Dragon Fruit Experiences and Smoke Trees

Imagine a cactus that grows rapidly in ordinary garden soil and whose luscious fruit are on sale at the supermarket for $4.99 per pound. Would you want to try to grow that cactus?

flower that precedes dragon fruit, photo by Clothilde Dvoran

I recently wrote about this plant and the dragon fruit that adorns its flattened tripartite stems. Thanks to your responses and the growing experiences that you shared, my knowledge of both fruit and plant has expanded considerably.

Let’s start with Clotilde Dvoran, who gardens in Moreno Valley, just east of Riverside.  A year and a half ago, she planted cuttings of a dragon fruit cactus that were one foot in length.  Today, those cuttings have grown into a plant that is six feet in height, reaching to the top of a cinder block wall.

“Once the dragon (cutting or clipping) takes root,” she explained,  “it takes off and goes and goes and doesn’t know when to stop growing. I keep cutting it back and dip the removed clippings in root hormone powder before planting them.  I plant four clippings per pot and give them to friends and family members.”

Dvoran demonstrates the generosity of plant lovers.  There is nothing we would rather do than share the wealth when it comes to our botanical treasures.  We will happily give away clippings and seeds of our favorite species to whoever crosses our path.  After all, our mission is to beautify and fructify the world around us, a task that never ends.

May Cheng, in San Clemente, has her dragon fruit growing recumbently on the side of a slope.  The heat wave of July fried the flowers — which are among the largest, up to 12 inches across, in the plant world — before they could turn into fruit, but soon thereafter more flowers appeared.  Several flowering and fruiting cycles occur each year.

Harold Lee, in Mission Viejo, has his dragon fruit cactuses growing out of containers at the base of a folding, easel-like lattice upon which they have clambered to a height of seven feet.  Lee recommends the following maintenance regime, based on his own success:  “Don’t water them too much, even on hot summer days, and fertilize them with a little chicken manure once a month.”

organ pipe cactus, photo by Anne Hinkey

Anne Hinkey, in Huntington Beach, has an organ pipe cactus, probably Cereus peruviana, that has baseball shaped magenta fruit which, when cut open, have the same white flesh and tiny black seeds as the vining dragon fruit mentioned above.  “It’s been quite the conversation piece,” Hinkey wrote.  “We’ve had people knocking on the door, asking for the fruit.  As to taste,” Hinkey continued, “everyone who has tried it, likes it,” although “it’s not real sweet.”

Fruit on organ pipe cactus is properly called “pitaya,” while dragon fruit on vining cactus is distinguished from it with the name “pitahaya.”

If you are interested in learning more about growing these and other exotic fruits, you might wish to connect with California Rare Fruit Growers, an organization with several chapters in the Los Angeles area.  Contact them through the web site atcrfg.org.

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Plant lovers are blessed (cursed?) with the inability to drive by seldom seen trees, shrubs, or flowers.  We always stop to take a second look, even at the price of imperiling ourselves by having to suddenly swerve to the side of the road.

Five years ago, in two Valley locations about 10 minutes apart – in front of a hotel on the corner of Ventura Boulevard and Orion Avenue in Sherman Oaks and in front of an apartment building on the corner of Burbank Boulevard and Vesper Avenue in Van Nuys – I had to stop and take a closer look at newly planted smoke trees (Cotinus coggygria).  Five years later, those specimens have been transformed into handsome domes of bronzish-purple foliage.  As the weather cools, that foliage will change to orange red and gold before dropping off.

Tip of the Week:  Smoke trees, so-called because of faded flowers that resemble puffs of smoke, are moderately sized, reaching a maximum height of thirty feet.  Given enough room to grow, they should never need to be pruned as they keep their natural, symmetrical shape from year to year.  Trimming, which may eventually be necessary on sites where growth over sidewalks, entryways, or roof lines may occur, should be done with long sleeves and gloves since smoke trees are in the same family as poison ivy and poison oak and their sap is dermatitic to some people.

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