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Looking to grow heart-healthy dragon fruit? UF/IFAS scientists offer latest insights on pests, beneficial insects

  • Dragon fruit, a fruit of choice for its health benefits, has burgeoned in popularity over recent years.
  • The exotic crop has caught the eyes of farmers and consumers alike for its low maintenance and vibrant flowering qualities.
  • Scientists are fueling the information needs of dragon fruit aficionados with a fact sheet that gives specific details and scientific insight on insects and pests that can help and hinder the prosperity of this vine-like cactus.

HOMESTEAD, Fla. – [inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”” suffix=””]Touted as a superfood that promotes heart and gut health, the exotic dragon fruit has gained popularity as it grows in Florida’s warm climate. [/inlinetweet]Over the last decade, a rising number of commercial growers are harvesting the cash crop, while an increasing number of consumers are adding it to their edible gardens.

As is characteristic for every crop, the dragon fruit is subject to attack by several insects. While only a few species of insects are considered pests, one can be devastating to the fruit, according to research.

To fuel the information needs of commercial and residential growers, scientists at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) have published Pitaya (Dragon Fruit) (Hylocereus undatus) Pests and Beneficial Insects, The fact sheet, downloadable from the Electronic Data Information Source (EDIS) of UF/IFAS Extension, gives specific details and scientific insight on insects and pests that can help or hinder growing this vine-like cactus.

“The goal is to provide growers with a description of all pests and beneficial insects associated with dragon fruit in south Florida, together with some general control recommendations,” said Daniel Carrillo, an assistant professor of entomology and nematology at UF/IFAS Tropical Research and Education Center in Homestead. “The EDIS publication also has a section on pests that affect this crop in other countries to help them prepare for potential invasive pests.”

Carrillo, who co-authored the fact sheet with biologist Rita Duncan, works with a team of scientists at the research center monitoring pests impacting the crop.

“Pitaya, or dragon fruit, is an emerging crop in South Florida,” he added. “Acreage of this fruit crop in Florida has increased rapidly and shows a good potential for commercialization, but as with most fruit plants, pests can be a problem.

Dragon fruit, which bears other common names such as strawberry pear and night-blooming cereusis, is a group of vine-like, climbing cacti perennial originating from Mexico and Central and South America. It was introduced and cultivated in Vietnam more than 120 years ago. Between the 1990s and 2000s, dragon fruit was introduced into other Asian countries, the Middle East, Australia, and the United States as an exotic fruit crop. In Florida, production of dragon fruit has steadily increased since the 2000s. This crop that growers can harvest in less than two years produces fruit with high-nutrient values and low calories and is enjoying increasing demand in the market.

“It is grown on about 721 acres, in five Florida counties including Palm Beach, Charlotte, Brevard, Lee, and most prominently in Miami-Dade,” said Jonathan Crane, a tropical fruit crop specialist at the Homestead research center. “We see new plantings continue to go in, so the acreage is definitely expanding.”

Potential pests for the dragon fruit in South Florida are leaf-footed bugs, aphids, beetles, mealybugs and scales. The most dangerous are thrips.

“Thrips can be very detrimental,” said Carrillo. The unsightly damage has rendered 20% to 80% of the fruit unmarketable during years with high populations – a devastating result for the grower.”

Because weeds are a habitat for the thrips, weed management can be an important control measure. Thrips are known for their ability to develop resistance to insecticides. They do have some natural enemies, such as pirate bugs and predatory mites, which can be used as biocontrol agents.

The fact sheet lists common predators that feed on a variety of pests such as ladybugs, lacewing larvae and a variety of beneficial parasitic wasp species. These predators keep insects from becoming a pest by reducing their population size.

Minimizing insecticides will help to preserve natural enemies. Key pests may require immediate attention and control, while minor pests should be monitored even though they will typically remain under biological control by beneficial insects and good cultural practices, according to the fact sheet.

“In the past few years, the areas planted with dragon fruit in south Florida has grown more than any other tropical fruit crop. Dragon fruit usually has a good price and high consumer demand,” said Carrillo. “However,  as the area planted grows, the pest pressure also grows. More research is needed to develop crop management programs tailored to mitigate the damage caused by pests.”

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By: Lourdes Rodriguez

The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS brings science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries and all Florida residents.