Selenicereus undatus: Dragon fruit tree

Family: Cactaceae
Common name: Dragon fruit tree, Pitahaya, Pitaya, White-fleshed Pitahaya, Night blooming cereus, Moonlight cactus, Strawberry pear, Belle of the Night, Cinderella plant, Jesus in the cradle, Moonflower

A fruit that looks as interesting as the tree they grown on, the name Dragon fruit suits this unique fruit too well. The plant is essentially a Cactus belonging to the family Cactaceae, and also a climber.

They can grow on rocks or other plants in the wild, climbing or clambering up using aerial roots, reaching a height of about 10 meters. The stem is 10-12 cms thick with nodes at every 30-120 cms. The nodes along the stem, bear spines that are 1-4 mm long, brown or black in color and needle-like.

Dragon fruit tree flowers are very pretty, white or greenish-yellow, opening only at night and resembling the flowers of Queen of the night or Epiphyllum oxypetalum. They have white petals, numerous yellow stamens and a prominent style makes these flowers quite a sight to behold.

They open at night and close in the morning, and are attractive to bats, moths and other nocturnal insects. The flowers then form oval or oblong fruits that are green and pink outside, with many hard tentacles surrounding this. This unique structure gives it the name Dragon fruit.

Inside of the fruit is soft and fleshy; white flesh speckled with tiny black seeds that are edible. Dragon fruit is slightly sweet, with a mild flavor, quite surprising compared to the funky shape of the fruit.

There are few variants of the dragon fruit – Selenicereus costaricensis or red-fleshed pitahaya has red outer skin and red flesh with black seeds inside; Selenicereus megalanthus has yellow outer skin and white flesh inside.

Dragon fruit trees prefer warm, tropical weather with moderate rainfall, as too much rainfall can lead to root and stem rot. Fruits can also droop and fall with too much water. Being a cactus, these plants need very little water and maintenance.

Dragon fruit trees can have 5-6 harvest cycles per year, making it a very profitable venture for farmers in India. Flowers are also edible, and can be brewed into tea. The fruit is used to color juices and alcoholic beverages like Dragotini and Dragon’s blood punch.

Propagation is through seeds or stem cuttings.