How to Grow and Care for Dragon Fruit Cactus (Hylocereus undatus)

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This interesting species of cactus is quite unusual in that it prefers to grow in sub-tropical areas. It has enormous white flowers that only open at night. After flowering, the plant produces spectacular-looking fruits that are edible. 

The other interesting fact about this cactus is that it’s a lithophyte or hemi-epiphyte and does tolerate growing in the shade. This means that the plant will climb up trees or rocks by sending up aerial roots. These roots attach themselves to the bark of the tree or into the crevices of rock walls. In this way, the dragon fruit cactus can reach a height of 32 feet when growing in its natural habitat.

Therefore, even though this plant is regarded as a cactus, it actually has the habit of growing like a vine. It produces long green stems that are three-sided. These stems have scalloped edges with spines in between the scallops.

The gorgeous white flowers are produced at the ends of each stem and they are huge. They can reach a diameter of 12 inches and be around 15 inches long. However, they only open at night and will close again when morning arrives. They’re also highly fragrant and attractive to pollinators such as bees. 

In tropical areas, the plant will flower all year round. However, in more temperate climates, it will only flower in late spring to early summer.

If the flowers receive adequate pollination, the cactus will produce lovely, large red fruits that are around 5 inches long. These fruits are bright red in color with green-tipped bracts. When cut open, the fruits reveal a delicious white pulp with many tiny, black seeds.

History

The dragon fruit plant was first found growing in Mexico, Central America, and South America. It was introduced into Vietnam by French explorers in the early 1800s. Even to date, Vietnam is the top grower of dragon fruit right throughout Asia. 

There’s an interesting fable about the dragon fruit and how it got its name. According to legend, the dragon fruit is the final thing that comes out of a fire-breathing dragon’s mouth. It’s believed that the flame comes from the base of the dragon’s tail. This is called “jaina” which means “the sweetest tasting”. In this legend, it is told that once the dragon has been slain, the warrior would collect the fruit and present it to the emperor.

Plant Facts

Scientific nameHylocereus undatus
Common namesDragon fruit, pitahaya, strawberry pear, Honolulu queen, moonlight cactus
GenusHylocereus
FamilyCactaceae
Height10 to 20 feet
Width5 to 10 feet
USDA Plant Hardiness Zone10 to 12
OriginMexico, Central America, South America
Flower colorsWhite
Blooming seasonAll year
Plant/Flower special featuresThe flowers only bloom at night and only stay open for one night. If pollination occurs, the plant will produce red edible fruits with white pulp and many tiny black seeds.

How to Plant and Grow Dragon Fruit Tree

The dragon fruit tree grows quite large and is also a fairly fast grower if you have the right climate. Ideally, it’s a plant that you want to grow outside due to its size but you’ll need to protect it from the cold if you live in a region that gets really cold winters.

Because this is a climbing cactus and sends out aerial roots, you’ll need to provide it with a strong trellis to grow up. Alternatively, you can plant it next to a strong fence that it can climb up.

If you live in a cold climate, you should be able to grow a dragon fruit cactus indoors as long as you give it plenty of light and a strong structure to grow up. The plant will happily grow in a large pot as long as you give it some support. You can even move the cactus outdoors during the warmer months into a spot that receives morning sun but shade in the afternoon.

How to Propagate Dragon Fruit Plant

Dragon fruit plant is better propagated from stem cuttings if you want your plant to fruit sooner rather than later. This is due to the fact that a plant grown from seed can take around 6 or 7 years before it begins to set fruit.

Here’s how to propagate a dragon fruit cactus using stem cuttings:

  • From a healthy stem, cut off the tip, making sure that its around 10 inches long.
  • Dip the cut end in a fungicide to stop any kind of rot from developing.
  • Plant this into a pot that you’ve filled with potting mix that has had some sand added to it.
  • Give the cutting a little water but do not soak.
  • Place the pot in a shady spot for about a week to cure.
  • Continue to mist the soil to keep it constantly moist.

Your cutting should develop roots fairly quickly (3 to 4 weeks) and plants propagated this way can produce fruit in their first year.

Care and Maintenance

Dragon fruit cactus is fairly easy to care for as long as you understand that it lives naturally in sub-tropical areas. Therefore, it requires regular watering, soil or potting mix that has organic matter added and regular fertilizing during the main growth period.

Soil

Unlike a lot of other cacti, this plant requires moist soil that contains plenty of organic matter. It is, however, important that the soil is free draining. If you’re growing this plant in the ground, you can even mulch around the base to keep the soil reasonably moist. 

Also, be prepared to continue to amend the soil with compost or other organic matter at least twice a year.

Water

Although this is a cactus, it does require regular watering. While it does have some drought tolerance, it needs to be kept relatively moist especially when it’s flowering and setting fruit. During this time, you should not let the soil dry out. Neither should you allow the plant to become waterlogged as this could encourage root rot.

You can slow down on the watering during winter and early spring, as the plant is most likely to be dormant during this period.

Fertilizer

Dragon fruit cacti are heavier feeders than other cacti species. During their first year of growth, they should be fed a balanced fertilizer every month. Once the plant has become well established, you only need to apply a well-balanced fertilizer two or three times a year. 

Sunlight

Being native to tropical rainforests, this plant prefers the warmth but not the sun during the hottest part of the day. Too much hot afternoon sun will damage the green stems. Conversely, too much shade will inhibit flower and fruit production.

Therefore, it would be ideal to position this plant where it can get plenty of morning sunshine but is well shaded in the afternoon. 

Temperature and Humidity

The optimal temperature range for this plant is between 65 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit (18 to 27 degrees Celsius). This means that not everyone will be able to grow this cactus outdoors as it does not handle frost or freezing cold weather.

Pruning

This is one cactus that benefits enormously from regular pruning. The green stems do grow quite long and can get tangled up with each other. This can prevent light from getting to the inner stems and will result in poor flower and fruit production.

Therefore, it’s necessary to prune your cactus regularly. This will also help to stimulate more prolific flowering and reduce the overall weight of the plant.

Around two or three times a year, you should cut back any stems that are too long, have become damaged, tangled, or are dead. Remember to wear gloves when you do this to avoid getting stuck with the spines.

You should also understand that flowers will only grow at the end of the current season’s growth. Therefore, you’ll need to encourage new growth constantly to ensure you plant flowers and fruits well.

You can do this easily by cutting back each of the stems a few inches or to a more manageable length. When you do this, new branching shoots will start to grow and these are the ones that will produce the flowers and eventually, the fruits.

Pest and diseases

Like other fruiting plants, the dragon fruits can be attractive to both wild animals and birds that visit your garden. Therefore, you may have to protect your plant with some bird netting if you want to enjoy the fruits yourself.

Other pests and diseases that may affect your dragon fruit tree include:

  • Caterpillars. This can easily be removed by hand when you spot them.
  • Snails and slugs. These mainly only attack young plants so you’ll have to be vigilant and remove them when you see them.
  • Mites and mealybugs. These sap-sucking insects can be controlled by spraying your cactus with a mixture of insecticidal soap and water. Alternatively, you can spray your plant with a mixture of neem oil and water.
  • Fungal diseases. These are more prevalent in areas with high humidity. To avoid these problems, ensure that you prune your plant regularly and try to increase the airflow around the plant. If you notice any fungal problems, it’s best to remove the diseased parts and throw them in the trash. You can treat your cactus with an organic fungicide if necessary.

Why Your Plant May Not Be Producing Any Fruit

If you have a healthy and mature cactus but no fruit, this may be caused by non-pollination. This is because the flowers only tend to open at night and at that time, most pollinators like bees don’t tend to be very active. Additionally, if you’re growing your plant indoors, you won’t have any natural pollinators to help pollinate your flowers.

In these cases, you may have to do some hand pollinating yourself. However, some varieties are self-pollinating. In these, the stigma (female part) will be very short and close to the anthers (male parts) that contain the pollen. 

Because the flowers are so large, hand-pollinating is very easy. Except that you have to do it at night. All you’ll need is a torch and a soft makeup brush. Then head out to your cactus and find the flowers. They should be easy to spot because they’ll be huge and sweetly fragranced.

Inside the flower itself, you’ll find the reproductive parts. Usually, the anthers will be closer to the base of the flower and the stigma will be poking out of the middle of the flower and slightly above the anthers. What we need to do is to get the pollen from the anthers onto the stigma.

To do this, just take your brush and gather the pollen from the anthers and then gently brush it off onto the stigma. You can do this with pollen from the same flower or pollen from another flower.

If you have two different varieties of dragon fruit growing, you can even do some cross-pollinating by taking the pollen from one variety and placing it onto the stigma of the other variety. In fact, there are different varieties of dragon fruit that actually require this type of cross-pollinating in order to produce large and juicy fruit.

Uses of Dragon Fruit Cactus

As you would be aware, the interesting fruit of the dragon fruit cactus is totally edible and quite delicious. But, did you know that the flowers are also edible? On top of that, they have a lovely sweet fragrance too.

The fruit on your cactus is ready to harvest when the outer bracts on the fruit start to look a little withered. At this time, the fruit should twist off from the stem quite easily. If you have fruit that has already fallen from the stem on its own, this is likely to be overripe.

Once you’ve picked the ripe dragon fruits, they can be kept in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks before being consumed. These fruits are packed with vitamin C and other minerals and antioxidants.

You can eat the fruit by itself, add it to a fruit salad or whip it up into a smoothie.

Common Varieties and Cultivars

There are three common types of dragon fruit that can be grown. These are:

  • Hylocereus undatus
  • Hylocereus megalanthus
  • Hylocereus costaricensis

Conclusion

The dragon fruit cactus is more than just an ornamental plant. It is commonly grown for the delicious tropical fruit that it produces at the ends of its long stems. Before the fruits start to grow, this plant produces the most amazing flowers that are both large and sweetly scented.

However, these impressive flowers only open at night and each one only lasts one night.

~ image source: depositphotos/foto-pixel.web.de