For gardeners in more temperate climates, it’s easy to forget just how many edible crops come from the cactus family. But in warmer parts of the world, these hardy plants produce a bounty of delicious fruit (often year-round).
Dragon fruit, also known as pitaya, is one of the most famous examples of a fruit-bearing cactus, although I’m willing to bet many people don’t really know where this tropical delicacy comes from!
In this article, I’ll walk you through the various dragon fruit growth stages and explain what’s happening beneath that spiny skin.
Conditions for Growing Dragon Fruit
Dragon fruit is a very exciting cactus to add to your collection, even if fruit production isn’t your main goal. These cacti are native to the warmest parts of the Americas and thrive when the climate is suitable.
You can grow dragon fruit outdoors in USDA Zones 10 to 12. Dragon fruit won’t grow anywhere that drops below freezing — the plant is only hardy down to about 35°F. However, I know of a few gardeners that successfully grow dragon fruit in containers and move them to a sheltered location when the temperature drops.
Unlike some other cactus family members, dragon fruit is perfectly happy in partial sunlight. While the plant can tolerate full sun in (relatively) cooler climates, direct sun exposure is likely to burn or dry out the stems.
If you’ve ever encountered a mature dragon fruit plant in person, you probably noticed that it had a unique climbing, vine-like growth habit. Dragon fruit is commonly seen scrambling up nearby trees or other structures and can reach up to 30 feet tall. (This also helps protect the cactus from direct sunlight, as the tree’s canopy provides some shade.)
Soil is another important part of dragon fruit care. These cacti thrive in various soils but need a moist but well-draining environment. Excess moisture is a recipe for root rot and related health problems. Your dragon fruit will also appreciate much organic matter in the soil.
Dragon fruit grown in containers rarely reaches the size of landscape specimens. I recommend a container that is about 2 feet wide and 1 foot deep, with ample drainage. Use a specialty cactus soil for the best results.
Dragon Fruit Growth Rate
A healthy dragon fruit cactus can grow up to an inch per week! Most of this growth occurs during the warmer months of the year, though dragon fruit may continue growing year-round in many climates.
If all goes well, a dragon fruit plant will live and produce fruit for up to 20 or 30 years. Remember that it usually takes 2 to 5 years for a young plant to bear fruit for the first time.
Growth Stages of Dragon Fruit
A few different types of dragon fruit are commonly grown commercially or in home landscapes. A common way to categorize dragon fruit is by the color of the skin — red or yellow — and the inner flesh — white or red.
While the name ‘dragon fruit’ has been applied to various cactus species, I’ll focus on those within the genus Hylocereus. The most popular Hylocereus species include:
- H. undatus (red skin/white flesh)
- H. costaricensis (red skin/red flesh)
- H. megalanthus (yellow skin/white flesh)
Regardless of type, all dragon fruit follow a similar life cycle. The plant takes at least 1 to 2 years to produce any fruit. Once mature, however, a single cactus can go through several yearly flower-and-fruit cycles.
1. Seed Germination
Dragon fruit seeds are suspended in the flesh of the ripe fruit. Most varieties contain at least 1,000 individual seeds per fruit!
When starting dragon fruit from seed, most people recommend smearing some of the flesh (containing seeds) onto a damp paper towel. Planting the seeds in soil is sometimes difficult due to their tiny size.
Warm soil temperatures are essential to quick, healthy germination. A range of 70 to 85°F is usually ideal.
Fresh seeds taken straight from the fruit can germinate in 7 days or less. Seeds that have been allowed to dry out may take 25 to 60 days to germinate. Despite these varying times, the total germination rate is rarely an issue when growing dragon fruit.
After germination begins, the first visible change is the emergence of a small tap root called the radicle. This is the very beginning of the dragon fruit’s root system. The root grows down into the soil and anchors the future seedling.
A pair of embryonic leaves called cotyledon follow close behind the radicle. These leaves naturally grow toward the surface and will break through the soil after just a short time.
Not all cacti have visible cotyledons, but those of dragon fruit are pretty easy to spot. These round, fleshy leaves look very different from the plant’s mature stems but are vital to the seedling stage. Cotyledons provide a source of stored energy during early growth and, sometimes, even take on the role of photosynthesis.
As the dragon fruit develops, you’ll soon see new growth coming from the center of the cotyledons. This growth will resemble the plant’s mature appearance and may even boast small spines!
The seedling phase is short-lived, and your dragon fruit will likely start proliferating within just 7 to 14 days of sprouting.
3. Vegetative Growth
Anywhere from the first six months to several years of your dragon fruit’s life will be devoted to vegetative growth. While cacti have spines instead of true leaves, their fleshy stems require much energy to grow and maintain.
According to the University of Florida, dragon fruit plants have slender, segmented stems that can grow up to 20 feet long. Short spines are often present along the wavy ribs of the stems.
For the best results, provide sturdy support for the plant to climb sooner rather than later. Dragon fruit cacti produce aerial roots that ‘anchor’ into their support systems.
The first time your dragon fruit flowers will be a very exciting time! Dragon fruit cacti are night-bloomers, and the flowers only open for a single night apiece.
According to the University of Hawai’i, the flowers typically open at 6:40–7:00 PM. However, blooming can start as early as 4:00 p.m. on warm days.
Small flower buds will appear toward the ends of the dragon fruit stems about 21 days before the actual flowers open. Late spring through summer is often considered the prime flowering season for dragon fruit, though this varies greatly depending on the local climate.
Dragon fruit flowers are usually white or light yellow. The flowers of varieties with red flesh sometimes contain hints of pink. A wreath of fleshy, spiked sepals surrounds each flower.
Since dragon fruit flowers exclusively bloom at night, common pollinators include bats, moths, birds, and other nocturnal critters.
Some dragon fruit varieties are self-fertile. Self-fertile types are ideal for home gardeners because the dragon fruit can fertilize its own pollen. Non-fertile societies require pollen from a separate plant to produce fruit.
6. Fruit Development
Once a flower is successfully pollinated, you can see visible swelling of the young fruit within just 3 days. The fruit will gradually grow and change color as it continues to ripen.
Mature fruit measures an average of 3 to 4 inches across and can weigh up to a pound or more. Remember that things like size, weight, and ripe color can vary from one type of dragon fruit to another.
It takes at least 30 days for mature fruit to form. Some varieties — e.g., Columbiana — can take 150 to 180 days to ripen fully!
When to Harvest Dragon Fruit
Dragon fruit might look a bit different than something like an apple or lemon, but the same rules about ripening still apply. You don’t want to harvest your dragon fruit too early or too late. For the perfect flavor and overall quality, timing is everything!
Color is a good indicator of when a dragon fruit is ready to pick. Pay attention to the type of dragon fruit you grow, as different varieties boast different rind colors when ripe. Ripe dragon fruit should have an even, brightly-colored rind without any remaining green hints.
The little fleshy flaps that grow along a dragon fruit are called its wings. These growths turn yellow or brown and start to dry out when the fruit is ripe. Avoid harvesting dragon fruit with bright green wings.
If you press your finger into the rind of ripe dragon fruit, the skin should be soft but not overly mushy. A hard shell indicates that the fruit needs more time to ripen on the cactus. A mushy rind is, unfortunately, overripe.
For more information about growing tropical fruiting plants, here’s a link to Mango Tree Growth Stages that you may enjoy.
FAQ Dragon Fruit Growth Stages
How long does dragon fruit take to grow?
Though dragon fruit is a fast-growing plant in general, it can still take up to 5 years to first bear fruit when started from seed. Dragon fruit cacti start from cuttings and tend to flower and fruit a bit sooner.
- University of Florida Dragon Fruit physical description
- University of Hawai’i Dragon fruit Bloom time
Ben's horticultural interest grew when graduating from Hertfordshire University in 1997. Having contributed to numerous publications including Better Homes & Gardens, Garden Design Magazine, and The English Garden. He is also the author of Propagating Houseplants Made Easy.