The spiky appearance of cacti makes them appear as dangerous plants. In fact, this is one of their defense mechanisms—to drive away most animals that will attempt to consume them.
But because people are adventurous, and we have a need to survive, the cacti group is explored for their digestible properties.
Several cacti species actually offer edible parts which are used in many delectable dishes today, the most popular one being the Dragon Fruit cactus.
This cactus not only provides food but ornamental and functional purposes in the landscape too. If you are looking for a plant to add to your edible landscape or your cacti collection at home, this special cactus is for you.
What is a Dragon Fruit Cactus?
The Dragon Fruit cactus may sound mythical, but it actually exists and originated from Central America and northern South America. It is scientifically called Hylocereus undatus and is one of the few cacti that are both epiphytic and terrestrial (1).
The plant got its common name from the scaly appearance of the pink, red, peach, sometimes yellow fruit that can weigh up to 2 pounds (0.9 kg).
The edible fruit makes this cactus popular around the world, and it goes by other names such as pitaya, night-blooming cereus, belle of the night, selenicereus undatus, the white-fleshed pitahaya, etc…
This cactus has 3-sided succulent jointed stems with small spikes running down the edges and fibrous aerial roots that allow the plant to cling to surfaces (2).
Despite the sprawling habit, each plant can reach an impressive height of 30 feet (9.1 m) with the support of trees, shrubs, and rocks in the wild.
Hylocereus undatus is considered the showiest cactus because, in summer, it produces 12 in (30 cm) fragrant flowers with white petals, large yellow stigma, and many stamens. The massive flower is night-blooming and lasts only from dusk until dawn but once pollinated, it turns into a 4 to 6 in (10 to 15 cm) exotic scaly fruit with thick white pulp inside full of tiny black seeds (3).
How to Grow and Care for Dragon Fruit Plant
Pitayas mature well with bright sunlight, but they can grow in semi-shade too. Like a tropical vine under a canopy, they would climb up trees for good sun exposure. They even form colonies and because of the weight of their fleshy stems, they can even bring trees down.
As an epiphytic cactus, this plant does not need lots of water. Because it harnesses moisture mostly from the air, a good regular misting or spraying of water is enough. When grown in the soil, the plant will benefit from free-draining compost with about 10 to 30% sandy soils. It is also tolerant of salt in gardens by the seashore (1).
Dragon Fruit cactus’ growing conditions should be kept on the dry side during winter as too much moisture leads to rotting. It is not tolerant of frost, requiring an optimum temperature of 68 to 86 °F (20 to 30 °C). Pitayas will not bear fruit under temperatures lower than this (2).
Pests and Diseases
Dragon Fruit cacti are susceptible to pests common to all fleshy plants. Sucking insects like mealybugs, aphids, and scales are often seen on the stems and fruits of those grown indoors.
They should be treated with mild soap solutions or diluted alcohol as soon as the pests are observed.
Plants grown for food, especially on a large scale, are prone to thrips. An environmental approach to managing these by most farmers is through the use of the pest’s natural enemies like ladybugs and lacewing larvae. These insects are more beneficial than harmful and have been used as biocontrol agents in agriculture (4).
Propagation and Maintenance
Propagating a Belle of the Night plant is the same as propagating most branching cacti, through seeds and cuttings. Although cuttings are preferred over seeds because they don’t take long to produce an established, rooted plant and also possess the characteristics of the mother plant (5).
Cuttings are collected from the branching stems, usually 4 to 8 in (10 to 20 cm) in length.
After allowing the cuttings to heal in 1 to 2 days, they are planted in a potting mixture of 1 part dry cow dung, 1 part compost, and 2 parts sand. Placing the newly potted plants under shade will allow them to root fast.
It can take several months to a year for a cutting obtained from a mature plant to start fruiting. While the plant grows, stakes must be installed to help train the growth of the plant.
A Dragon Fruit tree tends to be heavy because of the stems and the fruits, so a common practice among growers is tying immature stems to a wooden or concrete column so that the growing aerial roots will eventually anchor on the support.
A complete fertilizer is also recommended during the early stage of the plant’s growth, usually before they start flowering. For pitayas grown farmed for fruits, fertilizers low in nitrogen and high in potassium are recommended to promote fruit development (5).
Edible and Landscape Uses
The Dragon Fruit may have originated in the Americas, but they are now widely commercialized throughout Asia and Europe where the climates are accommodating.
The majority of its cultivation is for the production of decorative and edible fruit. The flesh can be eaten raw or turned into liqueur and even ice cream. The dried flowers are also eaten as vegetables in places like Taiwan (Herbaria).
As an ornamental plant, the Hylocereus undatus is an extremely unruly plant that may or may not appeal to houseplant growers. But they make excellent hedges or foundation plants in the American landscape, serving as a protective barrier with character (6).
The plant is also commonly used as rootstock when grafting other cacti. The popular “moon cactus” is a combination of Hylocereus and Gymnocalycium.
(1) Wyman, D. Wymans’s Gardening Encyclopedia. Simon and Schuster. 1986. P. 1221.
(2) Bagnasco, J. & Redmuiller, B. Jr. Succulents: Choosing, Growing, and Caring for Cactuses and other Succulents. Cool Springs Press. 2019. P. 208.
(3) Friend, L. Hylocereus undatus (Haw.) Britton & Rose (Cactaceae). Department of Plant Science, University of Oxford. 2002 (online) https://herbaria.plants.ox.ac.uk/bol/plants400/Profiles/GH/Hylocereus.
(4) Carillo, D., et al. Pitaya (Dragon Fruit) (Hylocereus undatus) Pests and Beneficial Insects. University of Florida. 2019. (online) https://trec.ifas.ufl.edu/media/trecifasufledu/public-notices/Pitaya-EDIS.pdf.
(5) Sri Lanka Department of Agriculture. Dragon Fruit-Hylocereus undatus. Fruit Crops Research and Development Centre. (online) https://www.doa.gov.lk/FCRDC/index.php/en/2015-09-22-05-59-43/54-sd.
(6) Lawrence, E. Beautiful at All Seasons: Southern Gardening and Beyond. Duke University Press. 2007. P. 238.
(7) Rojas-Sandoval, J. Hylocereus undatus (dragon fruit). Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History. 2016. (online) https://www.cabi.org/isc/datasheet/27317.
*photo by kefirm/depositphotos