Dragon fruit (Pitaya)

24.05.17

Dragon fruit, pitaya and pitahaya are the common names and are sometimes used interchangeably for several species of cacti that bear edible fruit. Dragon fruit are produced on plants of the Hylocereus and Selenicereus species, which are climbing cacti. The fruit weighs about 150–600g, with pink, crimson, yellow or red coloured skin and fleshy green scales on the exterior. The inside of the fruit has translucent white or red flesh with tiny black seeds, and the flesh is sweet to mildly sweet, with a light melon-like taste.

Overview

Dragon fruit are native to Central and South America and grown commercially in Israel, Thailand, Vietnam and Australia. In Australia, both the white-fleshed dragon fruit (H. undatus) and red-fleshed dragon fruit (H. polyrhizus) are grown commercially. Smaller amounts of the Selenicereus sp, a smaller spiny yellow skinned fruit with sweet white flesh is grown and also sold under the common name dragon fruit. Dragon fruit produced in Australia is sold on the domestic market and no other country has access to the Australian market for biosecurity reasons. The red-fleshed dragon fruit has a history of earning higher prices.

Dragon fruit are long day plants which flower and fruit during the summer months. The flowers open at night and pollination generally occurs in the early morning with the flower wilting by mid-morning.

There are around 40,000 dragon fruit trees in Australia and production is estimated at around 740 tonnes, with a gross value of AU$2.2 million. There are a number of established dragon fruit farms in northern New South Wales and Queensland that offer a tourist experience, including tours and tastings.

Dragon fruit was introduced into Australia in the 1970s but is regarded as a developing industry, and its interests are represented by the Rare Fruits Association and the Sub-tropical Fruit Club of Queensland.

Facts and figures

  • Dragon fruit, pitaya or pitahaya are all common names used in Australia for the edible fruit bearing, climbing cacti originally native to Mexico, central and South America
  • The fruit has a bright red or yellow skin, and either a white or red flesh with tiny black seeds
  • The high levels of the antioxidant phytoalbumin in dragon fruit means it is considered a ‘super food’ in some countries
  • Australian dragon fruit production is estimated at 740 tonnes with a gross value of AU$2.2 million
  • Unlike many exotic tropical fruits, dragon fruit has a relatively long shelf life if stored correctly

Production status

There are around 40,000 dragon fruit plants in Australia and nearly 70% of these are in the Northern Territory, with most of the remainder in Queensland and northern New South Wales. Based on these numbers and average yields, Australian production of dragon fruit is estimated at around 740 tonnes, with a gross value of AU$2.2 million.

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Map of current and potential growing regions

Uses

Dragon fruit, like all exotic tropical fruits, is usually enjoyed when eaten fresh. The flesh is described as delicately sweet, crisp and refreshing. Dragon fruit may also be used in salads, fruit salads, marmalades, jellies, ices and soft drinks.

The high levels of the antioxidant phytoalbumin in dragon fruit means it is considered a ‘super food’ and in some countries the pulp is used in smoothies and health juices.

Production Requirements

Growing regions

The dragon fruit was introduced to Queensland in the 1970s and as at 2013, there is commercial production in the Northern Territory, Western Australia and northern New South Wales. The Northern Territory accounts for 70% of tree plantings in Australia.

Soil type

Dragon fruit grow best on a well-drained, relatively sandy soil. The plant will respond well to additions of lime and organic matter. There is little published information about soil requirements for dragon fruit in Australia and potential growers should seek more advice from a horticultural advisor or current growers.

Climate

The dragon fruit prefers a dry tropical climate with an average temperature of 21–29°C, but it can withstand temperatures as high as 38–40°C and as low as 0°C for short periods.

Dragon fruit can grow in a wide range of environments with the aid of irrigation. They perform well in the monsoonal wet/dry tropics of the Northern Territory as well as the wet humid tropics of far north Queensland. Dragon fruit are also grown in arid climates (e.g. Israel) with the addition of shade.

Varieties

There are no distinct varieties of dragon fruit, but there are many clones, which have differences in the stem type, colour, fruit shape, skin thickness and scale expression.

Planting and crop management

Because seedlings of dragon fruit are slow growing and unreliable for fruit production, cuttings from existing plants are the preferred method of rapid propagation. Cuttings 30–50cm long, obtained from proven fruiting plants, should be cured by storing in a dry place for a week before potting into a free-draining mix. Cuttings may benefit from light shade and require minimal water and fertiliser before the roots develop.

Once the roots have developed, the cuttings can be planted into well-drained or mounded soil beds up to 300mm high. Fertiliser should be included in the planting hole and then applied after the first month.

Cuttings are grown on a range of support systems. In Australia, vertical poles with horizontal arms or a grid at the top are commonly used on a 2.5–3 x 3–4m spacing layout. Three cuttings are planted for each pole at approximate 120 degree intervals around the pole. 

A range of support configurations are used in other countries, these include inclined or vertical wire or steel mesh, concrete pipe and living support. When designing and building supports, allow for the considerable weight of the cactus vines and fruit and that the construction material will need to be termite resistant and weather the elements for many years.

As the dragon fruit grows up its support post, the side branches should be pruned until the plant reaches the top of the post. Removed side branches can be used for additional planting material. As the cacti grow up the pole to the frame, they may need to be tied to the pole until they develop roots which envelop the pole. On reaching the top branches will then hang down from the frame mounted at the top of the post, to flower and fruit. First flowering can be expected about 12–15 months after planting.

On a pole support system a plant may have up to 20 branches in the first year, increasing to approximately 80-100 branches in the fourth year. Regular pruning to remove damaged or tangled branches to open up the canopy will help maintain fruit size and quality.

Dragon fruit is a shallow rooted plant with many aerial roots. A combination of inorganic and organic fertilisers are generally preferred. Regular light feeding is suggested, with additional application rates prior to the start and during the flowering and fruiting season. The use of mulch to support the superficial root system and provide a buffer to reduce the loss of soil moisture by evaporation is recommended. Regular light irrigations are required to ensure the soil does not dry out completely. Inconsistent water levels resulting in wet and dry periods during fruit development may lead to the fruit splitting.

An annual application of lime and organic material is recommended.

Weeds, pests, and diseases

Many pests are known to attack cacti including ants, caterpillars, mites, scale insects, mealy bugs, beetles, slugs, borers, nematodes, fruit flies, mice, rats and birds. Netting may be required for dragon fruit as birds have caused serious damage to this crop.

A watery rot is also a problem if conditions are too wet or the plant has suffered injury.

Potential growers should seek more advice about weeds, pests and diseases from a horticultural advisor or current growers. There are a range of chemicals registered for use in fruit crops generally, visit the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicine Authority website for further information and check labels for appropriate use.

Infrastructure Requirements

Most established horticultural enterprises suit exotic tropical fruit production, and will have infrastructure required for dragon fruit production, which includes an irrigation system, as well as cleaning, sorting, packing and refrigeration infrastructure.

Dragon fruit is a climbing cactus, therefore they will require concrete or wooden posts at least 2m high and 300mm in diameter to support the main stem of the plant; and a frame mounted on top of the post to support the trailing branches. Shading of the plantation may be required if grown in extreme arid climates.

Harvesting & Processing

Fruit is generally ready to be harvested around one month after flowering when there is a colour change in the fruit from green to 85% pink. The fruiting season for dragon fruit extends from October to April.

Fruit is handpicked and should be cut off at the short stem and placed in crates being careful not to damage the fruit’s soft scales.

The fruit is then washed, dried and packed into single layer cardboard or polystyrene trays. Even though dragon fruit are generally sold on count, rather than weight, each tray will generally weigh between 3.5–5kg.

If stored at between 7–10°C and 90–98% relative humidity, dragon fruit can be put in storage for 2–3 months.

Dragon fruit can be sold to consolidators, wholesalers or directly to retail outlets, where they are on-sold, utilised in the food service industry or processed for other uses.

Markets & Marketing

Market considerations for dragon fruit are generally the same as all exotic tropical fruits. Exotic tropical fruit in general is considered a small niche industry and the fruit is currently grown in small quantities, therefore marketing can be a challenge. When planning to market any horticultural product, it is important to remember that wholesalers and retailers are generally looking for the following attributes from a supplier:

  • a great tasting product
  • high quality flesh texture
  • on-time delivery and consistency of supply.

The need for on-time delivery and consistency of supply, usually at high volumes, can hamper exotic tropical fruit producers from actively participating in the larger horticultural market. Because of its niche status, many growers are marketing at a local level, for example selling at farmers markets or directly to restaurants. There are a number of established dragon fruit farms in northern NSW and Queensland that provide tours and tastings to visitors.

The supply chain for tropical fruit provides a useful framework for industry entrants to understand the potential marketing structure. It should be noted that while the supply chain is relatively short, the diverse array of participants and the need to move fruit quickly before it deteriorates, does add some complexity.

A typical supply chain for tropical fruit has the following linkages:

  • grower
  • packer
  • transporter
  • unloading agent
  • wholesaler/agent
  • (potentially a secondary wholesaler)
  • processor
  • exporter
  • retailer
    • chain retailer (e.g. major supermarket)
    • specialist retailer (e.g. a fruit and vegetable shop)
    • foodservice (e.g. a restaurant)
  • consumer.

These are not necessarily listed as a sequential supply chain, for example some growers will bypass packers and wholesalers and sell directly to restaurants or consumers. Wholesalers will also sell to secondary wholesalers, who in turn on-sell to smaller retail buyers and providores who may supply the food service industry.

Traditionally, wholesale ‘central’ markets in capital cities were the major way to sell and distribute horticultural products. Supermarket and other retail buyers would visit and buy produce required, based on available supply. Now the large supermarket chains such as Coles and Woolworths often prefer to deal directly with growers who produce larger volumes or alternatively with packers or agents who consolidate produce from a number of growers to ensure consistent supply.

Factors affecting the price are seasonal availability, the availability of substitute products and consumer spending and preferences. Premium produce will generally earn a premium price, however, there are no guarantees of this always happening. For example an oversupply of high quality fruit will depress prices but equally, periods of low availability will see even average quality fruit command high prices.

It is often suggested that one of the best ways to monitor price signals and plan production accordingly is the establishment of good business relationships between the grower and the wholesaler/agent. This can add some transparency around market signals.

Risks & Regulations

Risks/challenges

Relative to other tree crops, dragon fruit are quick growing, with first fruit ready for harvest within 18 months to two years of establishment. However, like many exotic tropical fruit trees, dragon fruit does require significant upfront investment (for example, trellising, irrigation, packing infrastructure), intensive management and a significant investment of time and energy, meaning a return on investment may take longer to achieve.

Risks associated with growing exotic tropical fruits are different for each market but may include:

  • unpredictable weather conditions affecting yield, meaning inconsistent cropping from year to year
  • crop losses from birds or flying foxes that may require expensive solutions
  • the availability and cost of labour, as exotic tropical fruits are harvested by hand
  • the short amount of time to transport fruit to market before it starts to deteriorate
  • the challenges of understanding the marketing of exotic tropical fruits with limited information available.

Regulatory considerations

Before buying new land to plant orchards, a thorough investigation of the land’s suitability for a horticultural enterprise and its cropping or land use history, should be undertaken. This may include identifying a history of chemical contamination (and residue levels) as some export licences may be withheld on products grown on land where chemical residues exist.

Potential disease risks should also be investigated. Some disease pathogens can survive in the soil for many years, so information about previous disease outbreaks will assist determining which trees are suitable for planting. This information can generally be obtained from the relevant state planning authority.

Growers will also be responsible for regularly inspecting their orchards for notifiable pests and diseases and reporting any incidence to the relevant state agriculture department.

When planting new orchards and establishing additional on-farm infrastructure or access roads, liaison with the state government agencies responsible for planning, native vegetation laws and water licences will be necessary. Some land use applications will also need to be considered by the relevant local government authority.

Horticulture and food production businesses have strict requirements in relation to record keeping, registrations, and accreditations as well associated costs for e.g. quality assurance, food safety, safe use of chemicals, environmental performance and intellectual property. Websites like Freshcare may provide a starting point for understanding these requirements.

Image Gallery

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Dragonfruit ready for picking

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Dragon fruit growing on trellis 1 (source Yan Diczbalis, QLD DAFF)

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Dragon fruit growing on trellis 3 (source Yan Diczbalis, QLD DAFF)

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Halved dragon fruit