Dragon fruit

The dragon fruit breathes a lot less fire than its legendary namesake.

Legendary? Perhaps not

Legends are silly. They’re not ‘cute’, they’re not ‘historical’; they’re complete nonsense. Where do they come from? What form of bored mind dreamed them up in the first place? Did they have nothing better to with their time? Why do we in the twenty-first century have to put up with these inanities?

Ghosts and witches? Goblins and elves, whatever they are supposed to be? Please. Even kings aren’t immune to having daft tales perpetuated about them for centuries. King Arthur, pulling a sword from a stone and some helpless young lady (“moistened bint” as so delicately described in Monty Python and the Holy Grail) from a lake? Come on – this is silly.

Does anyone really thing that some bloke in green tights and a dodgy hat ran around Sherwood Forest with lots of other wholesome chaps a few centuries back and took from the rich so that he could hand out the dosh to the poor? And was Maid Marion really the only female around? Either there’s more to this than meets the eye, or it’s a complete fabrication.

Who cares what happened at Stonehenge? It’s a load of rocks in a big circle – nothing else.

Urban legends are even worse – people actually believe in them. Stories abound. The setting is a rock concert for some second-rate band in the US, at some unknown time in the past. After playing for some time, just after a featured guitar solo, someone near the front of the crowd boos loudly. In response to the booing, a member of the band comes to the microphone and issues a challenge: “If you think you can do better, come on up here”. Eric Clapton climbs on to the stage.

Yeah, right. There are those who will insist that this is a true tale – the sort of anecdote you can chuck in at parties to amaze and entertain. Unfortunately, the opposite happens, as this is of course complete nonsense; an urban legend.

There are hundreds of them floating around; we’re all guilty of retelling them. Most people have probably heard the tale, usually imparted as a “something that really happened to a friend of a friend”, of the dotty grandmother who tried to dry her damp poodle by placing it in the microwave oven. The dog cooked from the inside out, then exploded unfortunately, and Grandma has never been quite the same since.

What about the one about the young lady alone in her apartment, who goes to bed with her dog on the floor beside her. In the middle of the night, she is woken up by a strange sound. She’s alarmed, but reaches down to the dog, who licks her hand. Reassured, she goes back to sleep. The next morning, she finds the dog has met a grisly end in the shower. Where the dog slept, she picks up a note which reads “Humans can lick, too”.

Anyway, back to those regular legends that are so often perpetuated. I’m from England, as you may or may not by now be aware. Perhaps our most famous legend revolves around a bloke called “George” who probably never existed, with the title ‘saint’. He is supposed to have gloriously slain a mythical dragon while saving a damsel in distress – a princess, supposedly – from being burnt to a crisp by the dragon’s fire-breathing party trick.

There’s actually a dragon in the plant world that has very little in common with its legendary namesake. This dragon is a fruit; a fruit not exactly renowned for spouting flames.

It’s not like any other fruit that I’m aware of. The dragon fruit is kind of an oval shape, about the size of a grapefruit. It has a particularly vivid pink color and a few weird reptilian scales on the outside – presumably where the ‘dragon’ epithet originated.

The dragon fruit is also known as the ‘strawberry pear’, ‘pitaya’ or ‘pitahaya’, or hylocereus undatus if you want to get technical. It doesn’t even come from a fruit tree as such – this is the fruit of a species of cactus.

Although it’s usually grown in tropical climates, it’s unclear where the dragon fruit plants came from in the first place. They are native to Mexico, Central and Southern America, and are today cultivated in Southeast Asia. The dragon fruit is actually now the leading fruit export of Vietnam.

When you cut through the melon-like skin into the flesh of the fruit, there’s a stark contrast with the outside skin. You’ll find an opaque white inner with black seeds throughout. The seeds are a bit like the ones found inside a kiwi fruit, in that they’re edible.

The cactus which the dragon fruit comes from can grow anywhere between a few centimeters up to about six meters for the more mature plants. In nature, these plants survive by growing on trees – they grow out of the soil and over it until they find a tree they can grow on using their aerial roots.

They’re not particularly fussy about the type of soil they grow in although grow best when the soil is kept high in nutrients by adding in organic matter. Do I really need to spell that one out?

I’m not sure that there’s anything ‘normal’ about this plant at all. The ornate flowers that the plants produce only appear during the night and last only one night, so pollination has to take place at that point to get a crop of dragon fruit. However, to counter this plants can product four to six crops of fruit each year.

Propagation is child’s play.  By just scooping out some of the flesh and separating out the seeds, you’re ready to start planting. Sow them in pots containing gritty potting compost, water and then enclose the whole thing in a polythene bag. It really is as easy as that.

You’ll then need to be patient for a couple of weeks before you’ll see the seedlings starting to appear. Initially, the seedlings have two leaves on them; these are the only leaves this plant will ever produce. From this point onwards a spiny stem will begin to grow between the center of these leaves, with the leaves dropping off after a few months. In theory, you should then be able to grow your own dragon fruit. In theory, anyway.

Alternatively, you can create new plants by stem cutting. This means you’ll need to find a willing neighbor with a dragon fruit cactus, cut off a section of his stem and plant it directly into the ground – a lot faster than growing through seeds. It usually takes at least six months for the first bloom and another 45 days or so for the fruits to develop from the flower buds.

I was going to polish this inane, prolix discourse off with a legend about how the dragon fruit got its name, but I thought better of it, as I’d rather finish a couple of sentences sooner and go down to the pub. I wonder if the Stonehenge designers ever realized that it would be a lot more fun to sit down with an ale than dream up reasons to put big rocks in a circle. Cheers.



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