Mbz1, Wikimedia Commons Contributor
Plant Common Name
Dragon Fruit Cactus, Night-blooming Cactus, Red Pitaya
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The red pitaya or dragon fruit cactus is both a beautiful flowering plant and a source of food. This plant grows in seasonally wet-to-dry, porous soils in tropical forests. Its precise native range is unknown, but possibly from southern Mexico to Costa Rica, and some believe it is also native to the West Indies. It grows either as an epiphyte (on another plant) or in the ground, but always in an organic rich, porous medium. The slender leafless stems flop and clamber as if a vine, gaining support from tree trunks, limbs or garden walls. This species is renowned for its large white nocturnal flowers that are very short-lived. They measure up to 14-inches long (35 cm) by 12-inches wide (30 cm). Following blossoming, the cactus produces edible, scaled fruits with creamy white flesh littered with tiny black seeds. Immature flower buds may also be eaten as a raw or cooked vegetable.
The leathery, fleshy stems are jointed and three ribbed. Tiny spine clusters line the scalloped edges of the stem ribs. There are no leaves, but instead photosynthesis occurs in the green stems. In summertime, large flower buds arise on the stems. Each opens at night and remains open a few hours, releasing perfume to attract bat pollinators. The pale yellow-green bud leaves fold back and look like petals surrounding the true white petals. The flower center is full of golden yellow stamens. The oval fruit - called pitaya or strawberry pear - that follows weeks later is vibrant red and edible.
The dragon fruit cactus is fairly sensitive to cold, but definitely more tolerant of frosts than Hylocereus costaricensis. Plant it in nearly full sun to dappled partial sun. The soil must be porous and contain organic matter. Water and fertilize in the heat of summer, but reduce watering in winter to keep the soil barely moist. It's possible to get repeated flowering flushes across the year. A two-month-long dry season followed with warmth and rains can coax reblooming, although somewhat tricky to do.
Dragon fruit cactus isn't a plant for hot, bone dry conditions. In tropical regions where it's constantly hot, humid and rainy, flowering is reduced and fruit development inhibited. This night-blooming cactus is a stunning specimen for a large tree trunk base or sturdy masonry garden wall. It may be planted in containers, but the floppy stems and overall size makes it difficult to manage, even if in a greenhouse. Use cactus or epiphyte soil media mixed with compost if container culture is used.