Tag Archives: Hylocereus costaricensis

Introducing Delonix regia

Delonix regia

As mentioned before, the big trip to Nicaragua at the end of May/beginning of June was work-related, which puts certain restrictions on botanical sightseeing. It’s bad enough being the only person in the general party actually thrilled to see my old friend Hylocereus costaricensis, the dragonfruit cactus, in the wild (or possibly its cousin H. undatus), and confirming that they grow best in medium to heavy shade during the hottest parts of the year. It should be understandable that my cohorts weren’t going to stop the bus every time I saw something vaguely interesting along the side of the road, and much of the area around Grenada had very handy cliffs and even a few volcano calderas to throw me into if I didn’t stop whining. Because this was business, I settled for biting my tongue, grumbling slightly, and trying my best to get decent photographs before the drivers had us on the other side of the galaxy.

(Incidentally, I learned something very handy and very thoughtful that hadn’t come up in years of bicycling in the States. For many reasons, Nicaragua is absolutely loaded with bicycles, and I watched fathers with two kids on the top bar cruise through traffic with grace and elan. Only recently have motorists in the States, particularly in Texas, accepted the increasing number of bikes on the road, so I still deal with the occasional jerk who thinks it’s still 1983 and that there’s something fundamentally wrong with someone over the age of 14 on a bike, under any conditions. Because of that, I was still rather defensive of anybody honking behind me, as that usually meant an idiot who expected the bikes to get off the road just for them, even if they were the only other person on the road. I’m serious: I had one bozo blast her horn from her SUV for a good half-mile, tailgating me the whole way, and then finally pull around just in time for us both to look at each other at the stoplight. Well, I looked at her: she stared straight ahead and did her best to avoid eye contact while her kids stared. I just told them “You’re all right, but your mom really needs to up her medication” before pedaling off.

(Anyway, it took a trip of this sort for me to make sense of a horn habit that hadn’t made sense before. As mentioned, I used to get defensive about people honking at me, and would get angry when a motorist would pass with a quick double-tap on the horn. “Yeah, I know, I’m in your way. I’m trying to get out of it.” What I discovered was that for Central America at least, this is a sign of respect: the double-tap is to inform the cyclist that a car or truck is coming up behind, and that the driver saw and acknowledged the cyclist’s presence. Now, when I get this at home, I don’t get surly. Instead, I wave and thank them, and the drivers are always surprised that the crazy white guy on the bike actually gets it.)

One of those minor grumbles came up over and over with a particularly beautiful tree that was so brilliantly orange that it was visible from the air well over the Managua airport. Everywhere we went, these trees followed, so orange that I thought the foliage was orange. Upon closer inspection, the coloration was from the blooms, but what blooms! I thought our native crepe myrtles did a great job of hiding their foliage among brilliant cascades of flowers, but this one could have taught the crepe myrtles about eight or nine lessons. My problem was being given a chance to focus in on an impressive canopy of them while moving at speeds that threatened to blue-shift the pigments.

Delonix regia

Finally, I managed to get close to a small specimen, and just stood and stared at the blooms. Each was easily the size of my hand, looking more like something manufactured from steel or bronze than anything botanical. For the rest of the trip, I’d gaze contentedly at those trees as they passed by on the highway back to the airport, telling myself that one day, I’d come back and give them much more time and attention.

Delonix regia

The real surprise on this is that while I and everyone else in the group thought these were indigenous trees, our not having seen them before was only because we lived far too north. We’d encountered Delonix regia, commonly and appropriately named “flamboyant”. Originally from Madagascar, the flamboyant tree grew enthusiastically and vigorously any place where the conditions were right, and went feral over most of the Earth’s tropics. In the US, they’re apparently only found in the Rio Grande Valley in far southern Texas and in southern Florida, but they’re as cosmopolitan a tropical tree as can be managed.

Delonix regia

That was another big surprise: while the northern half of Nicaragua may be jungle, the area around Grenada was much drier and scrubbier, and I saw a lot of analogues to plants I would have seen in North Texas that were thriving under many of the same conditions. The surprise was seeing so many plants, particularly cacti, that I recognized from just about any garden center or commercial nursery back home. At first, I thought that these may have originated in Central America and gained their current popularity due to imports to America and Europe, but D. regia‘s range makes me wonder about that. Time for more research, and the hope that I might live long enough to finish it.

Introducing Hylocereus costaricensis

In what’s shaping up to be the worst drought in recorded Texas history, there’s a few bits of good news. Namely, it’s a remarkably good season for dragonfruit cactus.

Hylocereus costaricensis

The genus Hylocereus is one of the two genera of true cactus raised commercially for food: the other being the prickly pear Opuntia. In the US, two varieties generally appear for sale in Asian markets and high-end grocery stores, and both are sold under the common name “dragonfruit”. It’s not hard to see why, between the color and the scales, as shown below.

Dragonfruit

The difference between the two is really only obvious when you cut one open. H. undatus has white flesh speckled with tiny black seeds. H. costaricensis, though, is a brilliant red-purple, about the color of fresh pomegranate juice, with the same black seeds. Sometimes it can be hard to tell which variety is which solely based on the rind, but it really doesn’t matter as far as the flavor is concerned. First-time dragonfruit eaters are often disappointed at the seeming lack of flavor in the ripe fruit, as it’s really subtle, but the crunchy consistency makes up for it. (I personally prefer it well-chilled, quartered, and served with the rind on the back of each segment, but it’s also a great addition to fruit salad or smoothies, and dragonfruit jam is apparently quite popular in England. I’ve heard of recipes that involve broiling dragonfruit like grapefruit, but dragonfruit doesn’t last long enough around the house for this to be an option.)

Sliced dragonfruit

With one big caveat, both commercially available varieties of Hylocereus are very easy to raise in propagation. They can be grown from seed taken from ripe fruit: my best results have come from mashing a chunk of the fruit gently with the flat of a knife, smearing the pulp atop standard potting compost, and keeping the compost moist but not wet. The only real problem with this method is that the resultant seedlings are very slow-growing, and they tend to be rather susceptible to large changes in environmental conditions. A much more dependable method of propagation involves cuttings, and considering how often branches break off, simply putting the cutting atop a pot full of compost can produce a full-sized plant within a year instead of three to four for seedlings. Most branches grow aerial roots whenever the ambient humidity is above 50 percent, so just sink those into the compost and watch the plant take over.

As a potted plant, H. costaricensis makes a spectacular hanging basket. In the wild, Hylocereus climbs trees with the help of those aerial roots clinging to bark, but it also apparently sprouts in the crooks of large trees or rocks and hangs downward. Since it’s a tropical cactus, Hylocereus cannot handle sustained freezes, and should be brought into shelter when the outdoor temperatures drop below 40 degrees F (4.44 degrees C). Since it adapts very well to both standard pots and hanging pots, though, this generally isn’t a problem. The typical cactus spines are both small and fragile in Hylocereus, and don’t appear to set off any sort of allergic reaction, but be cautious all the same. Other than giving it full sun to light shade whenever possible, these cactus are very low-maintenance: I water whenever dry, and fertilize with bat guano about once per month.

Hylocereus costaricensis in hanging basket

Remember the caveat mentioned before about dragonfruit propagation? If you’re planning to grow any Hylocereus, don’t expect the cactus to start blooming until it gets big. Most growers report that the individual plants won’t bloom until they weigh at least 10 pounds (4.53 kilograms), and some varieties may not bloom until the total weight of the plant is over 20 pounds (9.07 kilograms). The good news is that unlike most other cactus, Hylocereus is self-fertile, with some plants producing fruit without being pollinated at all. They’re also apparently capable of producing viable hybrids within the genus, leading to quite the entertaining assortment of cultivar names, ranging from “David Bowie” to “Physical Graffiti”. In addition, the night-blooming flowers are huge, resembling giant white versions of Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera spp.) and very sweet-smelling.

The only complaint I have about raising Hylocereus is minor. Namely, growing them is addictive. Expect to see several plants at next month’s FenCon show, and we can all sing Ministry’s “Just One Fix” together.