Dragon fruit is an exotic cactus that’s just as impressive for its nutritional benefits as it is for its aesthetic appeal. While this heat-loving plant is native to Mexico and Central and South America, it’s also grown in several Southeast Asian countries and can survive year-round in U.S. Department of Agriculture Hardiness Zones 10 and 11.1
In other southern areas of the U.S., including zone 9, dragon fruit can be grown in pots on a patio, but must be protected from cold temperatures.
One of the most impressive aspects of dragon fruit cacti are its large flowers, which can grow to be more than 20 centimeters (nearly 8 inches) wide.2 The blooms open in the evening and last just one night, which is why dragon fruit plants are sometimes referred to as belle of the night and night-blooming cereus.
Viewing the striking flowers is just one treat of growing dragon fruit, as the fruit itself will reward you with delightful flavor and numerous health benefits, making this one plant well worth adding to your garden.
The fruit of the dragon fruit cactus can be red, pink or yellow in color, with soft spikes on the outside and scale-like leaves, similar to artichokes. Cut open the fruit, and you’ll see white or red flesh peppered with tiny black seeds. The flavor is often described as a mix between kiwi, strawberry and pear, and sometimes it’s even called a strawberry pear.
You can eat it on its own as you would other fruit, or add it to fruit salads, smoothies, drinks and desserts. Just cut the fruit in half and scoop it out with a spoon, or peel off the leathery skin and slice the flesh. The seeds are edible and are eaten with the fruit, similar to a kiwi.
The growing season for this tempting fruit peaks in the summer but the season extends through early autumn. Be aware that ripeness can affect the fruit’s flavor; the riper the fruit, the sweeter it will typically be.
If you’re choosing dragon fruit at your supermarket, it will give slightly if you press the skin when it’s ripe, but it shouldn’t be overly soft nor too firm, similar to an avocado.
Leave it, uncut, on your counter for a few days, then store it in your refrigerator in a sealed container, to protect it from picking up odors from other food.3 You can also find frozen dragon fruit in some grocery store freezer sections.
When picking dragon fruit from your garden, it can take about 30 days to become fully ripe. Dragon fruits are green in color while they grow, but their skin will turn a bright pink or yellow color when it’s ready to be picked.
Dragon fruit is an antioxidant powerhouse, high in vitamin C and containing antioxidants that could help prevent inflammatory diseases such as gout and arthritis.4 As for as nutrients, it contains a wide range, including:5
While the peel of dragon fruit has higher flavonoid and polyphenol concentrations than the flesh, both have shown promise for antioxidant and even anticancer activities.6 Dragon fruit also contains lycopene, a powerful antioxidant that gives the fruit its red color and decreases your risk of cancer and heart disease.7
Some research suggests dragon fruit also has an antidiabetic effect, and may have a favorable effect on blood sugar control in prediabetes and Type 2 diabetes.8 Dragon fruit juice has even been found to improve insulin resistance in obese mice.9
What’s more, dragon fruit is not only high in fiber but also contains oligosaccharides, which act as prebiotics. Prebiotics help to nourish beneficial bacteria in your gut and the oligosaccharides in dragon fruit may improve gut health by “selectively stimulating” the microbiota in your colon.10
Dragon fruit may have heart benefits as well, as its been shown to decrease aortic stiffness in animal studies, including in diabetic rats.11 Arteries tend to stiffen as people age, leading to an increased heart disease risk, but for people who are obese or have Type 2 diabetes, the process starts sooner and the consequences are often worse.
Adding more whole foods like dragon fruit to your diet is one way to provide your body with nutrients that can ward off many chronic diseases and slow down age-related changes.
When choosing a dragon fruit variety, be aware that not all of them are self-pollinating. In some plants, the flowers, while in bloom, are pollinated during the night by moths and bats, which allows the plant to bear fruit about six times a year.12 Other dragon fruits require a second plant for pollination or need to be pollinated by hand for best fruit production.
The simplest way to ensure your dragon fruit plant bears fruit is to choose a self-pollinating variety, which requires no human intervention. While it’s possible to grow dragon fruit from seed, it will take a few years before it grows fruit, which is why starting from a cutting is recommended. There are three types of dragon fruit:13
- Hylocereus megalanthus — This type has white fruit flesh and yellow skin.
- Hylocereus undatus — This type has white flesh and red skin.
- Hylocereus costaricensis — This type has both red flesh and red skin. The red flesh is said to have a somewhat more intense flavor than the white-fleshed varieties.
You’ll next need to choose where to plant it. Dragon fruit is a climbing cactus, which means it will need a trellis or other form of support to cling to, and if you live in an area that gets cooler temperatures, you may want to consider planting it in a pot that can be taken inside during cold weather.
Dragon fruits like sunny spots with soil that drains easily. Too much water can rot the roots, which is why clay soils are not ideal for these plants; sandy soil is preferred. Once the flowers set fruit, keep soil moisture even, as cycling between dry and wet soils may cause the fruit to split open.14
One way to keep soil well drained is to plant it in a raised mound, about a foot high and composed of soil and compost. You’ll want to add mulch once planted, which will help to protect the plant’s shallow roots, but be sure to keep it away from the base of the plant to avoid fungus growth and rot.15,16
If planting in a container, choose a pot that’s about 5 or 10 gallons in size with drain holes; a mature dragon fruit plant will need a larger, 25 to 30-gallon pot. Use a sandy soil made for cactus plants. As the plant grows, it will produce aerial roots from its branches that will climb, so it will need to be trained, similar to grape vines, although it can also be trained to grow up a wall, trellis or arbor.
You’ll need to prune the plant by removing decaying, overcrowded or dead stems; left to its own devices, dragon fruits can become quite large, reaching up to 20 feet tall.
Pests and diseases (aside from fungal diseases due to overwatering) are not especially problematic for dragon fruit plants, but aphids sometimes feed on young shoots and flower buds.17 Also keep a close eye on fruits, which are sometimes loved by ants.
Temperature wise, dragon fruits do best between 65 and 85 degrees F (about 18 to 29 degrees C).18 If it’s significantly warmer than this, your dragon fruit may require some shade in order to tolerate the heat, but generally speaking they require six to eight hours of sun daily. Too much shade can interfere with proper fruit growth.
As for freezing temperatures, these will kill a dragon fruit plant (anything below 32 degrees F (0 degrees C) should be considered potentially fatal), although they can tolerate brief cold snaps. If you live in a region with temperatures that drop below freezing, be prepared to bring the plant indoors during the winter.
When well cared for, a dragon fruit plant will continue producing fruit for two or three decades,19 so your work will pay off in a bountiful and long-lasting harvest.
If you’re new to dragon fruit, don’t be intimidated by its thorny-appearing exterior and sometimes shockingly red flesh. The mild, delicate flavor of dragon fruit, and its relatively simple growing requirements, will make this a favorite plant in your garden.
Dragon fruit pairs well with other tropical fruits such as mango and papaya, as well as with fish dishes, as a tropical salsa or sauce. A simple recipe to try out follows. As with most fruit, eat dragon fruit in moderation to avoid excess fructose consumption.
Tropical Dragon Fruit Smoothie
- 2 cups frozen dragon fruit cubes
- 1/3 cup raw grass fed yogurt
- 1 banana
- In a blender, liquefy the ingredients.
- Serve in two bowls (or freeze half of the part for later).
- Add toppings of choice and delight in.