9 Common Dragon Fruit-Growing Problems

Dragon fruit is a fascinating tropical cactus with delectably sweet fruits, but these plants can face some growing problems that cause major disappointment in the garden. Garden expert Logan Hailey explains the most common issues that growers face with this edible cactus and how to prevent them.

Close-up of watering a potted dragon fruit in a large terracotta pot using a green hose with a sprayer - overwatered.

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Sweet tropical treats are sorely lacking in most grocery stores. Also known as pitahaya, dragon fruit is a unique cactus with vine-like spiky leaves and vibrant fuchsia fruits. Only a handful of varieties are grown commercially, and most do not compare to the ultra-sweet enjoyment of ripe fruit straight from the vine. 

Growing this rare subtropical cactus offers an incredible diversity of flavors, colors, and botanical interest for your garden and kitchen. The plant is surprisingly easy to end, but it can face some problems if you aren’t prepared to meet its needs.

Let’s dig into the 9 most common dragon fruit growing problems and how to prevent them.

YouTube video

What Problems Do Dragon Fruit Trees Have?

  • Lack of flowers (tipping can “force” flower buds)
  • Too small of a container
  • Cactus rust
  • Overwatering
  • Poor fruit set (usually due to poor pollination)
  • Temperature damage
  • Weak trellising system
  • Improper varietal selection

How to Avoid 9 Dragon Fruit Growing Problems

It’s easy to become obsessed with a plant as unique as pitahaya. This exotic vining cactus is both ornamental and edible. The climbing wavy-margined cactus leaves are intriguing and vigorous. At maturity, delicious bright-colored fruits grow from dazzling night-blooming flowers

Whether you have an established plant or you want to try growing dragon fruit cuttings for the first time, here are the 9 most common problems and how to avoid them!

Lack of Flowers and Fruits

The flowers are small, reddish in color, and cluster at the tips of the plant's stems.
The lack of flower buds can be fixed with simple maintenance.

If you have a ton of vegetative growth on your plants, but don’t see any flower buds, several factors could be in place. This problem can be related to plant stress, overwatering, disease, or just the age of the plant—most plants don’t start fruiting until the second or third year. 

But often the lack of flower buds can be solved with two simple maintenance tricks. These special pro tips will promote more buds, blooms, and fruits!

Tipping

Close-up of a gardener tipping a stem using red pruning shears in the garden.
Forcing redirects energy to boost flower and fruit production.

“Tipping” is one of the best solutions for a lack of flowers! Also known as “forcing,” this method essentially forces the cactus to stop putting all its energy into leaf growth. While it isn’t essential for growth, tipping can dramatically improve flowering and fruiting. 

First, wait until your cactus has reached almost the top of its trellis. Then, use sharp, sanitized shears to cut off the tips of each vine

Removing the tips communicates to the plant to produce flower buds on that piece of stem. Instead of funneling its energy into more foliage growth, the vine will shift toward flower and fruit production. After tipping, it can take one to two months to see flower buds begin forming. 

P and K Fertilizer

Close-up of a gardener applying granular fertilizer to vibrant, green plants thriving on a vertical support system, surrounded by nutrient-rich mulched soil
Switch to a phosphorus and potassium fertilizer to enhance blooms.

Most garden plants share similar nutrient needs: They use a lot of nitrogen in the leafy (vegetative) growth stage, then they shift toward more phosphorus and potassium during the flowering and fruiting (reproductive) stage. 

Once your plant is close to the top of its trellis and about a year old, you don’t want to add a ton of nitrogen fertilizer. More nitrogen stimulates more green growth. Instead, it’s helpful to shift to a fertilizer high in phosphorus and potassium. This won’t “force” a bloom like the tipping method, but it will enhance flower and fruit production.

A few months before you want your tree to bloom (usually early summer), practice tipping and add the P/K fertilizer to the soil.

Cold Weather or Extreme Heat

The plant exhibits wilted leaves that appear limp and drooping, accompanied by fruits that are shriveled and discolored at the tips.
Protect your plant from extreme temperatures for optimal growth.

Cold damage on this tropical plant is a major bummer, but extreme heat can also dwindle fruit yields. Dragon fruit plants are only hardy outdoors USDA zones 10-11. The plants prefer to grow in temperatures between 65-80°F (18-27°C), but they can handle down to 35°F (2°C) during dormancy. Temperate growers can grow the cactus in a greenhouse or a rolling planter to move indoors in the winter.

In zone 9, they require frost protection like frost blankets (row fabric), greenhouse growing, or indoor relocation for the winter. Cold-damaged plants may become stunted, droopy, mushy, two-toned (yellowish-green), and lack flowers. If the leaves are actually exposed to frost, they will likely shrivel and die.

On the other end of the spectrum, many people forget that this tropical cactus is not as heat-hardy as its desert relatives. In zones 11 and 12, the plant may need shade cloth or dappled shade to protect it from temperatures over 100°F (38°C). Wilting and leaf scorching in extreme heat is common.

Be sure to protect your cactus from extreme temperatures to ensure it can live an abundant life. If your plant experiences frost or extreme heat, prune away damaged areas, increase watering (but avoid overwatering), and immediately move it to a milder location. These plants perform best in full sunlight with a large pot and temperatures between 65-80°F (18-27°C).

Wrong Pot Size or Material

Close-up of dragon fruit plants planted in large brown clay pots with vertical trellises with hanging succulent dark green stems with spines on the ribs.
Start with a large pot to avoid frequent transplanting later on.

To successfully grow this plant, you will need a pot that is at least 20 gallons or larger. These cacti can grow very large. The plants live for 4-10 years or more, and yield abundantly in the right setting. 

But most beginners accidentally plant the cuttings in small containers. It is OK to start small if you plan to transplant or up-pot. However, it is best to root the cactus cuttings in a large container from the start. This will save you the time and difficulty of potting up the plant. Trust me, the transplanting process is arduous once the cactus is large! 

Pot Material

A close-up of six large round-shaped terracotta pots that have a rustic, earthy appearance with a reddish-brown color.
Choose a sturdy terracotta pot with excellent drainage for optimal growth.

The pot material is also very important. This cactus has strong, vigorous roots that can easily burst out of a thin container. Plastic, fabric, or thin ceramic are not ideal. A thick, sturdy terracotta pot is best

Terracotta is also ideal because it allows maximum drainage. Earthen pots naturally wick water away from the root zone. This tropical cactus enjoys a little more water than its desert cousins. However, the water must drain out quickly to prevent root rot and waterlogged soil. Check that your pot has large drainage holes in the bottom so you can prevent water issues down the line.

Pot Shape and Sturdiness

Close-up of young plants with vertical green stems and spines in large terracotta pots with wooden supports.
Choose a stout, wide pot with a broad base for stability.

The shape of the pot should also be considered. A tall, skinny pot will not provide the proper foundation for this plant. You want a container that has a broad base and moderate height to prevent the cactus from toppling over. Stout and wide pots that hold 25-30 gallons of soil are ideal. They provide maximum root area while weighing down the base of the plant.

Remember, this is a vining cactus! As we’ll discuss below, a strong trellis is essential, but the trellis must have the support system of a sturdy pot. The vines can rapidly climb a six-foot-tall 4×4 post in the first year. High winds can cause stability issues. Prevent these problems from the start to ensure you don’t wake up to a fallen-over cactus.

Cactus Rust

Leaves affected by rust show reddish-brown, powdery spots and patches on their green surface.
Early detection of cactus rust prevents serious plant damage.

The most common disease that afflicts dragon fruit is called cactus rust. This rust mainly spreads during the wintertime. High humidity, dew, and mist can transfer the rust between plants. If you leave the rust to proliferate, you may face major problems like shoot die-back and vine death. But if you catch cactus rust early, it is easy to control.

The easiest way to identify this disease is by the little orange dots on the leaves. The orange dots eventually turn to larger blisters that spread over the cactus leaves. The blisters will eat away the flesh and spread rapidly amongst plants, especially in wet weather.

Prevention and Treatment

Close-up of a gardener's hand spraying copper fungicide on a diseased leaf affected by rust.
Hydrogen peroxide spray effectively controls early cactus rust outbreaks organically.

When you barely start to notice orange rust dots, a hydrogen peroxide spray is the best means of preventing spread. Use a mix of half hydrogen peroxide (3% peroxide) and half water. Put these in a spray bottle and apply directly to the affected spots. This is the best option for keeping your garden as organic as possible.

For moderate infections, you may need to step up the game to protect your dragon fruit. Organicide is an organic fungicide that can be diluted and sprayed directly on the leaves. 

If cactus rust is really attacking your plant, you may need to apply a copper fungicide. Copper is a much stronger treatment, but it always kills the pathogen. This method is very reliable, but it is not ideal for organic growers. Aim to practice the lower-impact methods first before resorting to copper. 

Apply your sprays to the plant in the morning or evening when sunlight is not directly hitting the branches of the plant. This will prevent scorch or damage from the spray itself.

Overwatering

Close-up of watering potted plants using a green hose with a spray nozzle.
For healthy growth, avoid overwatering—check soil moisture before watering deeply.

It is a big mistake to overwater this cactus. This growing problem is incredibly common because many people mistakenly treat dragon fruit like other tropical plants. Although this tropical cactus requires more water than a desert cactus, it still dislikes excessively wet conditions. A happy medium is crucial for healthy roots and fruits! This tropical plant needs more water than the average cactus but less water than the average vegetable!

About one inch of water per week is ideal. If you have a larger pot, the soil will stay moist for longer. Before watering, it’s important to dig your hand into the soil profile to check that it is dry. Do not water if the soil still feels moist in the lower layers.

Overwatering leads to major problems with root rot. Above-ground, you will notice new stem pieces start plopping off. While the stem pieces can be saved and rooted as cuttings, it will set back the overall plant growth. 

Ultimately, overwatering is easy to prevent as long as you check your soil. Do not follow a set watering schedule (ie. water every two days). Instead, check your plant a few times per week and be ready for seasonal variation based on the temperature and humidity. Do not water unless the soil feels dry to the touch five to six inches down in the pot.

Improper Pruning and Training

Close-up of a gardener pruning the side shoots of a plant using red pruning shears in the garden.
Proper trellising and regular pruning ensure optimal growth and fruit production.

Lack of pruning and improper trellising are major problems with any perennial vining plant. It is especially problematic with dragon fruit because the vining stems can quickly get out of hand. If you forget to tie the plant to the trellis, it can run off in its own direction. 

Fortunately, the vines are somewhat flexible, so you can re-train them and give them a haircut. Garden tape or twine are easy ways to tie the leaves to the trellis, and sharp hand pruners make it easy to cut off side shoots. However, if you avoid pruning, the plant can get out of control and fail to focus its energy on the growth you want (upward vining, then flowers and fruit!)

If your cactus starts to vine downward or away from the trellis, it may send out a bunch of sucker shoots on the lower parts of the vine. These suckers must be pruned away to promote upward growth. Every thorn is a potential budding node. Improperly trellised plants can put out stem pieces at every thorn along the vine. 

If these stems are left in place, they suck energy away from plant growth and fruit production. Think of these lower stems as similar to tomato suckers. You don’t want the plant to branch and “sucker” outward until it reaches the top of the trellis. 

Weak Trellis Design

Close-up of a row of growing potted dragon fruit plants with tall wooden trellises in the garden.
A strong, durable trellis is essential for supporting these vines.

We all know that trellising is important for any vining plant. But a trellis is especially important for perennial vines! Plants with long lifespans grow very long, tall, and heavy! The trellis must be able to support the weight of the cactus, or you may face disaster. A weak trellis is a common problem amongst beginner growers who fail to plan for the impressive size of this plant.

You may use a bamboo stick to keep a young cutting upright, but a flimsy stake will not cut it for a mature cactus. Instead, take the time to invest in quality wood and trellis design that is proven to last. Generally, it is difficult to find pre-built trellises for this unique plant. You will have to get out your tools and construct your own. Fortunately, the design is quite simple.

Dragon fruit expert Richard Lee of @graftingdragonfruit and our very own Epic Gardening dragon fruit fanatic Kevin both recommend a trellis made of 4×4 wooden posts with a square-shaped support system on the top. The plant naturally wants to grow straight upward, then cascade downward over an upper “cap” part of the trellis.

Here is an overview of the lumber you need:

  • Five-foot-tall 4×4 fence posts (untreated—do not use pressure-treated wood!)
  • 2×4 framing lumber (for the top “square” structure with a slat across the middle)
  • Ideally, choose rot-resistant wood like cedar, especially for the posts that will be buried

You will also need these basic tools:

  • Large pots (explained above)
  • Circular saw or hand saw
  • Drills and bits
  • 2.5” exterior deck screws

This video includes everything you need to know about building a proper trellis:

YouTube video

Not Enough Cuttings

Close-up of a gardener sitting next to a large terracotta pot with several cuttings attached to a wooden trellis.
Plant multiple cuttings per pot for better fruit yield and growth.

While overcrowding is a common problem in vegetable gardens, some fruit growers actually under-plant their dragon fruit. A properly sized pot and trellis can support more than one cutting! If you are disappointed by the amount of growth and fruits, you may need to plant more cuttings per pot.

If you are using the 4×4 post trellis method described above, it makes sense to plant four cuttings—one on each side of the post. All of these cuttings can grow into their own tall vine to ensure more production from a single pot. 

Of course, you don’t want to crowd dozens of cuttings into one container. But keep in mind that a giant pot can support more than one plant. The four to six individual vines will grow together and work in conjunction to fill out the trellis, ensuring a larger fruit set. 

This is especially important if you plant a variety that requires cross-pollination. These cultivars are called self-sterile dragon fruits. In that case, you must have a different variety in order for the plants to set fruit. 

You can avoid this problem by growing self-fertile, self-pollinating varieties like ‘Vietnam White’ or ‘Sugar Dragon.’ These plants can pollinate themselves but may need some hand pollination to transfer pollen between flowers. Regardless of the type you choose, be sure to plant several cuttings in every pot! This strategy will yield more delicious fruit!

Lack of Sunlight

The dragon fruit plant has thick, fleshy green stems with spines, broad, flat leaves, and young green fruit topped with a wilted flower.
Provide ample sunlight to ensure healthy dragon fruit growth.

One final problem faced by many northern growers is a lack of sunlight. This tropical cactus needs at least six to eight hours of direct sunlight per day. If you are growing the cactus indoors to protect it from the cold, it still needs plenty of light to properly grow and yield. The stems can grow faded green and yellow or start drooping and stunting if they don’t get enough sunlight. The solution is a bright location near a sunny window and a supplemental grow light if needed.

Only the hottest climate gardeners need to worry about excess light. If your region experiences scorching bright summers, keep the plant in an area with dappled shade, but be sure it still receives six to eight hours of sun.

Final Thoughts

Dragon fruit is an intriguing experiment for any gardener interested in tropical growing. While it may seem intimidating, this exotic vining cactus is actually easygoing and vigorous once established. For maximum success, plant in a large pot, avoid overwatering, use a strong trellis, practice pruning, and regularly remove the tips (to force flowers). 

Avoid disease problems by monitoring the leaves for signs of orange rust dots. If you notice rust spreading, apply diluted hydrogen peroxide in the evenings to help stop the pathogen. Only resort to harsher controls if the rust starts forming blisters and taking over your plant. 

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