Yellow Dragonfruit: The Sweetest Pitaya of All
Pitayas are large edible cactus fruits produced by several members of the genera Hylocereus and Stenocereus, and are commonly sold under the name of dragonfruit. Pitayas are native to the Americas but have become most widely cultivated by South-East Asian cultures since being introduced there via European traders.
Pitayas are divided into two groups, the sweet pitayas (those of genus Hylocereus) which are becoming increasing popular with fruit aficionados and the sour pitayas (those of genus Stenocereus) which were of more importance to the indigenous cultures of America for their thirst quenching properties.
The pitaya most commonly seen in green grocers is the red-skinned, white-fleshed red pitaya (Hylocereus undatus). Unfortunately the fruit of the red pitaya are actually the least sweet of all the sweet pitayas, and there are two other sweeter species that I've had the fortune of tasting.
The first is the Costa Rica pitaya (Hylocereus costaricensis, syn. Hylocereus polyrhizus) which looks almost identical to the red pitaya but has deep red flesh when sliced.
The second is even sweeter and holds the title of the sweetest of all the sweet pitayas, it's the yellow pitaya (Hylocereus megalanthus). The yellow pitaya is smaller than both of the red-skinned species and as its name suggests it has a bright yellow skin with white flesh. As the finest of all the dragonfruits, the yellow pitaya is well worth growing at home if you are able to find it and growing conditions where you live are suitable.
Yellow dragonfruit plants grow as a trailing, vine-like cactus. The plants can grow to a large size (with stems up to 20ft / 6m long) and thus require a strong trellis for support to get the best productivity out of them. The stems can produce aerial roots anywhere along their length which helps them to anchor onto nearby trees and other surfaces as they grow. Yellow dragonfruit plants are epiphytic and require very little soil to survive, but they can also be grown in-ground like conventional plants. Yellow pitayas can also be grown in containers which have been only half filled with potting mix, as they'll become large plants the pot also need to be large (around 15 gallons / 50 litres).
The fruits of the yellow dragonfruit have a wonderfully handy, built-in timer that signifies when they are ripe. When they are unripe they are covered in clusters of prominent spines on the apex of each knob of the fruit. As the fruit ripen these spines, which helped to keep the critters away while the fruits were immature, fall off leaving a prickle-free fruit ready to harvest.
Colour is another way to tell the ripeness in these fruit as their skin will turn from green to yellow on ripening, although sometimes perfectly ripe fruit will still be slightly tinged with green.
The best way to eat yellow pitaya fruit is to split them from top to bottom with a sharp knife and scoop out the flesh with a teaspoon, similar to how kiwi fruits are often eaten. The flesh of the sliced fruits is visually striking with numerous small black seeds providing an interesting speckled contrast to the bright white and slightly translucent flesh.
On tasting the first mouthful is very sweet, although the taste-buds soon become accustomed to this sweetness and the aftertaste is more watery. The flavor of the flesh is delicious, a bit like a good sweet pear but more tropical without being musky. The seeds are soft, easy to eat and add a hint of nuttiness to the overall flavor.
The texture of the flesh is juicy and refreshing and similar in consistency to watermelon, although the crunch provided by the seeds causes the overall sensation to be more akin to eating kiwi fruit. The seeds although small take up a good percentage of the volume of the flesh and are really not worth removing during eating, unless of course you wish to try to propagate this wonderful cactus.
Yellow pitayas are quite easy to propagate. The most common way is by cuttings and like most other succulents this is easy to do. Simply break a piece of stem off, place it in a dry spot for a few days to allow it to form a callous, then plant it and keep well watered. Cutting grown plants will be true to type, producing fruit that tastes the same as those of the parent plant.
Alternatively the seeds can be removed from the flesh by mashing them up in a bit of water, drying them on paper towel for at least a few weeks, then planting. The sticky flesh can be quite stubborn to remove. Seed sown plants will be slow growing at first, ensure they do not dry out during this susceptible stage.
Unlike cutting grown plants, seed sown plants will often produce fruit which taste different to their parents although this difference can be good or bad. Unfortunately as seed grown plants take many years to produce fruit it's impossible to tell which plants will end up being keepers until many years down the line. Cutting grown plants will produce fruit much sooner, in as little as a years time under ideal growing conditions.
Yellow pitaya is a tropical species and as such is unlikely to do well if grown in an environment where temperatures fall below 35 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) during Winter. Being a cactus it can survive periods without watering, although growth rate will be reduced. Avoid watering during Winter when plants are not actively growing. Ensure the soil or potting medium used to grow dragonsfruits in is free draining to avoid root rot.
As an added bonus the flowers of the yellow dragonfruit are one of the biggest of any cactus species, up to 15 inches (38 cm) in diameter. However because they are night-flowering and each flower usually only lasts a single night you might actually miss witnessing them in full bloom. The giant, creamy-white flowers are produced from early Summer to mid Autumn and are heavily scented. The species epithet megalanthus means 'large flower' in Greek, a nod to the massive flowers of this plant.
Some cultivars of yellow pitaya are self-pollinating but others require pollination by insects, in particular certain species of night-flying moth. Hand pollinating pitaya plants can increase yields, especially in areas where suitable native insect pollinators are absent. Fruit ripen and become ready to pick from late Autumn to late Winter.
I hope you've learnt something about the fascinating and delicious yellow pitaya. It's one of my favorite cactus species, the finest of all the dragonfruit and well worth growing at home in the backyard if you can. Happy gardening.