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The Global Garden: Growing pitahaya, or dragon fruit

December 20, 2011 |  9:41 am

Dragon fruit branchI have a fast-growing, gravity-defying pitahaya, or dragon fruit plant. It's a cactus vine with triangular limbs that can put out successive flushes of blooms lasting only one night. If the flowers are fertilized, ripe fruit may appear in four weeks, theoretically.

Mine has yet to bear fruit. When I met Lincoln Heights gardener Anna Thai a few weeks ago, she also said her pitahaya has gotten flowers but no fruit at times. In the garden on the other side of her fence, however, the leggy limbs of her neighbor's pitahaya cascaded from the top like dreadlocks, scarlet fruit ripening on the ends.

“I don’t know why,” she says, somewhat wistfully, staring at the treasure next door. “It’s just one house away.”

Nurseries do have a trick to encourage fruiting, it turns out, but first some background: Dragon fruit got its name after the colonial French imported the low-maintenance, fast-growing plant from the Americas to Southeast Asia in the 1890s.

Beneath the thick, slightly rubbery husk is kiwi-like flesh that varies from acidic and sour to sweet. Some say the colorful cultivars, especially the pink-flesh variety from Nicaragua, are the best. For the lunar new year, the white-fleshed Vietnamese fruit is often placed on altars.

Dragon fruit cut
Dragon fruit used to be seen at farmers markets or in Chinatown groceries, but these days you'll also see it at Whole Foods.

Dragon fruit plantAt the pitahaya experimental farm at the UC South Coast Research and Extension Center in Irvine, small farm advisor Ramiro Lobo has about 500 dragon fruit plants on a half acre. He selected some varieties that are self-fertilizing and some that require cross pollination, looking for data on which of the 19 will fruit best in local conditions, under full sun and with no hand pollination. Lobo sees the first flush of blooms in April and says some varieties have fruit now.

At the seventh annual Pitahiya Festival in August, more than 100 enthusiasts came to Irvine for tastings and plants. The UC center often makes cuttings available to gardeners, and backyard growers sometimes report back on their success or failure, providing anecdotal information for Lobo’s growing database.

Now is the time to be making cuttings for propagation, he said. Cut at the lobe, ideally with 18 inches of the plant branch, or tube. Let this scar over for a week or so. Then plant it upright in a 50-50 mix of potting soil and perlite, and keep the mix damp but not wet. Lobo clips off the first new shoots that appear after potting, encouraging growth at the roots instead. Potting cuttings should be kept protected from sunburn and frost until transplanting in spring. A plant started now could have fruit a year after it goes into the ground.

Don’t expect to find a fruiting plant in a nursery. “Whenever we get a plant with fruit on it, the buyer gets it right away,” said Gilbert Guyenne, founder of Mimosa Nursery in East Los Angeles. “At Chinese New Year’s they will have a very high price.”

And that trick for getting more fruit? If you have a self-fertilizing variety, prevent pollen from getting blown away when the flower opens. Once the petals spread, wrap a rubber band around the top of the flower, trapping the pollen inside.

-- Jeff Spurrier

UPDATED: Follow-up post includes another source for pitahaya as well as pictures of the fruit in yellow.

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Dragon fruit covers a wall at Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca, the botanical garden in Oaxaca, Mexico.


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Photos: Ann Summa