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Dragon fruit are sweet fruit from cactus plants in the genus Hylocereus and Selenecereus. This profile is referring to fruits within those genera and the term dragon fruit will be used throughout (“Other – 64: Pitahaya Research” - UCANR, n.d.). In other documents, dragon fruit can be referred to as pitaya, pitahaya or strawberry pear (Lobo et al, 2013). Another cacti fruit that goes by the same common name pitaya is from the genus Stenocereus. Fruits from the genus Stenocereus look similar to dragon fruit; however, they are rounder and have a sour flavor (Shelton, 2014).
Dragon fruit are native to Mexico, Central America, and South America (Crane & Balerdi, n.d.). Many species of Hylocereus have been recognized, but there are still issues about correct identification. The main two species grown for commercial production include Hylocereus undatus, which has fruit with bright pink skin and white flesh, and Hylocereus sp., which has fruit with bright pink skin and varying hues of pink flesh. Both have multiple varieties. Selenecereus megalanthus is another dragon fruit grown for commercial production, which has fruit with yellow skin and white flesh (Lobo et al, 2013). All dragon fruit have black tiny edible seeds that are similar in appearance to kiwi seeds. The texture of dragon fruit is similar to kiwi or watermelon, and the flavor is mildly sweet with subtle earthy notes. The cultivars with deeper pink flesh are said to have the most flavor (McEachran, 2015). Dragon fruit are roughly the size of a baseball, but oval shaped.
Only three states grow dragon fruit commercially: California (primarily Southern California), Florida, and Hawaii (Lobo et al, 2013).
The summer (June through September) is the main season for fresh dragon fruit. August and September are the peak months for most varieties; however, varieties of Selenecereus megalanthus produce fruit during the winter months of November through February (Lobo et al, 2015).
Dragon fruit is primarily grown for the fresh market and is often sold through specialty stores and farmers’ markets. In 2011, growers at farmers’ markets were able to sell their dragon fruit between $7 and $8 per pound (Dawson, 2011).
The fruit also has good potential to be processed into many products, thus adding value. These processed products include energy and fruit bars, ice cream, jelly, marmalade and preserves, juice, pastries, pulp, and yogurt. The juice of the red varieties can also be used as a natural food colorant and dye, and, when unopened, the flower bud can be cooked and eaten as a vegetable (Crane & Balerdi, n.d.) (Lobo et al, 2013).
In August 2014, 10 pounds of traditionally grown red dragon fruit imported from Nicaragua and Vietnam to Los Angeles was valued between $23.50 and $33 wholesale in August 2014; in contrast, the wholesale price of 10 pounds of organic red dragon fruit grown in California and shipped to Los Angeles was $57.50 (Lobo et al, 2013).
U.S. demand for dragon fruit exceeds the supply, thus creating an opportunity for U.S. farmers to commercially grow the fruit on a larger scale filling that niche (Hardesty, 2015).
Agritourism is another way value can be added when producing a crop such as dragon fruit. “Agricultural tourism is a commercial enterprise at a working farm or ranch conducted for the enjoyment and education of visitors, and that generates supplemental income for the owner or operator” according to the University of California Cooperative Extension (“Agritourism” - UCCE, 2016).
Most recently, a 2013 PowerPoint created by the University of California’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Division stated that California is growing 100 to 200 acres of dragon fruit, Hawaii is growing approximately 200 acres, and Florida is growing more than 400 acres (Lobo et al, 2013).
Many other countries commercially produce dragon fruit, including but not limited to Nicaragua (primary producer of Hylocereus sp. in Central America); Colombia (primary producer of Selenecereus megalanthus); Ecuador (producing Hylocereus sp. and Selenecereus megalanthus); Vietnam (primary producer of Hylocereus undatus in Southeast Asia); Thailand; Malaysia; and Israel (Lobo et al, 2013).
Exports/Imports/United States Consumption
The United States imports the majority of its fresh dragon fruit from Southeast Asia (most notably Vietnam) with the fruit primarily being the white-fleshed cultivars (Lobo et al, 2013).
Since dragon fruit is a newly emerging fruit crop, there is currently no United States export, import, or per capita consumption data available reported through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service or Foreign Agricultural Service (“Fruit and Tree Nut Data” - ERS, 2021).
In 2016, California was in its fourth year of a severe drought. This had made producing certain crops within the state more challenging (Ross, 2021). Fortunately, dragon fruit plants are quite drought tolerant, thus the plant is being grown in certain areas to replace traditional crops such as citrus and avocados (McClurg, 2015). Dragon fruit require anywhere from 25 to50 inches of water per year, and too much irrigation must be cautioned to avoid flower drop and fruit rot.
Dragon fruit plants are considered a climbing cactus, and commercial orchards need to use some form of trellising to support the plant. Dragon fruit plants can produce fruits after one year of establishment and can stay in production for approximately 30 years (Harrington, n.d. 2018).
Another important note when establishing a dragon fruit orchard is the pollination requirements. Many cultivars are self-pollinating, however, some happen to be self-incompatible, and thus need cross-pollination to develop fruit (Crane & Balerdi, n.d.).
Helpful enterprise budget for dragon fruit:
- Pitahaya Establishment Costs and Economic Prospects, University of California – Cooperative Extension San Diego, 2013.
Agritourism, University of California Cooperative Extension, 2016.
Dawson, B. (2011). You should taste it fresh, Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of California.
Fruit and Tree Nut Data - Exports/Imports, USDA Economic Research Service (ERS), 2021.
Hardesty, S. (2015). Pitahaya or Dragon Fruit —A New, Water Efficient Crop for Southern California Farmers, Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of California.
Lobo, R., Bender, G., Tanizaki, G., Fernandez de Soto, J., and Aguiar, J., (2013). Pitahaya or dragon fruit production in California: a research update, University of California – Agriculture and Natural Resources Division (UCANR).
McClurg, L. (2015). California Drought Changes What Farmers Grow, Capitol Public Radio.
Other – 64: Pitahaya Research and Variety Evaluation for Commercial Production, University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources (UCANR) n.d.
Ross, K., (2021). Preparing for an uncertain future with climate smart agriculture, California Agriculture 70(1): 4-5.
Shelton, R., (2014). Dragon fruit or pitahaya: fruit of the “moonflower” cactus plant, Cultivate to Plate.com.