Just the name alone conjures up something rare and mysterious — dragon fruit! The fruit itself looks like a large magenta egg with fins. It has a bright, thick, leathery skin that belies the interior. I’ve seen kids reach for it at market, pick it up and look quizzical. Just what is inside? And how does it taste?
The first time I opened up a dragon fruit or pitaya, I thought, “Alien autopsy, here goes!” and sliced. The inside is a solid grayish-white mass flecked with a million tiny black seeds that remind one of kiwi fruit. (There is also a red variety but it is not as common.) The texture is not as slippery or sweet as kiwi, but firm like watermelon, and only mildly sweet. (Some people compare it to eating styrofoam — but since I’m not into chemical cuisine, I wouldn’t know what that tastes like.) I like to eat it plain scooped out with a spoon, but you could peel it, cut it into slices or chunks and add it to a salad. Pitaya sorbet would be refreshing on a hot day. I’ve heard that you can dry the flesh and it tastes like chocolate, but it doesn’t last long enough at my house to test that out.
The fruit grows on what could be a very abstract, elongated dragon. The plant is a long green ribbon-like cactus that loves to climb and climb. If you’re going to grow it, don’t let it climb too far. I’ve seen it race up to the top of a towering royal palm. Good luck harvesting fruit from there without a cherry picker! Commercial growers build pedestal-type trellises for the cactus, and its ribbons wind and drape around themselves, going up so high and no higher. The point of keeping cactus close is to make it easy to pick its fruit. Buds form at the end of its shoots, and those buds open up into the biggest, most outrageous, huge white flowers that bloom for only one night, but smell sweet and attract a frenzy of nocturnal pollinators. Bees go berserk in early morning, just before the blossoms close, loading up on pollen and nectar. Pitaya has been in season all summer long, but is winding down for the winter.
Farmer Tim Rowan grows several dragon fruit plants, and has a bunch of cool pictures of them in all their stages on his blog here.