We have a dragon fruit plant in our Demonstration Garden on Harbor View Road and for the first time it appears to be setting fruit! This member of the cactus family produces large red or yellow fruit after a huge night-blooming flower hopefully gets pollinized. A relatively new tropical fruit, this exotic edible does appear in the supermarket from time to time and is often an ingredient in some fruit juice mixes. While not actually “home-grown” in this case, the dragon fruit can be grown in most backyards with some guidance.
Years ago, I did have a dragon fruit in my own backyard. It grew from a cutting and I trained it up a post as directed. At maturity it actually put out an enormous flower or two, but no fruit. Then we had one of those cold winters and it froze to the ground! So, my first attempt at this did not end well. However, I continued to hear about success stories in the area and had even learned that we have a sizable dragon fruit grower in Punta Gorda. Several years ago our Demonstration garden installed one specimen which took off and is now setting fruit.
The dragon fruit is known by several names including pitaya and strawberry pear. Native to Central and South America, it is now grown across the tropics and subtropics worldwide. Countries such as Vietnam have in fact made the dragon fruit a significant commercial export item. Several different species comprise this cactus including numerous hybrids. The dragon fruit has a green triangular-stemmed trunk and branches (with or without spines) with aerial roots that actually grab onto surfaces as it grows vine-like up trees, rocks, or posts. Untrained, it can grow up to twenty feet long. The flowers are huge and magnificent, but only open at night. They also have tricky pollination requirements, so planting two to three different types helps increase proper pollination. In their native lands, dragon fruit is pollinated by moths and bats. Sometimes hand-pollination may be the best bet to ensure pollination in our area.
Although grown best in full sun, dragon fruit can tolerate some shade. As mentioned above, dragon fruit can be sensitive to cold snaps and can be damaged if exposed to thirty-one degrees Fahrenheit (or below) for long periods of time. Minor freezing is tolerated with relatively quick recovery. Be careful about site selection, discover microclimates in your yard, and have some blankets ready just in case.
To develop a good dragon fruit plant, you need to train it correctly. A single heavy-stemmed plant can weigh a great deal. As such, they are trained up a solid post and tied as they grow. This support needs to be in the form of a four to six-inch wide, pressure-treated post reinforced at the top with wood or hose-covered thick wire or a metal grid to support the top head. A single stem is developed up the post and then the dragon fruit is allowed to branch out eventually looking like a small shaggy palm tree. Larger trellis-like support systems can also be constructed. If all goes well, a single four-year old plant can produce up to two-hundred and twenty pounds of fruit per year.
The harvestable fruit is around four and one-half inches thick and covered with colorful yellow or red scales. The pulp inside is either white, pink or red with many small black seeds throughout. The few dragon fruit that I have eaten fresh remind me of a kiwi in flavor and texture. The fruit is generally harvested from June to November and will keep in the refrigerator for several weeks.
The dragon fruit is a unique and exotic fruit which may be worth looking at growing in your own yard. With some planning, dragon fruit could be part of your future fruit salad! For more information on growing fruits of many kinds in our area, please call our Master Gardener volunteers on the Plant Lifeline on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 1 to 4 pm at 764-4340 for gardening help and insight into their role as an Extension volunteer. Don’t forget to visit our other County Plant Clinics in the area. Please check this link for a complete list of site locations, dates and times – http://charlotte.ifas.ufl.edu/horticulture/Plant%20Clinics%20Schedule.pdf.
Crane, J. H. & Balerdi, C. F. (2016) Pitaya Growing in the Florida Home Landscape. The University of Florida Extension Service, IFAS.