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How to Grow Pitaya (Dragon Fruit)

Rip dragon fruit

In the Philippines the epiphytic, fruit bearing, cactus of the Hylocereus genus, are known as pitaya. The fruits are known as dragonfruit. Pitaya, like all cactus species, is native to the Americas but has been naturalised in many parts of the world. Pitaya can be grown as an ornamental or for it’s fruits. Cactus and succulent enthusiast grow them because their stems make excellent root stock for ornamental cacti. I’ll teach you have grow pitaya and share my experience with these fascinating cacti.

Pitaya can be grown from seeds but a mature plant can be realised faster if one is to grow them via cuttings. If cared for well it will grow to be big enough to start bearing fruit. Growing pitaya from cuttings is very easy. All you need to do is bury around 10 cm (3in) of the cutting to the ground and wait for it to grow. You don’t even need to water. The cutting will be spending most of its time developing a root system and you won’t even know if something is happening. Be patient. Start watering when you start seeing shoots. Depending on the size and health of the cutting new shoots will form in 1-3 months. Frequent rains during the rainy season may cause the cactus to rot at the soil line. Just let it be. As long as the vascular bundles are intact, they usually callus and the cactus let the fleshy parts rot. You can either train the plant or let it just go about its business of growing. The fruiting season usually starts late May until September. The size of the cactus tells if the cactus will bear fruits in the fruiting season. Just make sure your cactus is healthy and thriving during the fruiting season and they’ll reward you with fruits.

a large pitaya plant sprawled over a wall
Our pitaya plant last July 2017. The cacti growing on trellis was grown from cutting the previous year and is now bearing fruits.

Pitaya’s are epiphytic, they grow on trees, in nature. They are used to shade because they grow in the shadow of a trees’ canopy. As you can see in the picture below. Parts of our pitaya plants that are exposed the direct sunlight are turning yellow while parts of it that spends part of the day under the shadow of our house is a healthy shade of green.

Picture of a pitaya plant viewed from above.
Stems exposed to full sun is turning yellow.

During the fruiting season the pitaya plant bring forth buds that develops into flowers.

A picture of a small pitaya flower bud
A young pitaya flower bud.

However, not all buds develop into flowers. Buds may sometimes turn yellow and fall off. This happens when the plant doesn’t feel like it will not be able to develop the fruit due to issues like light, water and/or nutrient availability.

A yellowed pitaya flower bud.
This flower bud has been “abandoned” by the plant. It fell off after a few days.

Flower buds develop quickly and can open in 2-3 weeks. Flowers only open at night. The surest sign that the flower will bloom during the night is if it looks like it’s going to burst and you can see parts of the white petals.

A mature pitaya flower.
This pitaya flower will open during the night.

The flowers are large, showy and fragrant. It opens around 8PM. Bloom peaks around 12AM to 3AM. By 4-5AM it is already starting to wilt. The video below is a time-lapse of the nocturnal pitaya bloom.

Pitaya’s only bloom at night because in their natural range, the unforgiving desert heat keeps pollinating insects away during the day. By morning the next day the flower has served it’s purpose and the plant abandons it.

a wilted pitaya flower
A wilted pitaya flower. The green parts near the stem ripens into dragon fruits.

The wilted flower will drop off or rot away and the remaining parts develops into dragon fruit over a few weeks.

A red and ripe dragon fruit.
A ripe dragon fruit with parts of the flower still attached.

Dragon fruit stops developing when it is taken of the pitaya plant so making sure that the fruit is ripe during harvest is important. Ripe dragon fruits have a bloated appearance. Depending on the variety, the color of the peel varies. My pitaya has a red peel and red flesh. Wait for the ripe color of your fruits to be the dominant color until only the tips of the protrusions remain green or yellow. You can also give the fruit a gentle squeeze. It should be soft but offer resistance. To harvest gently twist the fruit off. You may use snips if you don’t want the peel to be damaged. The sharp protrusions can be trimmed off.

A hand peeled pitaya fruit.
Just be showing off the pitaya I peed using my hands.

Our pitaya only gets attention when it’s flowering and fruiting yet it thrives and rewards are efforts (or lack of it) with fruits. It’s one of the easiest fruiting plants to grow. In the future I’ll be posting about how to train them. I plan on starting a separate grow where I’ll be giving the plant proper care and grooming and see how much fruits it will bring me.

If you have any question please feel free to ask. Good luck and happy growing!

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Flowering Pitaya (Dragon Fruit) Time-lapses

We have a huge pitaya plant sprawled over a west facing wall. Every summer, around May, we have front row seats to its huge, showy and fragrant blooms. By June the flowers turn into ripe pitaya fruit (dragon fruit) with red skin and red flesh.

pitaya plant with 4 open flowers
Pitaya plant with open flowers in the summer of 2016.

These plants are amazing. They thrive in neglect and rewards you with fruits for simply not minding them.

Every year since 2016 I’ve been making time-lapse video of the pitaya flowers opening. The video below is the result of my efforts back in 2016.

I’ve only had a handful of time-lapse video at this point and it shows in the video. There are also a number of limiting factors that affects the quality of the video. My camera is setup outdoors where it is susceptible to rain or even theft. I have to stay up all night to make sure my time-lapse setup is safe. Another limiting factor is the battery in my camera. During day time the exposures are short and the camera is able to take continuous shots for over twelve hours. But during the night the camera needs to take long exposures and that drains the battery fast.

In the summer of 2017 I’m more knowledgable and more experienced in making time-lapses. I had two setups for that year. One taken with my trusty Canon 70D and the other with a GoPro Hero 5.

The time-lapse video above is taken with a Canon 70D. The whole time-lapse is around six hours. The shot was limited by the camera’s battery as I set the camera to take long exposures so I can keep the ISO, and noise, low. It also resulted in more natural night time look.

The video above is the time-lapse taken with a GoPro Hero 5. The time-lapse ran for over twelve hours and captured how the the flower started to unravel close to 8PM, peaked around midnight and started to wilt around 3AM. This video proved to be most valuable in my next attempt.

For this year’s pitaya flowering time-lapse I decided to start the time-lapse at 7PM and run it until 7AM. To work around the battery capacity I set the ISO high to keep the exposure short and I will just clean the noise during post. I ran a test and it showed that my 64G SD card doesn’t have enough room for 3,000 RAW files so I set the camera to take sRAW.

I thought I can do some more trial runs before the bud I’m filming blooms but that is not the case. The bud showed signs that it will bloom the following night so I hastily set it up and hoped for the best.

The resulting time-lapse is much better than my previous efforts. The only other problem I encountered was the night-to-day transition. The pictures from 5AM onwards are overexposed and unusable. To fix this I need to set the camera to bulb mode and my intervalometer to bulb ramping. This requires testing of course. I still have plenty of chances to take the best looking time-lapse this year.? Wish me luck!