When my friend Brad started growing dragon fruit some years back, his friend Simon told him not to bother with any variety except S-8. “I’ve tried all the other ones,” Simon told him. “Don’t bother. Just grow S-8.”

“But I have to try them for myself,” Brad had replied to Simon. So he did. He ordered cuttings from all over the country, all over the world, and spent the last handful of years growing out varieties of every sort. “Simon was right,” Brad told me this week. “There are others with good fruit but the plants all have issues. I’m taking most of them out.”

As I go through this post about growing dragon fruit in Southern California, it will become clear why many seasoned dragon fruit growers in our region have such an appreciation for S-8. And you’ll learn from my personal experience, but more from the deeper experience of my dragon-fruit growing friends, about how to grow these strange, night-blooming cactus vines.

Flowering and pollination

I’ve taken Simon and Brad’s advice and only grow S-8. I enjoy eating many other varieties, but I like to eat S-8 best of all and I don’t have much space for dragon fruit, nor time to fuss with flowers. One advantage of S-8 is related to flowering and pollination. Some dragon fruit varieties are self-fertile so they can make fruit without needing the pollen of another variety of dragon fruit. S-8 is self-fertile.

However, other dragon fruit varieties need to be cross-pollinated. This is a challenge for two reasons. One, it means that you need to grow at least two dragon fruit varieties in your yard.

How many dragon fruit plants does your yard have space for?

Two, it means that in order to ensure cross-pollination you must hand pollinate the flowers, and this has to be done at night, as that is when dragon fruit flowers open. It’s possible in the evening and early morning, but in general, dragon fruit flowers open at night.

How to hand pollinate dragon fruit flowers? See this video demonstration and discussion by Gray Martin, a dragon fruit farmer in San Diego County.

Honey bees visiting dragon fruit flower, collecting pollen.

That said, bees and other pollinators will cross-pollinate for you if you have many dragon fruit plants of many varieties growing in proximity, such as is the case at the University of California’s plantings in Irvine. No one hand pollinates there and they get lots of fruit from all of their dozens of varieties, some of which are not self-fertile.

How to know if a particular dragon fruit variety is self-fertile or not? I would assume any variety is not self-fertile unless you are told otherwise from a source with firsthand experience. Search the dragon fruit thread at Tropical Fruit Forum to find growers sharing such experience. The only variety that I can say is absolutely self-fertile is S-8, and that’s because it’s the only one I grow, none of my neighbors grow dragon fruit, and I get fruit.

It is claimed by some that hand pollinating varieties that are self-fertile is still beneficial in that it results in larger fruit, but I’ve not seen any definitive evidence for this.

Supporting

Besides the complications of flowering and pollination with dragon fruit, the other challenge is how to support this plant that has spines and gets very heavy. In the wild, dragon fruit plants sprawl along the ground or climb up a tree or whatever else is nearby.

Around Southern California, I’ve seen dragon fruit plants climbing on rock walls and chain link fences and grapevine trellises.

And wood fences.

Dragon fruit vines make aerial roots to climb a wood fence.

And palm trees.

Dragon fruit vines climbing a palm tree at Plant Depot nursery in San Juan Capistrano.

At my place, I let my dragon fruit climb up some old citrus trees, but most people build supports for their plants.

Effective designs are innumerable, but in common most of them have three characteristics: a central post for the vine to climb, cross supports at around five or six feet off the ground for the vines to cascade over, and finally strength. The structure must be strong enough to hold up a mass of mature plant material. The main mistake I’ve seen people make is not building the support strong enough (in conjunction with not pruning the plant enough).

Here are some examples of dragon fruit support structures that I’ve seen working well (you’ll see others elsewhere in the post):

Metal post with crossbar frame on top.
Concrete post.

Planting and environment

I’ve seen dragon fruit plants growing well in sandy and loamy soils, but I haven’t seen them growing well in unamended clayey soil. Not that they can’t. That’s just what I’ve personally observed.

It’s common for people to plant dragon fruit in the ground still inside a plastic pot, just with the bottom of the pot cut off. This is said to give a bit of protection from gophers and rabbits. But lots of people plant straight into the ground too. I’ve put my dragon fruit plants straight into unamended sandy loam dirt. I control gophers by trapping, but I have had rabbits nibble on the base of my plants. Protecting the base with poultry wire would have been smart.

You can also grow dragon fruit plants in pots permanently. The ultimate size of the pot for a mature plant needs to be at least 25 gallons, from what I’ve seen. That’s about the size of a half wine barrel. Maybe you could get by with a smaller pot if you kept the plant pruned small.

Planting in full sun is generally best. If a dragon fruit plant is in much shade it won’t flower much. But there are places inland where the sun can be too intense. I live in such a place (Ramona, San Diego County). I still grow my dragon fruit in nearly full sun but incur some sunburn on certain vines.

Sunburned dragon fruit vine.

A dragon fruit farm down the road from me has erected shade cloth over their plants.

Dragon fruit plants growing under shade cloth at Dragon Delights farm.

Dragon fruit plants also don’t appreciate frost. They’ll take a little frost, especially certain varieties, but they’d prefer to never have temps in the 30s or below. Mine have gone into the upper 20s without damage other than some yellowing.

In addition to S-8, other varieties that are said to take both heat and cold well are Valdivia Roja, Physical Graffiti, Haley’s Comet, and Lisa, according to Ramiro Lobo of the University of California. (See minute 40 in this video.) In contrast, the yellow variety called Colombiana cannot handle high heat nor low temperatures.

Growing from cuttings

A piece of a dragon fruit vine that is around a foot or two long can be rooted and grown into a new plant. You can successfully root dragon fruit cuttings in a variety of mixes. Here is a video where Ramiro Lobo shows how he does it.

You can also just stick a cutting in the dirt and it will root. Here’s a cutting that I stuck in the dirt in the summer. After a couple weeks it put out some aerial roots and top growth:

Where to buy plants and cuttings

Here in October and November is a good time to try to buy cuttings since many growers are starting to prune their plants now.

For places to buy cuttings, check out Cal Poly Pomona here. Also, check the Tropical Fruit Forum, where members sell cuttings. Some farms sell cuttings, such as Wallace Ranch in San Diego County.

Nurseries and even home improvement stores often sell potted dragon fruit plants these days, but the availability of varieties is more limited when you are buying potted plants. 

Training and pruning

Unless you are growing a dragon fruit vine in an unconventional way, you’ll want to train it so that it has a single leader coming out of the ground, only allowing it to branch once it gets near the top of its support. It will try to form side branches down low. Cut those off. If you don’t, then you’ll end up with a bush of vines going every which way but not vigorously up.

New vines being trained up a new support structure at Rancho Los Serranos.

You prune and train the vine to a single leader going up the support and then allow it to form side branches that weep over the top of the support, forming an umbrella shape. Most of the flowers and fruit will form there at the umbrella top.

Note that this plant is growing on the same metal post structure as shown earlier.

After a few years, the tangle of vines at the top will get so thick that some need to be removed each year. If you don’t, it might get so heavy that the structure topples.

Dense, heavy growth in danger of toppling the support structure.

I once saw a large planting on the campus of Cal Poly Pomona that went unpruned for years, and the support structure fell down but the dragon fruit vines kept growing. It looked like a thicket of blackberries you’d see up in Oregon, except the canes were thick, spiny, heavy cactus. I felt sorry for whoever had to clean up that mess.

If you don’t prune, you’ll also lose some fruit since they won’t be able to form properly in the crowded center of the mass. Prune enough such that you can see a bit of negative space even through the center of the top of the plant. And don’t only cut off the ends of vines, but rather cut out entire vines from deep in the center of the plant; the ends of the vines are where many flowers are produced, and cutting off the ends only makes the vines regrow from there so they’ll soon be draping down to the ground.

Dragon fruit flowers near tip of vine at Rancho Los Serranos.

This video from Ramiro Lobo gives more detail on pruning.

Watering

Because dragon fruit vines are filled with a reservoir of water – they are cactus – they can survive on very little water. I know this firsthand because I neglected a couple of my plants and rarely watered them, yet they still grew. But if you want maximum growth and fruit, you must shower them with irrigation in Southern California.

How much to water? That depends on many factors, including the size of the plants and how much sun they are receiving, but dragon fruit need less water than most garden plants. How much less hasn’t been worked out for certain, as far as I know. I give my plants about as much as a mature tomato plant, about seven gallons per week in summer. Would my plants do better with more? Could I get away with less? I’m not sure.

How often to water? That also depends on whether the plants are in the ground or in containers, what kind of soil they’re in, etc. I water my dragon fruit using drip irrigation, and I water them daily in the summer, less often in other seasons. Friends who water by hand or with sprinklers irrigate about twice a week in summer. And I’ve heard other experienced growers only watering once per week in summer while still getting good results.

Fertilizing

As with water, dragon fruit plants will get by without much fertility in the soil, but they respond with more growth and fruit when provided with plenty of nutrition. I use compost that contains some chicken manure on my plants. Others do well using a fertilizer marketed for citrus and avocado trees.

Harvesting

Once a dragon fruit flower has been pollinated, it will dry and form a fruit at its base. The dried flower usually remains attached to the developing fruit.

As the fruit matures it changes color. Most varieties of dragon fruit begin with green skin, and some redden as they mature while others turn yellow or just remain green. You have to get to know your variety.

Farmers pick their fruit earlier than home growers. They need the fruit to be firm in order to handle transportation. The downside of this is that such early picked fruit lacks full flavor. Growing your own dragon fruit allows you to leave the fruit on the vine until it reaches exactly the height of sweetness and flavor that you prefer. That said, if you harvest too late you’ll find the texture of the fruit has become mushy.

Overmature S-8 fruit with totally red skin; will likely be mushy in texture.

Varieties and names and history

I call the variety of dragon fruit that I grow “S-8,” but I should call it “8-S.” The variety was created by Paul Thomson in the 1990s and he referred to it as 8-S. Thomson was one of the co-founders of the California Rare Fruit Growers organization, he lived in San Diego County, did seminal work growing and breeding many fruits that were once rare in the area such as mango and cherimoya, and unfortunately he passed away in 2008. One of the last fruits that he set his hand at developing was dragon fruit. Thomson referred to dragon fruit as “pitahaya,” and he wrote a small book called “Pitahaya – A Promising New Fruit Crop for Southern California.”

Others call dragon fruit “pitaya.” For all practical purposes, pitahaya, pitaya, and dragon fruit are the same thing.

Thomson made a series of crosses between dragon fruit cultivars and came up with some outstanding new varieties. He referred to these new varieties as 1-S, 2-S, and so on up until 9-S. The “S” stands for seedling.

Thomson’s “S” varieties got passed around, and others eventually stuck their own names on them. For example, 8-S picked up the name Sugar Dragon.

This has led to some confusion for dragon fruit growers. Many varieties go by multiple names, and there is even a bit of controversy over whether certain varieties sold under different names are actually the same. (For example, is Bien Hoa Red the same as American Beauty? See minute 41 in this video.)

Which varieties are the best to grow in Southern California?

As previously mentioned, I’m not alone in finding S-8 the best overall in terms of fruit taste and ease of growing for Southern California. All seasoned dragon fruit growers that I know recommend S-8 for anyone who will grow only a single variety. The only downside of S-8 is that the fruit isn’t as big as some other varieties.

After S-8, which varieties should you add? Many growers’ number two is American Beauty/Bien Hoa Red because it is also self-fertile, highly productive, has beautiful color in its flesh, and tastes very good.

A friend slicing an American Beauty dragon fruit that he grew.
My son’s face after eating that American Beauty.

Beyond S-8 and then American Beauty, there are no clear picks, but I’ll list a few more that are good eating and whose plants perform well at other Southern California locations I’ve observed. Physical Graffiti (Paul Thomson’s 1-S) is highly productive, rates near the top in taste for most people, and takes heat and cold well. It is apparently not self-fertile, however.

Delight (Paul Thomson’s 3-S) is said to be self-fertile and has proven to be productive, and it has faintly pink flesh with nice flavor. Paul Thomson actually rated its flavor superb compared to his other seedlings.

There are many other dragon fruit varieties that one can explore. Generally speaking though, white-fleshed varieties tend to taste bland.

White-fleshed dragon fruit with yellow skin. Looks neat but has very little flavor.

While other varieties taste surprising.

Desert King variety from Israel, with peach skin and pink flesh. To me, it tastes like a longan!

And some varieties are not well suited to the climate of Southern California; they need it warmer year-round. They can also be very spiny — even the fruit.

Spines on a tropical, yellow dragon fruit variety (not ripe yet).

And there are varieties with marvelous magenta or pink flowers, but the plants don’t grow the best for most people and the flavor of the fruit isn’t the best to me.

Where to buy fruit (to taste-test varieties)

If you’d like to taste dragon fruit varieties before deciding on which to grow, you’ll probably want to avoid grocery stores. The dragon fruit in grocery stores are not usually labelled by variety, not to mention that they are usually poor tasting too. In fact, a few years ago I gave my brother-in-law an S-8 fruit, which he loved. He started telling his friends that dragon fruit are delicious. Then he bought one in the grocery store. He paid about $10 for it, yet it had white flesh that was mealy and bland.

My point is don’t waste your money on dragon fruit from the grocery store. The best varieties and highest quality fruit are to be found at farmers markets and directly from farmers or hobby growers. There are now dragon fruit farmers throughout Southern California so you should be able to find some at most farmers markets, and the farmers should be able to identify varieties for you.

Also, you can buy direct from some farms. All of the ones I know are in San Diego County. One such farm is near me in Ramona: Dragon Delights. Another is Rancho Los Serranos in Valley Center. And there is Wallace Ranch in Bonsall, which is featured in the dragon fruit episode of “A Growing Passion.”

And you can buy direct from home growers through the Tropical Fruit Forum. The season for dragon fruit in Southern California runs from about June into November although peak production is usually August and September.

A final suggestion: Chill your dragon fruit in the fridge before eating it. Dragon fruit tastes so much better when chilled.

The small powerhouse, S-8/Sugar Dragon.

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