, such as strawberry pear and pitaya. It's actually a cactus plant with a climbing growth habit. A mature plant can reach a full 20 feet in height and stretch 10 feet wide! Make sure to plant it in a location with plenty of space from any buildings and utility lines, and support it with a strong trellis.
The blooms of the dragon fruit plant are just as unique as their fruit. Dragon fruit blooms are among the largest and most fragrant flowers in the world and bloom for a single night before closing up and starting their fruit development.
Types Of Dragon Fruit
Yellow Dragon Fruit (Hylocereus Megalanthus) - The variety of dragon fruit displays a yellow outer skin encasing its white inner flesh. The leathery skin of this yellow fruit is more prickly than other varieties, so it's not as commonly grown.
Pink Dragon Fruit (Hylocereus Undatus) - This is the typical fruit that you see in supermarkets. The bright pink outer skin has green-tipped "wings" coming out from it, and inside is a bright white flesh dotted with tiny black seeds. The seeds are small and edible, somewhat like those of a kiwi fruit.
Red Dragon Fruit (Hylocereus Costaricensis) - Also known as the Costa Rican pitaya, this variety features bright pink to reddish skin and striking red or magenta flesh. Its distinctive appearance and delightful flavor are contributing to its increasing popularity in the United States. The skin of the red dragon fruit is a deep pink, much deeper in color than the pink dragon fruit. Inside is a deep red flesh so that the entire fruit is nearly the same shade throughout.
Purple-fleshed Pitaya (Hylocereus Polyrhizus) - The purple-fleshed dragon fruit variety, with its deep purple flesh and bright pink skin, is becoming more available in the US. Its rich flavor and eye-catching appearance make it a sought-after choice.
'American Beauty' (Hylocereus Hybrid): This hybrid variety is known for its white flesh and deep pink skin. It's a relatively recent introduction and is prized for its sweet flavor and stunning appearance.
Dragon Fruit Plant Care Requirements
Dragon fruit plants thrive in full sunlight, requiring direct exposure to sunlight for several hours each day. Ideally, these plants should bask in approximately 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight. For indoor cultivation of dragon fruit, positioning them near a south-facing window is recommended to maximize sunlight exposure.
While dragon fruit plants require a good amount of sunlight, they can be sensitive to intense, scorching sunlight. In very hot climates, they might benefit from some afternoon shade to prevent sunburn on their delicate stems and pads. On the other hand, too much shade will significantly reduce how much fruit your cactus will put on. Keep in mind the temperature range of your region when determining where to place your dragon fruit cactus.
Dragon fruit plants lack cold hardiness and are vulnerable to harm or death when exposed to freezing temperatures. Providing protection from frost is important if you're growing them outdoors in regions with cold winters. Consider using blankets to shield them or relocating potted plants indoors throughout the winter season.
For those cultivating dragon fruit indoors or in spaces with restricted sunlight, the addition of artificial grow lights can complement the natural light source. LED grow lights that mimic the spectrum of natural sunlight can effectively provide the light intensity and wavelengths that dragon fruit plants need for healthy growth.
Dragon fruit plants do have some drought tolerance, but not as much as other types of cactus. To produce fruit, you will need to water dragon fruit plants regularly from when flowers are forming until you harvest the ripe dragon fruit. However, don't overwater your plant, or you may find yourself dealing with root rot and other fungal issues. Don't water the dragon fruit plant during winter and early spring, as this dry spell encourages more flowers to grow.
Once your dragon fruit plant is established (usually after the first few months), water it deeply but infrequently. Allow the soil to undergo periods of drying between each watering. Typically, watering every 1 to 2 weeks during the active growth season is satisfactory. Ensure to adapt the watering frequency according to variables such as humidity, temperature, and the water-holding capacity of your soil. During the dormant period, which typically occurs in winter, reduce watering frequency.
Young dragon fruit plants have smaller root systems and may need more frequent watering than mature plants. Nonetheless, it remains crucial to steer clear of excessive watering. Keep a watchful eye on soil moisture levels and modify your watering timetable accordingly.
When feasible, opt for rainwater or distilled water for irrigation purposes. It's worth noting that dragon fruit plants can exhibit sensitivity to the minerals and chemicals commonly present in tap water. If using tap water, allow it to sit for a day to allow any chlorine to dissipate before watering your plants.
The suitable growing range for dragon fruit plants is limited to USDA Hardiness Zones 9 through 12. They are tropical cactus plants that do not handle temperatures below 65 degrees Fahrenheit in any sort of prolonged manner. Dragon fruit plants generally prefer temperatures between 65°F (18°C) and 95°F (35°C). They thrive in warm conditions and can tolerate higher temperatures during the growing season.
Dragon fruit plants lack resistance to cold temperatures and are susceptible to harm or even death when exposed to frost and freezing conditions. Temperatures below 32°F (0°C) can seriously harm the plant. If you live in a colder climate, it's best to grow dragon fruit in containers that can be moved indoors during the winter or to provide frost protection.
Dragon fruit plants require well-draining soil to prevent water from pooling around their roots. Inadequate drainage can trigger root rot and other complications related to excess moisture. Opt for a cactus or succulent potting mix or craft a blend composed of equal parts of potting soil, perlite, and coarse sand.
As long as the soil is moist, rich, and well-draining, the dragon fruit plant isn't particular in regards to the soil type or pH balance. It can grow in sandy soil that mimics a desert climate or in a standard potting soil mix. Applying mulch around the plant's base is advised to aid in maintaining soil moisture.
Throughout the active growth phase (spring and summer), consider fertilizing dragon fruit plants roughly once a month. Adjust or suspend fertilization during the dormant period (fall and winter) to replicate their inherent growth rhythm.
Opt for a balanced, gradual-release fertilizer designed explicitly for cacti and succulents. Seek out fertilizers featuring an N-P-K ratio (nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium) of approximately 10-10-10 or equivalent. This balanced ratio provides essential nutrients without overstimulating excessive vegetative growth. You should also work compost or other organic matter into the soil around your cactus tree a couple of times a year. When fertilizing young plants, start with a half-strength dilution of the recommended dose. As the plants mature, gradually increase the strength to the recommended levels.
For those inclined toward organic fertilizers, alternatives such as compost, well-rotted manure, or fish emulsion can be used. However, exercise caution to prevent over-application, as an excess of organic matter can result in excessively nutrient-rich soil.
Pruning is necessary as your dragon fruit grows. Dragon fruit plants can become quite sprawling if left unpruned. To promote a more compact and easily manageable form, trim back elongated and leggy stems. Focus on removing excessive side shoots that create a tangled appearance. An unpruned plant will struggle with fungal issues, insect infestations, and lackluster fruit production. Pruning will also keep the dragon fruit plant from becoming too heavy for its trellis. Typically, the dragon fruit tree will need to have overly long or tangled branches pruned away once or twice a year.
After the fruiting season, typically in late summer or early fall, is a good time for more significant pruning. Remove any fruiting stems that have finished producing fruit. This helps redirect energy into new growth and prepares the plant for the upcoming growing season.
Trimming the plant's growing tips stimulates branching and enhances the production of blossoms. This can stimulate lateral growth, resulting in more flower buds along the stems. Dragon fruit "pads" (the flat segments of the stem) that are old, damaged, or unproductive can be pruned away. However, avoid over-pruning, as the plant still requires healthy pads for photosynthesis.
Propagating dragon fruit (pitaya) can be done through various methods, including cuttings, seeds, offsets, and grafting. Here's a step-by-step guide for each of these common propagation methods:
Propagation from Cuttings
- Use clean shears to cut a length of healthy stem from the parent plant, around 10 to 12 inches in length.
- Dip the end of the dragon fruit cuttings in a fungicide.
- Plant the stem and cut the end down in a large pot that has been filled with a combination of potting soil and sand.
- Water the cactus pot slightly (don't soak the soil!) and set it in a shady location to let the cutting "cure." This takes about a week.
- Keep the cutting in the pot for the first year, and enjoy as it quickly develops, blooms, and bears fruit!
Propagation from Seeds
While it is possible to grow a dragon fruit plant from the dragon fruit seeds themselves, it is difficult to do successfully, and you are unlikely to see your plant bear fruit for a full 7 to 10 years.
- Obtain seeds from a ripe dragon fruit by scraping them out.
- Place the seeds in containers or seed trays within a well-draining, slightly acidic soil mixture.
- Lightly cover the seeds with soil and keep the soil consistently moist.
- Position the containers in a location that is warm and receives ample sunlight.
- The process of seed germination can span several weeks. When the seedlings have reached an adequate size, you can proceed to transplant them into separate pots.
Propagation from Offsets or Pups
- Locate the offset or pup at the base of the main plant.
- Gently detach the offset, ensuring it has some roots attached.
- Plant the offset in a separate container with well-draining soil.
- Water the offset lightly and place it in a location with indirect light.
- Treat it like a mature dragon fruit plant as the offset establishes roots and grows.
- Select a healthy rootstock and scion of similar diameter.
- Create a neat, slanting incision on both the rootstock and scion.
- Combine the two sections, ensuring that the cambium layers (the green inner layers) are perfectly aligned.
- Secure the graft with rubber bands or grafting tape.
- Position the grafted plant within a warm and humid setting.
- Carefully remove the rubber bands or tape once the graft has healed and the scion starts growing.
Aim to space the plants around 10 to 15 feet (3 to 4.5 meters) apart for in-ground planting of dragon fruit. This arrangement provides ample space for the plants to expand and develop without becoming overcrowded. If you're planting multiple rows of dragon fruit plants, maintain a distance of 10 to 15 feet between rows. This spacing ensures good air circulation and makes accessing and caring for the plants easier.
If you're growing dragon fruit in containers, choose pots that are at least 15 to 20 gallons in size for each plant. Larger containers can accommodate the plant's growth more effectively. When placing containers with dragon fruit plants, provide enough space between them to allow for proper air circulation and sunlight exposure. Aim for a minimum distance of 5 feet (1.5 meters) between containers.
If you're using trellises, fences, or other supports to grow dragon fruit vertically, you can space the plants about 5 to 6 feet (1.5 to 1.8 meters) apart along the support structure. This spacing allows the plants to grow upward while still having enough room for their branches to spread.
Dragon fruit plants (pitaya) often benefit from a supporting system as they grow and for their aerial roots to cling on. Providing support helps the plants grow upward, promotes better air circulation, and prevents the stems from becoming tangled or drooping. There are several types of supporting systems you can consider for your dragon fruit plants:
Trellis or Fence: A trellis or fence is a common supporting system for dragon fruit. It provides vertical support for the growing stems and allows you to train the plant to grow upward. You can use wires, ropes, or stakes to create a framework for the plant to climb.
Pergola or Arbor: A pergola or arbor structure can provide a larger supporting system for multiple dragon fruit plants. These structures create a shaded area, allowing the plants to climb and spread across the framework.
Stakes or Posts: Individual stakes or posts placed near each plant can offer support as the stems grow. You can tie the stems gently to the stakes to keep them upright.
Cattle Panels: Cattle panels are sturdy wire mesh panels that can be shaped into arches or other structures. They provide ample space for growing dragon fruit plants and are particularly useful for larger growing areas.
DIY Trellis: You can create your own trellis using wooden posts, bamboo stakes, or other materials. Attach wires, ropes, or strings horizontally between the posts to guide the stems as they grow.
Vertical Garden: Some gardeners create vertical gardens designed to grow dragon fruit. These systems can be customized to fit the available space and allow the plants to grow vertically.
Harvesting Dragon Fruit
Dragon fruit becomes ripe for harvesting once it attains its complete size, displays its distinctive color, and exhibits a slight softness when touched. Different varieties may have different colorations, ranging from white, pink, and red to yellow. Delicately apply pressure to the fruit using your fingers. It should offer a subtle give under pressure without being excessively tender. If it's too firm, it's not fully ripe; if it's mushy, it might be overripe. Ripe fruits will easily twist off the stems, and picked dragon cactus fruit can be stored in the refrigerator for two weeks.
Common Problems When Growing Dragon Fruit
Your main pest problem will come from other wildlife that want to enjoy your dragon fruits just as much as you do! For the larger animals, a fence will keep them at bay. Mealybugs, aphids, and ants can be more of a problem. Opt for organic pest control methods for these insects so that you don't compromise the safety of your fruit for human consumption.
Symptoms include yellowing or wilting of stems, blackened or mushy roots, and an overall decline in plant health. This is often caused by excessive moisture and poor drainage due to overwatering or waterlogged soil. To address this, use well-draining soil, adjust watering practices, and allow the soil to dry between waterings. In severe cases, repot with fresh, well-draining soil.
Look for spots, mold, or lesions on stems, pads, or fruit. These diseases flourish in high humidity and poor air circulation. Improve air circulation, refrain from watering from above, and maintain good sanitation practices. Fungicides labeled for cacti and succulents can help in severe cases.
Discolored or brown patches on stems or pads, often on the sun-exposed side, indicate sunburn. Offer partial shade during the peak heat of the day, particularly for young plants. Gradually introduce the plant to direct sunlight to mitigate this effect.
Lack of Flowering/Fruit Set
If the plant has healthy growth, but no flowers or fruit, inadequate light, incorrect fertilization, or a lack of pollinators might be the issue. Provide sufficient sunlight, ensure balanced fertilization, and consider hand-pollinating the flowers with a soft brush if needed.
Browning, wilting, or damage to stems and pads after cold exposure indicates sensitivity to cold and frost. Protect the plant with blankets, burlap, or frost cloth during cold weather. Relocate potted plants indoors or to a protected area.
Overfertilization results in burned or discolored leaves and stunted growth. It's usually caused by excessive use of fertilizer, especially high-nitrogen formulations. If this occurs, flush the soil with water to eliminate surplus nutrients and modify your fertilization schedule to avoid excessive feeding.
Is Dragon Fruit Plant Pet Friendly?
Dragon fruit plants (pitaya) are generally considered safe for pets. The fruit itself is non-toxic to both humans and animals and is often enjoyed as a nutritious treat. Nevertheless, there are a few considerations to bear in mind to guarantee the safety of both your pets and the plant.
The dragon fruit itself is safe for pets to consume in moderation. It serves as a beneficial source of hydration and essential nutrients. However, just like with any new food, it's recommended to introduce it gradually to your pet's diet to avoid digestive issues. Dragon fruit plants have thorns and spines on their stems, which could potentially cause injury to curious pets that get too close. It's a good idea to place the plant in an area that's not easily accessible to pets, especially if they like to explore and chew on plants.