They are the most amazing looking fruits. Large, deep pink orbs covered in green scales—no wonder their nickname is “dragon fruit,” a term that comes from Vietnam, where the fruits were introduced in the late 1800s. In their native tropical Central and South America, however, these fruits are called pitaya, which is the term for all cactus fruits, or pitajaya, the name for this particular cactus fruit.
The fruits of this climbing, epiphytic cactus start out as gigantic, fragrant white flowers that open for just one night, and close as the sun climbs in the sky. In their native habitats, moths and bats pollinate the flowers. Here in San Diego, bees can do that job, but many growers prefer to do it themselves. They use a makeup brush to move the white powdery pollen from the male parts of the flowers to the female parts.
Pitajaya are very easy to grow. Their bright green succulent stems do best in full sun and well-draining soil, with minimal irrigation, something sturdy for support—a post, a wall, even a tree—and the long vines pruned short so fruits develop within easy reach. Plants flower in cycles from May to November, depending on the variety. Six weeks after pollination, the fruits are ready for harvest.
Ripe dragon fruits weigh between half a pound to more than three pounds. Their skin gives slightly to the touch, and the fruits feel very heavy in your hand. Slice a pitajaya open to reveal the color of its flesh, from white to hot magenta and studded with tiny black seeds.
The tastiest varieties are the brightest pink to deepest magenta colored. They are sweet, juicy, fragrant, crunchy (from the seeds), and absolutely delicious. They also pack a nutritional punch as a high-fiber and antioxidant-rich food.
Most often, we eat the fruits fresh, sliced in fruit salad, as a garnish, in smoothies, and even combined with lime juice and ice for agua frescas. Dragon fruit makes surprisingly good sorbets and ice creams. In Florida, daring chefs chop dragon fruit into ceviche. One of my favorite breakfasts is sliced dragon fruit with cottage cheese—yum!
Increasingly, San Diego home gardeners grow pitajaya in frost-free backyards. Today, just three or four farms in north San Diego County grow commercial crops. Expect that number to increase as farmers look to move from thirsty crops like avocados and citrus to crops that need less water.
While the high-touch nature of growing dragon fruit makes the fruits expensive at local farmers’ markets and specialty retailers, just one taste tells you they are worth every penny.