Interest from across Africa in Amorentia Sweet Dragon Fruit Marketing Company cultivars

Sweet dragon fruit cultivars introduced to boost South African production

The South African dragon fruit industry is very young and has until now been based on mainly seedling cultivars that didn’t perform equally well across different climatic regions, often resulting in bland fruit and disappointment on the part of the adventurous consumer who pays a premium for this attractive fruit.

Given the lower irrigation water requirements of the dragon fruit, which is a cactus also known as the pitaya, coupled with its health benefits, Amorentia Estate in the Politsi Valley outside Tzaneen, Limpopo Province, decided to introduce American dragon fruit cultivars, bred for a sweet flesh, to South African growers and consumers. 

“Everyone is looking for something new to add to the fruit basket and the dragon fruit has the advantage that it starts bearing fruit in the second year, with full production from the fourth year. It is estimated that its irrigation water requirement is 60% less than that of avocados and macadamias,” explains Wynand Espach, general manager at Amorentia Estate. “An enormous amount of international research and development has already gone into dragon fruit cultivation, mainly in the Far East.”

Furthermore, dragon fruit can be packed and stored in avocado, mango and citrus packhouses, with minor adjustments. For local distribution the fruit is stored at 10°C to 14°C, with a shelf life of two to three weeks, while dragon fruit destined for export would be stored at 3°C to 5°C which prolongs its storage period for up to 42 days.

These dragon fruit plants at Amorentia Estate were established in November 2016, demonstrating their vigorous growth under favourable conditions

The cultivars they’ve brought to the country are naturally self-pollinating and don’t require manual orchard pollination like older cultivars (although the practice does increase fruit size); nevertheless, the night-flowering flowers are irresistible to bees early in the morning and at Amorentia Estate bee hives are placed in the orchards. Four to six bee hives per hectare are recommended for dragon fruit in full production.

The Amorentia Sweet Dragon Fruit Marketing Company Pty (Ltd) was launched in June 2016 with the aim of supplying growers with, at this stage, three dragon fruit cultivars – white (Amorentia Sweet White), pink (Amorentia Sweet Ballet) and cerise pink (Amorentia Sweet India) flesh – as well as providing a marketing platform. The company has six directors, three of whom represent licensed growers who own shares in the company and are elected by the growers, and three drawn from Amorentia Estate. As soon as there are sufficient volumes available, the company’s sweet dragon fruit marketing will start in earnest, first locally and then internationally.

Young dragon fruit plants under netting in the Amorentia Estate nursery

At this early stage, around ten farmers are cultivating Amorentia’s sweet dragon fruit cultivars and just over 20ha have been planted. Amorentia Sweet Dragon Fruit Marketing Company has identified high-potential dragon fruit production regions throughout the country, in both summer and winter rainfall frost-free areas, but interest in their new cultivars comes from as far afield as Togo and Nigeria. 

The first harvest of their cultivars (still limited volumes) was marketed at local stores in Tzaneen this year. It is estimated that under favourable conditions a yield of 20 to 30t/ha is possible on mature plants.

Dragon fruit plants are available on a first-come, first-served basis to growers, who are advised to cultivate them as recommended by Amorentia Estate, where, after various trials, they have found that the best method to support the plant while maintaining a manageable harvesting height, is to train it up a 1.8m high reinforced concrete pole with square concrete frames at the top. Two plants are positioned on opposite sides of the structure. Two stems of each plant are led up the rough concrete structure (initially tied to the post but eventually aerial anchoring roots develop) and once the plant reaches the top, branches which can grow to 3m long, are allowed to trail downwards. 

Amorentia Estate has established that the best method of plant support is in the form of these concrete structures

Establishment costs of dragon fruit are therefore quite high, but locally the fruit demands really high prices, easily R50 (€3.17) or more per kilogram.

Under South African conditions it is recommended that dragon fruit be established under irrigation. Soil needs to be free-draining but very fertile. Compost greatly assists in softening the soil.

The plants start flowering in September or October. Fruit ripens over a period of thirty to fifty days, depending on the cultivar, and are harvested up to May, through a succession of five or six flowering cycles per plant during a season. A commercial dragon fruit plant remains productive for about two decades. “At this stage we have not encountered a single disease that affects the fruit,” says Sarie Espach, manager of the dragon fruit and avocado divisions of the nursery. 

Amorentia Sweet Dragon Fruit Marketing Company is also investigating other uses for dragon fruit. The gorgeous colour of the pink- and cerise-fleshed cultivars lends itself to products like ice cream and ice lollies.

For more information:
Sarie Espach
Amorentia Estate
Tel: +27 82 855 0410

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