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Growing Dragon Fruit: Hylocereus species

Botanical Overview

Several species of plants in the Cactus family (Cactaceae) produce Dragon Fruit. Most belong to the Hylocereus genus and are night-blooming. Dragon fruit is grown commercially in South and Central America, Mexico, the United States, Spain, Australia and Southeast Asia.

Description

Form: Climbing cactus vine.
Lifespan: 20 years or more.
Leaf retention: The evergreen stems have no leaves.
Growth rate: Rapid.
Mature Size: Up to 20' long.
Flowers: Large, white, bell-shaped, sweet fragrance, lasting only one night. Unpollinated flowers may sometimes stay open the next morning for pollination by bees. The flowers produce no nectar.
Bloom: At night, 3-6 times a year, mid spring to mid-fall.
Self-fruitful: Some species and varieties will self-pollinate and others do better with a second plant for pollination. Hand pollination (at night, of course) will improve fruit set on some species. Hylocereus plants should be cross pollinated within their species to ensure results.
Years before fruiting: After a fruiting stem segment is planted, 6 months to one year. From seed, the plant can take up to 7 years to flower.
Fruit: Oval to egg-shaped, one-half to 3 pounds, red or yellow skin with prominent, usually green, wings, easy to peel. The edible flesh is white, pink, red or purple, juicy, with tiny, edible black seeds dotted throughout, and a slightly sweet taste. Red-fleshed fruit are often considered to be the best tasting, and red-skinned, white-fleshed fruit the most bland.
Months for fruit to ripen: 45-50 days. A fruit is ripe when its skin is fully colored, the wings fold outward, and two twists can remove it from the stem. A fruit is over-ripe when it falls from the stem. One plant may produce up to 220 pounds of fruit after 4-5 years.
Storage after harvest: Unwashed fruit can be refrigerated up to five days.
Leaves: None.
Stems: Green, segmented, with 3-5 fins extending along the entire length of the segment. Wavy edges are present on the fins of some species, and each segment can have several small spines along its edges or be spineless. Several branches can grow from each segment joint. These stems are very heavy because they are succulent and contain water.
Roots: Aerial rootlets, which attach the vine to a vertical surface, grow from each stem segment, and allow the vine to climb. This plant can suffer root rot in wet soil.
Species of Note for hot, dry climates:
Hylocereus costaricensis - fruit with red skin, purple-red flesh.
Hylocereus lemairei / syn. Hylocereus polyrhizus - red skin, red flesh.
Hylocereus megalanthus - yellow skin, white flesh.
Hylocereus undatus - red skin, white flesh, blandest flavor.
Wildlife: The flowers attract bats, moths and bees for pollination.
Toxic / Danger: Possible spiny stem edges.
Origin: Mexico, Central America and northern South America, in lowland, tropical, deciduous forests. This cactus is often found climbing trees in its native environment. These species have probably been cultivated more than 1000 years.

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Cultivation and Uses

USDA hardiness zones: 10-11. The plant is damaged below 31°F.
Chill hours: None.
Heat tolerant: Yes. Over 80°F, 50-60% shade is needed all day. This plant is known to tolerate 125°F in part shade, but fruit quantity and quality is reduced when the plant is not in full sun.
Drought tolerant: No.
Sun: Full sun in moderate temperatures to all day part shade in high temperatures.
Planting: Locate this cactus in well drained, enriched soil, where it can receive 50-60% shade all day when needed. Place a post-and-top-frame structure next to it that can support 250 pounds of stem weight. Wires should not be used for support because they cut into the stem as it grows heavier. Space each cactus 8' apart, using two or more of each species for cross pollination.
The cactus can also be grown in a container on top of a tall post where the stems can hang down instead of climbing. Container grown plants can be moved indoors during cold winters, but they are exceedingly heavy.
Soil: Well drained, sandy, high organic content, cycled between slightly moist and just turned dry, pH 6.1-7.5 (slightly acidic to neutral). A container might be best in alkaline soil regions to avoid to avoid nutrient deficiencies. These cacti are salt tolerant.
Fertilize: During the growing season, apply an organic fertilizer, moderately high in nitrogen, monthly. During blossoming, do not fertilize.
Water after becoming established: During flowering and fruiting, apply just enough water so that the soil alternates between moist and dry over a 3-7 day period. Growing in a container 14+" in diameter, with drain holes on the bottom sides, provides good moisture control. Excess rainfall or irrigation may cause flower drop, split fruit, and root rot. It can tolerate monthly water during the cold season when not flowering or fruiting.
Mulch: Spread organic mulch over the root zone to reduce moisture evaporation and keep roots from temperature extremes.
First Year Care: Provide all day 50% shade for the first four months in all climates.
Prune: Remove all side branches that emerge on the newly planted stem until it reaches the trellis. Once high enough, the stem should be tied with a thick rope to the bottom, then half-way up as it grows. When it reaches the top of the trellis, the stem should be cut to encourage lateral branching which should also be tied down.
Remove diseased, damaged or dead stems and cut back those that reach the soil. Remove stems that interfere with the harvest and those that result in crowding. After harvest, prune extra and crowded stems. Treat cuts with a fungicide as necessary. Sterilize pruning tools before each use.
The fruit may have to be thinned when small if it grows abundantly.
Litter: Low. Fruit drop if not harvested.
Propagation: Stem cuttings - cut the stem base on a slant, then treat with a fungicide and let dry for a week in the shade so the cut will callous over. Plant the cuttings, optionally using a root hormone, in the ground or in pots, right end up. Seed is unreliable.
Pests: Cage the roots at planting if gophers are a problem. Fungal infections cause brown spots on the stem. Bacterial infections cause soft stem rot when aggravated by a calcium and nitrogen deficiency.
Uses: Food plant. The fruit is eaten raw, often chilled, and also served as a juice, as a fruit sorbet, or made into a syrup. Unopened flower buds can be cooked as a vegetable. The flowers can be eaten or used to make tea.

Comments

Another name for Dragon Fruit is Pitahaya.
In hot, dry climates, Apple Cactus: Cereus repandus and Cactus Pear: Opuntia are easier to grow.

The common Hylocereus polyrhizus designation actually refers to two species and is an invalid name.


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Latest update: April, 2021