One of the most distinctive flowering fruit trees, the dragon fruit plant is a large climbing specimen that belongs to the cactus family. Producing elongated, thick succulent-like branches it is hard not to notice a dragon fruit plant.
Sometimes called night blooming Cereus, pitaya or strawberry pear, the dragon fruit plant is popular for its sweet tasting fruit. Sweet and juicy, the dense produce can be red or yellow in color. It can be eaten raw, as a snack or in salads, or blended into fruit smoothies.
In addition to producing fabolous edible treats, the dragon fruit plant is also popular for its large, showy blooms. As the name night blooming Cereus suggests, the large, white flowers open as the sun sets, closing again the following morning. Filling the air with a delicate, tropical scent, the flowers last for only one night. An ideal inclusion in a moon garden, these short lived flowers are nothing short of spectacular.
The visual floral attraction and sweet produce has seen the popularity of the dragon fruit plant increase in popularity in recent years. If you want to learn how to add one to your garden, this guide will take you through everything that you need to know.
The showy flower of night blooming Cereus.
Different Types of Dragon Fruit
For home and allotment gardeners there are 3 types of dragon fruit plant suitable for cultivation. These are:
- Hylocereus Undatus is the most commonly grown and consumed variety. The skin of the fruit is red or pink in color and the flesh is white.
- Hylocereus Megalanthus has yellow skin and white flesh. It is thornier than other varieties.
- Hylocereus Costaricensis is identified by its unnatural looking red skin. When cut open the flesh is purple or red in color.
There is another variety, Selenicereus megalanthus, which mainly grows in South America. Difficult to find, Selenicereus megalanthus is not mass produced like other types of dragon fruit. The produce of Selenicereus megalanthus is small and yellow with white flesh.
Every type of dragon fruit plant bears fruit during the hottest part of the year. Typically flowering from July to October, once pollinated the flowers fade away, making room for the developing produce. Interestingly the flowers last for only one night.
Whichever variety you choose to grow, care is largely the same.
Where to Grow a Dragon Fruit Plant
Whilst these flowers are part of the cactus family they do not, like other cacti, thrive in arid, desert conditions. Instead this is a subtropical cactus which is native to Central and South America. This means that the night blooming Cereus thrives in mild, humid environments. Night flowering Cereus flowers are commonly grown throughout many Asian countries such as Thailand, Sri Lanka and Indonesia.
The dragon fruit plant is hardy in USDA Zones 10 and 11. The surrounding temperature should consistently remain between 32 and 90 ℉. For optimal growth, spring and summer temperatures should not drop below 65 ℉.
Growers in cooler conditions are advised to cultivate night blooming Cereus undercover in a large pot in a greenhouse. A mature specimen requires a pot 15 to 24 inches in diameter and 10 to 12 inches deep. This should be filled with a light, well draining general purpose potting soil. While part of the cactus family these specimens should not be planted in a cactus specific potting soil. Cactus soils are too well draining, meaning that the dragon fruit plant is often left thirsty and struggling to absorb enough moisture.
Position your night blooming Cereus flower in a light, sunny position. Ideally they should receive 6 to 8 hours of light every day.
While you can buy a dragon fruit plant from a specialist garden store or nursery there are a number of other options including growing from seed.
Growing a Dragon Fruit Plant from Seed
Growing from seed is the easiest way to start a new specimen. However this is not a quick option. It can take several years of growth before the plant is mature enough to develop edible produce.
To grow a night flowering Cereus from seed all you need is some soil, a pot and some viable seeds. You can either purchase a packet of seeds from a reputable seed company or harvest your own. Seeds are best harvested from ripe, organic produce.
To harvest your own seed, cut a ripe fruit in half and scoop out the black seeds. Place the seeds in a bowl of fresh water to wash away the flesh and pulp. Once the seeds are clean, lay them out to dry on a moist paper towel. Allow the seeds to dry in a safe place for around 12 hours.
As the seeds dry, prepare your germination trays or pots. Fill your chosen container with a light and well draining soil. Do not use a cactus specific soil. While the night flowering Cereus is a member of the cactus family, these are tropical flowers. This means that they require more water than other types of cactus. Cactus specific potting soils are quick to dry meaning that they are unsuitable for these flowers. Night blooming cereus prefers a potting material that retains a little moisture.
Sprinkle the seeds across the soil surface and cover with a thin layer of soil. Don’t plant them too deeply.
Place the pots or tray in a propagator and put in a sunny position. A Bonviee Seed Starter Mini Propagator has a lid with a built in vent, enabling you to control the air temperature around your developing seedlings. For seeds to germinate they require around 6 hours of light every day. If you can’t provide enough natural light, grow lights can also be used.
While the seeds are germinating, ensure that you regularly moisten or mist the soil with a Yebeauty Plant Mister Spray Bottle. Allowing the soil to dry out can cause the seedlings to fail.
Following germination, thin out the seedlings so that they have room to grow. As the seedlings grow, transplant them into individual small pots. Continue to regularly transplant into slightly larger pots until the plants reach their mature size. A mature specimen eventually needs to be planted in a 20 inch wide or 20 gallon pot.
Once the flowers reach 12 inches, install a trellis or stake for it to climb up.
How to Propagate from Cuttings
You can also start a new flower by taking a cutting from a healthy, mature specimen.
To do this use sterilized, sharp garden scissors to cut away a roughly 12 inch long branch. Don’t cut away too large a section. Cutting harshly can stunt the flower’s growth.
Divide the cutting into 3 to 5 similar sized pieces. Each piece can be successfully propagated into a new specimen. Make sure you remember which end of the cutting is the top end and which is the base end. The base end is the end that was closest to the base of the mother plant. This is important when it comes to planting.
While not strictly necessary, some people like to brush a little fungicide onto the cut areas to prevent disease entering the plant and causing the cutting to fail.
Place the cuttings in a warm, dry place to let the cut areas heal. Once the tips, or cut areas, turn white they are ready for planting. The healing process can take 2 to 7 days.
Once the cuts have healed, the cuttings can be planted. Plant each cutting in a small pot filled with fresh, well draining potting soil.
To plant the cuttings, push the base end 1 to 2 inches into the soil. Mound the soil up around the cutting slightly to anchor it into place.
Water or mist the soil regularly. It should remain damp or evenly moist. New growth and roots should develop in 3 to 4 weeks.
General Care and Maintenance
Once established these are easy to care for specimens. As long as they have room to grow, sturdy support and a regular dose of fertilizer, night blooming Cereus specimens quickly start to thrive. If properly cared for one plant can remain productive for up to 30 years.
Watering a Dragon Fruit Plant
Night blooming Cereus specimens require regular water. Getting this right can be more difficult than it sounds. The soil should be neither too wet or allowed to completely dry out. Prone to issues such as root rot, night blooming Cereus struggles in overly wet soil.
Aim to keep the soil evenly moist, watering only when the top layer of soil starts to dry out. If you struggle to know when to water sensitive flowers, a soil moisture sensor is a useful investment.
Once established these are drought tolerant flowers. If you are growing the night flowering Cereus for its produce, it requires more regular watering than those being grown for purely ornamental purposes.
How to Fertilize a Dragon Fruit Plant
How much and when you fertilizer your dragon fruit plant depends on its age and position. If you are cultivating the dragon fruit plant for its produce, it requires heavy, regular feeding.
For specimens one year old or younger, do not fertilize for one month after transplanting. This gives them time to settle in their new position.
Once the young dragon fruit plant is settled, apply a balanced fertilizer once every one to two months. This can begin as soon as growth emerges in early spring.
Continue to feed young specimens on a regular basis until they enter the dormant, winter period. If you are using a granular fertilizer, scatter 4 ounces evenly over the soil, starting 3 inches from the stem. Continue to spread the fertilizer evenly over the soil until you are roughly 12 inches from the stem. Water in well.
During the summer months your fertilization routine can be complimented by a good application of well-decomposed manure or compost. Around 4 pounds is plenty. When applying the manure or compost layer, make sure that it doesn’t contact the stem.
Regular fertilization encourages lots of buds to form.
In their second and third year, the roots of the dragon fruit plant are more established and more efficient at harvesting nutrients from the soil. They also grow more quickly. This all means that the flowers need more fertilization in order to stay healthy and sustain their sprawling growth habit.
Apply 6 to 8 ounces of fertilizer over a 12 to 18 inch diameter evenly around the main stem. The amount of manure or compost you apply can also be increased to 6 pounds. Begin fertilizing in the spring, as soon as new growth emerges and cease in the fall, once flowering has finished for the year.
Once the dragon fruit plant is 4 years old it should have attained its full, mature size. This means that it is not growing as actively as it did in previous years. This in turn means that you can decrease the amount of fertilizer you apply.
Give each flower 3 to 4 doses of fertilizer evenly throughout the growing season. Apply a regular 8 to 12 ounces dose of fertilizer, the exact amount depends on the size of the plant. To complement this, work a 5 pound layer of manure or compost into the soil in the spring. This can be repeated in mid-summer.
Worm castings can also be applied to help bolster these heavy feeding specimens.
If you are growing a dragon fruit plant purely as an ornamental specimen, the flower does not require as much fertilizer. A water soluble, balanced fertilizer or homemade liquid fertilizer can be soaked into the soil in the spring and repeated once flowering has finished.
When to Prune
Specimens that are being cultivated for their edible produce, and are therefore being regularly fertilized, require more regular pruning than purely ornamental specimens.
Wait until your night blooming Cereus is tall and mature before starting to prune it. Refrain from pruning young, developing specimens. Instead train their growth to encourage the dragon fruit plant to develop a healthy, spreading shape. While the flowers are growing and developing the only time that you should prune them is to remove any dead or diseased foliage.
When the specimens are mature enough, start pruning by cutting away excess branches, thinning out any overly congested areas. Next, pinch out any excess suckers. This helps to control the growth habit and shape of the specimen. Pinching out also helps the stems and branches to become stronger and promotes flowering.
Damaged or diseased stems and foliage should be pruned away as soon as you notice them regardless of the age of the dragon fruit plant.
Most pruning can be done after the night blooming Cereus has finished flowering and fruiting for the year. This is usually in the fall. However young shoots and suckers can be pruned away earlier in the year, whilst the flowers are developing. Removing suckers at this stage encourages the specimen to focus its energy on flowering and fruiting.
How to Pollinate
Flowers must be pollinated before produce can start to form. While some types of dragon fruit plant are self-pollinating, other varieties require cross pollination. Some types are also self-sterile. Remember to check how your dragon fruit plant is pollinated before you make your purchase.
The flowers of night blooming Cereus open at night and close in the early morning. This means that they are largely pollinated by nocturnal pollinators such as bats and moths. Bees and ants can also pollinate the open flowers. If you want to guarantee fruits, you may need to hand pollinate the flowers.
Self-pollinating types have short stigmas that are close to the anthers. No hand pollination is required. However choosing to hand pollinate the flowers can help to increase the size and yield of your yield.
Self-fertile types have a longer stigma than self-pollinating cultivars. This means that the flower benefits from a little assistance, especially if you are growing indoors.
To hand pollinate the dragon fruit flower, swirl a clean Gmark Wooden Cotton Swab or small paintbrush around the middle of the open flower. This process collects the pollen present in the flower. Brush the collected pollen onto the stigma of the same bloom. If you aren’t sure the stigma is the tall, branching part in the middle of the flower.
Self-sterile types, also known as cross-pollinating varieties, have a long stigma that sticks out away from the anthers. To pollinate these flowers you need to collect pollen from another flower and cross pollinate. This process is further complicated by the fact that the flowers of different varieties may not all open on the same night. You can store dried pollen in tubes in ziplock bags in the refrigerator until you are ready to use it. Remember to label and date each bag.
In short, if you are growing for produce, self-pollinating types are the easiest, and less labor intensive than self-fertile and self-sterile types to successfully cultivate.
How to Harvest Dragon Fruit
A distinctive specimen, the produce of the dragon fruit is just as visually attractive as the showy flowers. It is also a surprisingly healthy snack. Sweet and tasty, the produce of these specimens is rich in both antioxidants and carotene, which has anti-carcinogenic properties. They also contain lots of vitamins including Vitamin C. Finally, regularly eating dragon fruit has also been shown to help improve the metabolism and digestive system.
Ripe dragon fruit is easy to harvest. As it matures or ripens the color becomes richer and the wings, or flaps of skin, start to wither.
When it is ripe you can remove the produce from the stem by gently twisting it. A ripe dragon fruit easily parts from the stem.
Ripe produce is rich in color and easily parts from the stem.
Produce that remains on the stem for too long or drops from to the ground is probably overripe and not as flavorsome.
Best used fresh, unpeeled produce lasts several days or up to 2 weeks in the refrigerator.
Common Pests and Problems
A largely problem free flower, aphids and mealybugs can sometimes target night blooming Cereus flowers. If allowed to, these pests drain the sweet sap away from the stem. In some cases, aphid infestations can also draw ants to the flowers. Regularly inspect your flowers for signs of infestation. Any pests that are present can be removed by wiping the leaves and stem with an application of neem oil or homemade insecticidal soap.
Ants can be drawn to the sweet sap which aphid infestations can expose.
Mites and thrips can also target the flowers and foliage. While these insects aren’t lethal their continued presence can negatively affect the health of the dragon fruit plant. Again, infestations can be treated with a dose of insecticidal soap or blasted away with a garden hose.
Orange-red spots, known as Dragon Spots, occurring on stems and leaves are a sign that your dragon fruit plant has developed a bacterial infection. These can lead to other issues such as soft stem rot from developing. Easier to prevent than cure, most bacterial infections are spread between flowers or fruiting specimens by dirty tools. Make sure you clean and sterilize your garden tools after each use.
Anthracnose is a common fungal disease which causes halo-like lesions to form on both the stem and flower. Similarly, the pathogen Bipoaris cactivora causes brown or black spots to develop on the foliage or flower. Severe infections may spread to other parts of the flower. Affected areas should be cut away and destroyed before the disease can spread to the entire specimen.
Botryosphaeria dothidea is a fungal infection which causes blotchy red-brown lesions to form on the stem. Similar in appearance to a bull’s eye target this disease can be spread between flowers by using dirty or unsterile tools.
Should a fungal problem develop, an application of copper fungicide can be used to treat the issue.
The leaves and stems should be green and healthy. Many diseases and infections cause unsightly spots and blemishes to develop on the foliage.
Affecting the foliage, sunburn can occur during the warmest months. It is particularly common on young leaves, especially if they are in direct sunlight. Providing your pitaya with a little shade during the hottest part of the day helps to prevent this issue. If your growing position has no natural shade, a Garden Expert Shade Cloth can be used. These durable shade cloths block out direct light, protecting sensitive flowers, whilst still allowing moisture and indirect light through.
While growing specimens require regular watering, the dragon fruit plant does not like to sit in wet soil. Issues like root rot can develop if the flowers are consistently overwatered. A soil moisture meter is a useful investment if you struggle to gauge how wet your soil is.
Unique and distinctive, the night flowering Cereus is an impressive addition to the garden. The large flowers open at night, providing interest in the garden as the sun sets. Ideal for warm gardens and greenhouses, why not add a dragon fruit plant to your collection?
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.