Thursday, January 31, 2013

DRAGON FRUIT / PITAYA (Hylocereus undatus)

I first came across Dragon Fruit several years ago while exploring a street market in Hong Kong.  I had never even heard of them, so the sight of these bright colored, dramatic looking, fruit was rather mind blowing.  I bought one to try out back at the hostel.  It tasted a bit bland so I was not so excited about the fruit after that.  A few years later, while in Thailand, I came across a lady selling fruit juices from a little table in the street.  She was using the red fleshed Dragon Fruit to make juice.  The red flesh gave the juice a dramatic purple color and it tasted wonderful.  That was when I became a fan of Dragon Fruit.

The juice seller was just cutting the fruit in half and scooping out the flesh., She then dropped the chopped pieces of flesh into a blender.  It gives lots of vitamin C and minerals.  Those little black seeds throughout the fruit flesh provide lots of fiber.  In the last few years Dragon Fruit has become known on the world markets.  The supermarket in our little town is even selling it now.  The fruit comes from farmers growing it on the "Big Island" of Hawaii.  Farmers like it as a crop that can put up with occasional water shortages.  I see Pitaya Bowls for sale from food trucks along the north shore surf breaks.  I think the name Pitaya is the name given to Dragon Fruit in South America where it is popular with the surfers there too.

The Dragon Fruit is a type of cactus, native to Mexico, Central and South America.  It has large white fragrant flowers that bloom for one night.  It is related to the night blooming Ceres cactus that is grown here in Hawaii on old rock walls for its beautiful flowers but does not have the fruit. The fruit is usually the bright pink skin with white flesh but there a two other species also called Dragon Fruit.....that is the pink skin with dark red flesh type, and the yellow skin with white flesh type.  The fruit is ripe 30-50 days after pollination when  the green spikes on the fruit are not so green colored and there is a slight softness to the fruit.  It is best to leave the fruit to soften up a bit for a day or two after picking.

Although the Dragon Fruit plant will naturally grow up walls and trees, it is usually grown on farms on strong cement posts several feet high.  The thick stems of the plant grow roots from their surface to attach to the support post. Once the plant has grown to the top of the post it will hang down that the plant looks rather umbrella in shape. The early growth can be cut back at the top of the post to encourage a bigger growth of "umbrella spokes"   It is from the end of these hanging branches that the fruit grows.  The plant will start fruiting when it is about 10 pounds in weight.  It can be grown at home in a large container but you will need a strong fence or railing for it to grow up.   I have mine growing up an old coconut stump that is about 5 feet high. For good strong production of fruit you need a second plant for cross fertilization.  It is rather a poky plant, not something to grow next to walkways.

The Dragon Fruit plant needs plenty of sunlight and very good soil drainage.  Do not over water this plant. It does not like acid soils but that is not a problem in my coral sand soils.  It likes low nitrogen and high phosphorus levels.  Farmers fertilize them about every two months.  Dragon Fruit plants can be grown from seed but it is very easy to grow from cuttings.  Place cuttings in potting mix and water just very occasionally so that the soil can dry out between waterings.  The piece of stalk will first grow roots and then grow arms. 

Last year I saw Dragon Fruit growing at the Tropical Fruit Farm on Penang, Malaysia.  I really liked the way they were growing theirs so I will finish off with a photo showing their technique.  They had four plants growing up stacked large round cement pipes.  Into the center of the cement pipes they were throwing their compost to feed the plant roots.  Maybe it will give you some ideas for your garden.


PS   August, 2015

A few weeks ago we had great excitement in the back yard under a beautiful full moon.  Friends and family were over to see the first blooming of two huge, dinner plate size, flowers on my Dragon Fruit plants.  The stunningly beautiful flowers only open at night and only for one night.  It looks hopeful that the moths did their pollination work because the flower bases are now swelling in size and I should be able to eat the fruit within a few weeks.  There are also some more tiny flower buds coming out on another arm of the plant.

My Dragon Fruit plants are rather neglected.  They grow on a four foot high coconut tree stump which also has my washing line attached to it.  The plant is rather ugly and spiny so that I have to keep it cut back from the hanging washing and I have often thought that maybe it is better to get rid of the plant.  I grew it in the first place because it was something exotic that I knew nothing about and just wanted to learn about it.  It has rather redeemed itself with its beautiful  flower showing so I will give it at least another year of observation and if the fruiting goes well it will get to stay.  Here are some photos of the fruiting process in the past few weeks and I will add more until they are ready for harvest.

New flower buds coming of these later died off.
Flower buds that are several inches long and grew by a few inches every day.
The flowers opening at night.
The flowers closing up the next morning.
The flower ovary fattening up as the flowers die off.