It’s about time you considered growing dragon fruit, also known as pitaya.
Although dragon fruit is native to the Central American and South American tropics, I have seen it growing in the San Fernando Valley and have just received pictorial evidence, courtesy of Ronald Chong, that it thrives in Hacidena Heights, in the San Gabriel Valley, as well. Of course, this second dragon fruit location should not have come as a surprise since the San Gabriel Valley has a more hospitable climate, when it comes to growing tropicals, than the San Fernando Valley, whose hot and cold extremes are more severe than anywhere else in the Los Angeles area.
My first exposure to dragon fruit was through David Silber, founder of Papaya Tree Nursery in Granada Hills. Silber’s plant was vining its way up an olive tree, having found a suitable microclimate for its growth, where it was protected from both extreme heat and extreme cold. (Four dragon fruit varieties are available at the nursery. Go to papayatreenursery.com for details.) Although dragon fruit cannot survive temperatures below 32 degrees — and Granada Hills experiences its fair share of those — for very long, the evergreen foliage of the olive tree would serve admirably as a protective blanket on cold winter nights.
An overhead covering of any kind, from leaves and branches to awnings, raises the temperature underneath on frosty nights by several critical degrees. If you have a cold sensitive plant that is growing out in the open without overhead protection, the simplest way to shield it from winter cold is to cover it in burlap or even an old blanket just after you finish dinner and then remove it the next morning.
The cactus on which dragon fruit grow is more sensitive to dry summer heat than the average cactus. You may have to water it two or three times a week, especially when it is young. In our hot valleys, it is advisable to plant it in a location where it gets a limited dose of afternoon summer sun.
The succulent stems to which dragon fruit are attached will remind you of an orchid cactus (Epiphyllum spp.), that gorgeously flowered succulent invariably grown as a container specimen. The difference is that the dragon fruit cactus, while container friendly, is also suitable for growing as a vine at the base of a tree or of a chain link fence, as a climber up a trellis, as a subject for espalier, or as a stand alone tree. As a tree, it has a whimsical look, reminding you of an amusement park ride where passengers are seated at the ends of long arms emanating from a central point only here botanical travelers (i.e. dragon fruit) are hanging onto dangling cactus arms.
Two types of dragon fruit are grown. Hylocereus species, which have smooth red, pink, magenta or white skin and yellow-skinned ones (Selenicereus megalanthus), which are spiny, like a pineapple. Hylocereus may have white, pink, or red pulp inside while Selenicereus has white pulp only. Both are full of tiny jet black seeds, like those you encounter in kiwi fruit, adding crunch to the texture of the pulp, which is also reminiscent of a kiwi.
There are complaints that the taste of Hylocereus dragon fruit lacks sweetness. To ameliorate this situation somewhat, refrigerate Hylocereus fruit — whose flavor qualifies it as “an acquired taste” — before consumption. Selenicereus dragon fruit, however, are considerably sweeter and, as a bonus, the flowers that precede the thorny, yellow fruit are among the largest of all cactus blossoms.
Propagation of a dragon fruit cactus plant is easy. Making cuts at a 45 degree angle, detach 6-12 inch long segments from year old growth. Dip the bottom ends of the cut segments in rooting hormone that contains a fungicide. Leave the segments alone in a cool, dry place with good air circulation for one week. Dip the segments in root hormone again before placing them in potting medium or directly into the ground where soil drains well. You can acquire cut dragon fruit cactus segments from a variety of Internet vendors.
Tip of the Week: Most people know that drip irrigation saves water but it also makes plants grow faster than when they are watered by overhead sprinklers or even by hand with one of those shower head hose attachments. The reason is that the leaves of many plants cover their roots, effectively blocking overhead spray from reaching them adequately. In addition, an onion shaped, moisture retentive wet spot is created under each drip irrigation emitter. As the water in that wet spot moves up the soil profile through capillary action after that day’s watering cycle is complete, every molecule of stored irrigation water goes directly to the roots. This water is either absorbed by roots or just bathes and keeps them cool, accelerating plant growth in the process.