To pollinate dragon fruit (Pitaya), those round, red orbs looking like little Sputniks with spikes sticking out of them, it takes patience and a few tools. The dragon fruit flower appears at unusual hours between 9:00 p.m. and 9:00 a.m., so burning the midnight oil is necessary if you want to gather pollen. Some dragon fruit is self-pollinating, and others are not. If your plant doesn't fruit during a season, you'll know which kind it is. Relying on moths and bats to do the nighttime pollinating is fine, but the fun is in doing it yourself by hand pollination.
Origins of Dragon Fruit
While it looks like a Chinese dragon, the dragon fruit is actually a product of Mexico and South America. The French introduced the fruit to Vietnam, and in turn, it spread across Asia. A cactus, the fruit grows best on a trellis or a post, and once the fruit appears, it hangs down, nearly touching the ground. It can be grown in a garden or in a container on a patio for a dramatic display. The red dragon fruit is the most common, while the yellow version is more difficult to handle because of its thorny skin.
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The yellow variety tastes sweeter than the red, but neither explodes with taste sensations once in your mouth. Its seeds release a slight tang. Refrigerate the pulp before eating or drop some into a cocktail for an adventurous cocktail hour.
How to Pollinate Dragon Fruit Flowers
The flowers that dragon fruit produce are large and open at night to reveal the reproductive system. You have about 12 hours to harvest the pollen, and you'll need a paintbrush and a stainless steel bowl. You can also use a glass jar and nylon bags. Both work well when collecting pollen. Each flower contains male and female parts, so it is possible to harvest the pollen and then pollinate at the same time.
When the flowers open, place the bowl or glass jar under the flower and shake off the pollen into the bowl. Dip the paintbrush into the yellow, powdery pollen and brush the stigma – the round ball at the top tip of the pistil – with the pollen. This is a slow process, and you'll have to work quickly because once the flower closes, pollination is over. Another approach is to collect all the pollen that you can and refrigerate it for use another night. Just know that the flowers that opened when you collected the pollen won't open again, so you'll have to cross-pollinate into other flowers.
Harvesting Dragon Fruits
The time between flowering and fruiting varies. Size is the determinant, and that's not known until the fruit appears. It can take anywhere from six weeks to several months. Before picking the fruit, be sure the color is consistent throughout the fruit and that the skin is slightly supple. Dragon fruits do not continue to ripen once they are off the vine.
If the fruit doesn't come off the vine easily with a slight tug, it's probably not ripe. The thorns on the yellow dragon fruit need to be removed before coming off the vine, and this can be done with tweezers. If the fruit is mature, the thorns will appear to be falling off on their own. Both the red and the yellow dragon fruit should be eaten within days of harvesting.