Dragon fruit is known by many names, such as pitaya and pitahaya depending on genus, strawberry pear, or night blooming cereus. It is also called thang loy in Thailand, pitahayah if hailing from Israel, and pāniniokapunahou in Hawaii. Despite this contemporary global spread, dragon fruit is native to Mexico, Central America, and South America and was introduced to Asia via Vietnam by the French in the early 1800s. In the United States, pitaya is primarily grown in Southern California, Florida, and Hawaii.
A number of species are grown around the world: Vietnam primarily grows fruit with bright pink skin and white flesh, while Nicaragua and Ecuador grow significant amounts of a pink-skinned species with deep to light pink flesh. Colombia and Ecuador grow a yellow skinned variety with white flesh.
Dragon fruit is often consumed fresh, much like a kiwi, and the plant’s small flower is edible when cooked. Rich in protein, fiber, iron, and antioxidants, it is a popular ingredient in fruit bars, jellies, juice, yogurt, and smoothies. Red varieties can also be used as a natural dye or colorant.
References: Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, Freida’s Inc., University of California, University of Florida/IFAS Extension, University of Hawaii.
TYPES, VARIETIES & CUTS
While dragon fruit is a cousin of the cactus pear, the two fruits exhibit key differences: first, pitaya seeds are edible, much like kiwifruit; second, the fruit does not typically have spines, instead possessing various colored protective shoots that surround the baseball-sized fruit.
The flesh of dragon fruit can vary from white (with pink or yellow skin) to hot pink or deep red with tiny black seeds. Flavor is associated with the color of the flesh: whitish dragon fruit often has a mild taste while darker, redder flesh can be sweeter and juicier.
As a relatively new entrant to the U.S. tropical fruit landscape, there is still uncertainty about which varieties are optimal for growing domestically. There is ongoing research into varietals with colorful names for the U.S. market, including American Beauty, Armando, Bien Hoa Red, Bien Hoa White, Cebra, Colombiana, Delight, Haley’s Comet, Mexicana, Orejona, Physical Graffiti, Rosa, San Ignacio, Seoul Kitchen, Valdivia Roja, Vietnamese Giant, and Yellow Dragon.
References: Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, University of California, University of Hawaii.
PESTS & DISEASE
As a relatively recent fruit to commercial production in the United States, research into pests and diseases is ongoing.
Thrips can cause serious damage to the outside of the fruit but are currently only found in Florida. The tiny bugs will mark fruit with a stippled pattern that is primarily an aesthetic issue. The leaf-footed bug can be problematic and is commonly found in Colombia, Nicaragua, and Mexico.
Aphids and ants, scale, as well as mealybugs can affect production when not controlled, while birds, snails, and rodents can also disrupt growing. Producers in Australia use netting to protect ripening fruit from birds.
Soft rot can affect stems, and a calcium deficiency has been linked to worsening of this condition in Mexico. Other damage includes the root system when accompanied by other injuries such as sunburn or other opportunistic diseases. Careful pruning and spraying with copper sulfate can help.
Cactus virus X can result in reduced growth, such as no new shoots or flowers, enlarged stems, and a darkish-dull green color. Currently, there is no cure and infected plants should be removed.
Other diseases and pathogens include anthracnose, brown spot, canker, and fruit rot.
References: UC Davis Postharvest Technology Center, University of California Cooperative Extension (Ventura County), University of Florida/IFAS Extension, University of Hawaii.