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Complete Guide to Growing Dragon Fruit Plants at Home

Complete Guide to Growing Dragon Fruit Plants at Home

Learn how to grow and care for Dragon fruit cactus (pitaya) plants both indoors and outdoors with this detailed guide covering planting, ideal conditions, pruning, pollinating, harvesting and more.

Dragon Fruit Plant Care: How to Grow Dragon Fruit (Pitaya)

With its vibrant reddish-pink skin and studded green scales, the dragon fruit (also called pitaya) certainly has an exotic, otherworldly appearance. But beneath that striking exterior lies a sweet, slightly crisp interior filled with edible black seeds. It tastes like a cross between a kiwi and a pear – refreshingly sweet with just a hint of tartness.

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Dragon fruit has been cultivated for centuries in Mexico, Central and South America, but it has only become popular in the United States in recent decades as an imported tropical treat. These days, many home gardeners are discovering the joy of growing their own dragon fruit plants.

While it may look unusual, dragon fruit is surprisingly easy to grow if you can recreate its preferred environmental conditions. This climbing cactus makes an excellent potted houseplant or can be grown outdoors in warm, subtropical climates.

This comprehensive guide covers everything you need to know about dragon fruit care and cultivation, including planting instructions, ideal conditions, polllination, pruning, pest control and harvesting. With a little patience, you can produce plenty of these unique, delicious fruits right at home!

What is Dragon Fruit?

Dragon fruit (Hylocereus species) is a climbing cactus native to Mexico, Central and South America that produces spectacular red or yellow fruits filled with edible black seeds. It goes by many names including pitaya, pitahaya, strawberry pear and thang mau among others.

 Complete Guide to Growing Dragon Fruit Plants at Home

Despite its exotic appearance, dragon fruit is actually quite closely related to other familiar cacti. It belongs to the Cactaceae family, with Hylocereus undatus (red pitaya) and Hylocereus costaricensis (yellow pitaya) being the most commonly cultivated species.

In the wild, the dragon fruit cactus grows along the ground, sending out arching stems that can reach up to 20 feet long. These stems are thick and segmented with flat, wide stems studded with clusters of spines.

When mature, large white and yellow blossoms open at night, blooming for just one night before shriveling up. If pollinated properly, leathery fruits with bright red or yellow skin and green scales emerge from the flowers after several weeks.

Dragon fruit plants are very long-lived, hardy perennials that can keep producing fruit for 20-30 years. While intimidating in appearance, their stems are actually safe to handle without any painful spines.

Why Grow Dragon Fruit?

Dragon fruit has become a hugely popular tropical fruit in recent years, both for its unique appearance and delicious flavor. But imported dragon fruit can be quite pricey and have a short shelf life.

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Growing your own dragon fruit plants provides a number of major benefits:

  • You can harvest an abundance of fresh dragon fruit over a long season
  • Self-pollinate plants for higher yields and fuller fruits
  • Choose the exact varieties/colors you like best
  • Save substantially compared to grocery store costs
  • Impressive, eye-catching plants with showy blooms
  • Relatively easy care once established
  • Can be grown in pots or planted in warm climates

While dragon fruit does take a few years to begin bearing fruit, it offers a long productive life span of 20-30+ years if cared for properly. Dragon fruit plants can be grown as impressive landscaping specimens, container plants or even pruned into small indoor houseplants.

As an edible crop, dragon fruit is packed with antioxidants like vitamin C, betalains and healthy fatty acids. The mild tropical flavor makes it a versatile ingredient in things like smoothies, salads, desserts and more.

Pitaya plants are also known for their large, showy night-blooming flowers, making them a unique ornamental for the garden or patio. Just be prepared to hand pollinate if you want to produce actual fruits.

Choosing Dragon Fruit Varieties

There are several common types of dragon fruit you’ll find for sale, both red and yellow skinned varieties:

Red Dragon Fruit

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  • Hylocereus undatus – Most common red type with bright pink skin and black seeds
  • Hylocereus polyrhizus – Red skin, red flesh and black seeds
  • Hylocereus costaricensis – Pinkish red skin and red flesh

Yellow Dragon Fruit

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  • Hylocereus megalanthus – Yellow skin with white flesh and black seeds
  • Selenicereus megalanthus – Yellow/golden skin with white flesh

The most popular option for home growers is the red pitaya (Hylocereus undatus) which has bright fuchsia pink skin, green scales and a white interior studded with black seeds. It’s also called strawberry or thang mau dragon fruit.

While yellow dragon fruits are less commonly sold in grocery stores, they tend to be slightly larger and have a sweeter flavor than red varieties. Some people also prefer the unique yellow color and milder taste.

No matter which type you choose, all dragon fruits have thick, semi-crisp flesh filled with tiny black seeds that are edible. The skin itself is inedible but the flesh has delicious flavors of kiwi, pear and watermelon.

Where and How to Plant Dragon Fruit

Dragon fruit cacti can be grown from seed, cuttings or transplants. No matter which method you choose, make sure to use a well-draining soil mix.

Growing from Seed

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  • Fill small nursery pots with a cacti/succulent soil mix or 50/50 potting soil and perlite
  • Push 2-3 dragon fruit seeds about 1/2 inch into the soil
  • Lightly water and place the pots in a warm spot with bright, indirect light
  • Keep soil moist but not soggy until seedlings emerge in 2-4 weeks
  • Transplant into individual pots when a few inches tall

Growing from Cuttings

  • Take 6-12 inch stem cuttings from a mature dragon fruit plant
  • Allow cuttings to callous over for 5-7 days before planting
  • Fill a pot with well-draining cacti/succulent mix
  • Plant cuttings vertically with 1/3 of the stem buried and firm soil around them
  • Place in bright shade for 6-8 weeks until new growth emerges
  • Once rooted, move to a sunnier spot and follow normal dragon fruit care

From Transplants

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  • Purchase young nursery transplants rather than seeds for quicker fruiting
  • Transplant into a large container or ground with soil amended with compost/manure
  • Provide support for stems using a tall trellis or stake system
  • Follow dragon fruit planting and care guidelines below

When planting outdoors, dragon fruit prefers a well-draining soil or sandy loam amended with compost or manure. The pH should be around 6.0-7.5. In colder climates, overwinter plants inside and replant outdoors in spring.

Ideal Growing Conditions

Dragon fruit cacti are very adaptable plants but have some specific needs for sunlight, water, soil and temperatures to produce the best harvests. Here are the ideal conditions:

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Light

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Dragon fruit plants require plenty of direct sunlight – at least 6+ hours per day but up to 10-12 hours is better. Choose a south or west-facing spot or use grow lights if growing indoors.

Water

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Water dragon fruit deeply but infrequently to avoid overwatering. Only water when the top few inches of soil are completely dried out. Slowly drench the soil until moisture comes through the drainage holes.

Soil

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These plants require fast-draining soil, whether grown in pots or planted in the ground. Use a commercial cacti/succulent potting mix or make your own by amending soil with sand, perlite or bark.

Temperatures

Dragon fruit is a tropical cactus that does best in warm weather between 65-90°F. It won’t tolerate freezing temperatures and should be protected from extreme summer heat over 100°F as well.

Humidity

Low to moderate humidity levels of 40-60% are ideal. Increase humidity around plants indoors by using a pebble tray or humidifier, especially while blooming.

Support

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Dragon fruits put out lengthy, sprawling stems that require support from a trellis, stake or cage. The heavier the fruits, the sturdier the support system required.

Air Circulation

Provide good air flow around the plants to prevent fungal or bacterial issues. Outdoors this isn’t usually an issue, but watch for stagnant air indoors.

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With the right conditions met, dragon fruit plants will reward you with those unique, brightly colored fruits within 2-3 years when grown from cuttings or transplants (longer from seed).

Supporting and Training Dragon Fruit Plants

To produce the largest, highest quality dragon fruits, it’s essential to properly support and train the cactus plants as they grow. Left to sprawl on the ground, the heavy fruits may never develop properly.

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There are two main ways to support dragon fruit:

Trellis/Stake Method

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  • Set up a sturdy trellis, stake or post system before planting
  • Use either a wood post or metal T-post driven 2-3 feet into the ground
  • Run horizontal support wires between posts every 12-18 inches vertically
  • Gently tie new cactus growth to the wires as it lengthens
  • Leave 12 inches between each stem for proper airflow

Cage/Cylinder Method

  • Use concrete reinforcing wire, cattle panels or rustproof mesh fencing
  • Create a circular cage by joining the ends using wire or zip ties
  • The cage should be at least 3-4 feet tall and 5+ feet wide
  • Place the cage in the ground or atop a large container
  • Train cactus stems to grow vertically up the sides of the cage

For potted plants indoors or on a patio, you can also construct a trellis or cage using bamboo poles and wire mesh/grids. The key is providing sturdy vertical support for the heavy, climbing stems and fruits.

No matter which method you use, allow plenty of air circulation between the stems. Regularly tie or weave any wandering growth back into the trellis or cage system to keep it orderly and off the ground.

Maintaining healthy, supported cactus plants makes it far easier to hand pollinate flowers, harvest fruits and even prune plants back when needed.

Flowering and Pollinating Dragon Fruit

One of the coolest aspects of growing dragon fruit at home is the plant’s unique flowering behavior. The softball-sized blossoms only open for a single night before shriveling up. This means that pollination must happen within those few nighttime hours.

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The flowers emerge from notches along the cactus stems and start off as flat green buds. Over a week or so they swell into large white or yellow, bell-shaped blossoms that finally open at night.

After dark, the blossoms emit a sweet fruity scent designed to attract bats, moths and other nighttime pollinators in their native range. Home growers have to manually pollinate since those pollinators usually aren’t present.

To hand pollinate dragon fruit blossoms:

  • Keep a sharp eye out for new blooms beginning to form
  • Use a soft brush or cotton swab to transfer pollen from the outer ring of stamens to the inner pistil of each open flower
  • Do this as soon as the flowers open, usually 7-9pm, as they close for good by morning
  • Use a flashlight or headlamp to see the flowers better
  • If successful, the base of the flower will swell into a dragon fruit within 3-4 weeks
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Dragon fruit plants bloom in cycles, with new flowers opening every few weeks in the growing season if conditions are right. By pollinating each set of flowers, you’ll have a continuous harvest of ripe dragon fruits.

Some nurseries also sell or ship hand-pollinated dragon fruit to make things easier. While tedious at first, learning to hand pollinate allows you to pick your favorite varieties and maximize yields.

Pruning and Maintaining Dragon Fruit Plants

Dragon fruit cacti are remarkably low-maintenance plants once established, especially if you meet their basic growing requirements. However, some light pruning and other care is required to keep them productive and attractive.

Pruning

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  • Prune plants annually in spring before new growth starts
  • Use sharp, sterilized pruning shears or knives
  • Remove just 1-2 segments (about 6 inches) from each stem tip
  • Also prune off any dead, diseased or damaged stems
  • This controlled pruning promotes more flowers, fruit and new growth
  • Avoid pruning in summer when heat could damage fresh cuts
  • Apply a pruning sealant to cut ends to prevent fungi/bacteria

Support System Care

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  • Check support trellises, posts and wires annually for damage
  • Repair or replace any broken parts to avoid heavy stems falling
  • Add new ties or guides as needed to keep growth in check

Organic Pest Control

  • Monitor plants closely for mites, mealybugs or scale insects
  • Apply neem oil, insecticidal soap or other organic control measures
  • Remove and destroy severely infested stem segments if needed

With just basic annual pruning, support system adjustments and proactive pest control, dragon fruit plants keep their tidy, manageable shape and bountiful harvests year after year.

Harvesting Dragon Fruit

When properly cared for, most dragon fruit varieties will begin bearing ripe fruits within 2-3 years. More mature, larger plants can potentially produce hundreds of pounds of dragon fruits per year!

Here are some tips for harvesting peak-quality dragon fruit:

Timing the Harvest

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  • Check plants daily once fruits begin developing
  • Most dragon fruit is ripe around 30-50 days after the bloom opens
  • Ripe red dragon fruit turns a deep magenta pink or reddish color
  • Ripe yellow dragon fruit develops a yellow/golden orange skin
  • Ripe fruits also develop a slightly soft “give” when gently squeezed

Picking Ripe Fruits

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  • Use a sharp, sterilized knife or pruning shears to sever the stem
  • Leave 1-2 inches of stem attached to the fruit to extend shelf life
  • Handle dragon fruits gently to prevent bruising or damage
  • If underripe, leave fruits attached to continue ripening on the plant

After the Harvest

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  • Rinse off ripe dragon fruit to remove any dirt or debris
  • Dragon fruit can be kept at room temperature for 5-7 days
  • For longer storage of 2-3 weeks, refrigerate unwashed fruits
  • Avoid freezing dragon fruits, which damages their texture

With their long harvesting season, dragon fruit cactus plants can keep you well-stocked with these nutritious tropical fruits for months if properly cared for.

Eating and Using Dragon Fruit

Beyond their showy exotic appearance, dragon fruits are prized for their unique tropical taste and impressive nutrient profile. Their vibrant flesh is loaded with vitamin C, B vitamins, fiber, iron, magnesium and antioxidants.

To enjoy dragon fruit:

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  • Cut the fruit in half lengthwise using a sharp knife
  • Scoop out the flesh with a spoon, separating any inedible peel
  • The small black seeds are edible, similar to kiwi fruit
  • Dragon fruit has a soft, creamy but slightly crunchy texture
  • It tastes mildly sweet with hints of pear, kiwi and watermelon flavors

Dragon fruit makes a terrific addition to fruit salads, smoothies and desserts. Or simply enjoy the fresh, sweet-tart juicy flesh on its own or over yogurt or cereal.

You can also:

  • Make dragon fruit juices or cocktails
  • Cook dragon fruit into sauces, jams or jellies
  • Dehydrate or freeze dragon fruit chunks
  • Use the bright magenta flesh as a natural food dye

With its amazing versatility, dragon fruit is an ideal option for all types of sweet and savory recipes. Plus, those unique scaly fruits make an eye-catching display in centerpieces or as an edible garnish.

Whether grown at home or purchased, dragon fruit is a must-try tropical treat. With their sweet flavors, gorgeous colors and tons of nutrition, it’s easy to see why these peculiar fruits are skyrocketing in popularity. Give dragon fruit a try and you’re sure to be hooked!

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