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 paniniokapunahou 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 dragon fruit species are grown around the world: Vietnam primarily grows fruit with bright pink skin and white flesh, while Nicaragua and Ecuador grow 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.
Types & Varieties
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, such as 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.
Growing well in tropical lowlands, the perennial dragon fruit is a type of climbing cactus plant that can live up to two decades. The semi-spiny plant can have long, fleshy, triangular stem segments that should be pruned regularly. Commercial orchards need a trellising system to support the plant’s vertical growth and aerial roots.
Pitaya fruits within one year, during the summer months and into the fall (June to October). It can be harvested 30 to 50 days after fruit set. As a night bloomer, the plant has yellowish-green fragrant flowers that open early in the evening and wilt by daybreak due to light and temperature. Moths and bats can pollinate the flowers, but hand pollination is sometimes necessary due to cultivar.
Plants prefer a moist, warm climate and rich soil, and are desirable for their drought tolerance, often needing only 25 to 50 inches of water per year. Uneven soil moisture, however, can lead to less flowering or fruit splitting, while excessive rain can result in flower drop and fruit rot.
Plants prefer ample sunlight, though too much sun can damage stems if combined with low humidity or inadequate moisture in the soil. Not enough sun can lead to lower quality fruit and reduced production. Falling temperatures are dangerous too, as plants are sensitive to cold, but can recover from brief exposure to freezing temperatures.
While most dragon fruit is harvested between June and October, the season can be extended by supplemental light from incandescent bulbs in some regions. Added light induces the plant to keep flowering. Depending on variety, it is best to hand-clip fruit at harvest when well-colored from yellow or pink to red.