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Growing dragon fruit

November 20, 2011
By JOYCE COMINGORE - Garden Club of Cape Coral , Cape Coral Daily Breeze


Garden Club of Cape Coral

Ahhhhh! Listen to the music of the night! It sharpens, heightens sensations, awakens and stirs your imagination. The "phantom bloom of the night opera" is Hylocereus undatus. It is called strawberry pear, dragon fruit, night blooming cereus, pitaya and is from the Cactaceae family. Pitaya is both the name of a fruit and the plant, a perennial, epiphytic, climbing cactus with triangular, succulent jointed stems.

These wavy, green, scalloped stem segments can grow 20 feet long. Epiphytic aerial roots grow from under the stems, anchoring it to rocks, trees and walls as it climbs. In the darkness of the night, a large bell-shaped, one-foot long and nine-inch wide greenish white bloom unfurls its splendor, then wilts when morning comes. Sweet intoxication, such fragrance fills the night.

Pitaya originated on the Pacific side of Tropical America, and is cultivated throughout the tropical lowlands. According to Aztec history, they date back to the 13th century. Pitaya prefers a filtered light habitat and a warm, moist climate with rich organic soil. It cannot take over 100 degree temperatures, or intense full sun. It recovers rapidly from short exposure to freezes, and requires 25 to 50 inches of rain a year. Excessive rain causes bud drop and fruits to rot. Uneven watering during fruiting results in fruit splitting.

Produced commercially in Vietnam (where it was introduced by the French over 100 years ago), Taiwan, Malaysia and Israel, it is the most important export of Vietnam. Since pre-Columbian times, pitayas have been consumed by the general populations of their native countries. Demand in other countries will grow as people become better acquainted with this highly nutritious and delicious fruit. They look like small, scaly, leathery, 4 1/2-inch footballs, with red or yellow skins, depending on their genus. The sour pitaya is Stenocereus.

The three common varieties of sweet pitayas are Hylocereus costaricensis (has red skin and purple pulp), H. undatus (red skin with white pulp) and H. megalanthus (yellow skin and white pulp). Their creamy pulp with tiny edible seeds like a kiwi, in a delicate aroma fruit, give us a most wonderful way to stay healthy. They contain all necessary and important micro nutrients, fiber, and Vitamin C. plus being low in calories making them useful for weight loss diets.

Because it blooms in the night, it takes creatures of the night to pollinate it. Going batty helps. Bats and moths pollinate the "Queen of the Night" or "Lady of the Night." Flowering happens 3 to 6 times a year. Depending on the weather heat, it takes about 30 to 40 days after pollination, for the ripened fruit to swell and be ready for harvest.

The stem tips need to be in full sun to bloom and fruit well. Watch for signs of ripeness before picking. The skin will be bright red or yellow, and release easily from the vine. It emits a rich fruity, aroma and the fruit will feel tender when squeezed. They store unwashed in the refrigerator; for best eating, serve it cold. Before cutting, wash thoroughly under running water.

Propagation is by seeds or cuttings. If you want to use the seeds in your fruit, put contents into a tea strainer, wash all the gelatinous fruit off because any left on will rot the seeds. Lay the wet seeds out on paper towels to dry. Place the seeds into a container of coarse planting mix and cover with clear plastic wrap or a pane of glass. Place in moderate sunlight until germination in two weeks. Water sparingly and keep dry until they develop a sturdy stem. The only signs of leaves in their life will be the two cotyledons appearing when they first sprout. Remove the plastic cover and repot after several months.

Cuttings are the best way to propagate. Use a whole stem or 8 to 12-inch stem section cut at a slant to insert into the soil. But, first, cure them in a cool, dry area for 5 to 7 days before planting. Mature stems are the best stems for cuttings because they are more resistant to insect and snail damage. They need to climb so provide them something to climb on - a post or trellis.

Now, when I think of trellis, I think lattice, but no, commercially, they take an 8-foot beam, bury it 2 feet, hammer a 3-foot plank across the top and form a T trellis. Have multiple stems spray out from the top.

The vines need STURDY support. They have, also, been grown on the ground as a secondary crop under trees. Harvest fruit when ripened between May and November.

I went to the local grocery store and found cactus pear from the prickly pear cactus, but it is not large scaled like dragon fruit, which I'm told is very expensive. Dragon fruit has caught the attention of Snapple, Tropicana, Hansen and SOBE, they incorporate dragon fruit juice into their bottled drinks.

Recently, The New York Times printed an interesting article about the "Fruit With a Future." This very strange looking fruit is being used by chefs as a sauce in their culinary offerings. This curio is being used by Skyy for their fruit-flavored vodka, Celestial Seasonings began pairing dragon fruit with their green tea, Lite Pom blends dragon fruit with pomegranate juice and there is a pitaya-tinged cream liqueur called Dragon Kiss. The author likens the dragon fruit as arriving with a Hollywood entrance, and as, perhaps, the latest "it" girl. "The power of the music of the night."

Have a filling, happy Thanksgiving and thank a plant for providing our fresh air.

Joyce Comingore ia master gardener, on the National Board Director of the American Hibiscus Society, Arbor Day chairman for the Fort Myers / Lee County Garden Council, Federated Tree chairman for District IX and a member of the Garden Club of Cape Coral.



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