Dragon fruit is often called the finest of all cactus fruit. It has many names in different areas around the world. In Asia it is called dragon fruit; in Spanish-speaking countries, it is referred to as pitaya or pitahaya. In many other places it's known as the strawberry pear.
Due to its tolerance for arid climates and less dependency on artificial irrigation, the possibility for sustainable agricultural production is being studied by scientists. The relatively high price paid per pound makes it a viable crop for small family-run farms. Newly planted crops produce marketable fruit within two years and reach full maturity within five years.
Dragon fruit is the fruit of several different species of night-blooming vine cacti. There are several types in cultivations but the most common are Hylocereus undatus, H. polyrhizus, H. costaricensis, and Selenicereus megalanthus and their hybrids. The plants produce long, fleshy, triangular-shaped vines up to 20 feet in length, and they're epiphytic, meaning they grow on other plants instead of soil. The one-foot-long, bell-shaped flowers open at night and are pollinated, then wilt and die by morning.
The fruit of the dragon fruit plant is usually red- or pink-skinned with red or white flesh. Some types have yellow skin with white flesh. The skin is composed of scales about 1/2 inch wide with short spines on the ends that wither when the fruit ripens. The taste has been described as sweet, but not overly sweet. The texture is similar to a kiwi fruit, including the small, crunchy black seeds.
Dragon fruit vines prefer warm, dry climates. Although they can also be grown in humid tropical areas, the humidity makes them prone to fungal infections. Because of the nature of the epiphytic vines, it needs to be supported on some type of trellis system. In Asia, many plantations use it as an understory crop growing up the trunk of live betel nut trees. Official scientific data is still unavailable on specific requirements for this crop. It seems to like even soil moisture but excess water causes the fruit to split. It prefers full sun.
Dragon fruit is primarily used for eating fresh, but it can also be made into juice, jam, wine or cut up as an ice cream topping. It is becoming more and more popular in Europe but has not become very popular in the United States yet due to USDA regulations prohibiting the import of fresh fruit, limiting its availability. Currently only the frozen pulp is imported.
The plants are currently being studied as alternative field crops that will grow in desert climates. The ability to grow in dry areas has made it an increasingly important food crop in Israel, where agricultural production is being introduced to the inland desert regions where water is sparse and saline. Recent studies in California have shown potential for small-scale production on family-owned farms.
Dragon fruit has been eaten for centuries in the American Southwest and in Central America. It was an important and favored food source for the ancient Aztecs. The Spanish conquistadors were responsible for introducing the plant to the rest of the world. It later became popular in Southeast Asia, where it obtained the name "dragon fruit."