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Burgeoning South African dragon fruit industry

2019/09/02

DATE:March, 2, 2017 / Fresh Plaza

The South African dragon fruit industry is still in its infancy but consumers are becoming increasingly aware of this exotic fruit from the Americas. Those on South African shelves come mostly from Vietnam.

Max van Heerden of Dragon Fruit SA, a forum for growers to exchange cultivation ideas and advice, which also provides them with planting material, estimates the area under production to be about 20 to 30ha. “Within three years those areas should be in full production.” He is very excited about the prospects of the fruit for the local industry. “We are so lucky: as soon as our production is ready, the main global producers like Vietnam are in their winter season. I see it as an untapped niche for the South African fruit industry.”

“Dragon fruit is a very easy grower but cultivar selection is particularly important,” says Alan Peckham, dragon fruit grower in KwaZulu-Natal. “If you don’t use the right cultivar, the fruit can be bland and tasteless. For instance, in the Komatipoort area they grow American Beauty and it grows beautifully there in their dry heat up to 40 degrees Celsius, but down here in KwaZulu-Natal its fruit is tasteless.” Peckham has experimented with 16 cultivars, both white and pink-fleshed, which he has whittled down to three that are more adapted to moist, hot conditions.

South African growers are aided by Amorentia Nursery in Tzaneen, Limpopo Province, that has registered 14 cultivars imported from the United States under the Amorentia Sweet Dragon Fruit trademark. They handle marketing on behalf of a growing group of dragonfruit producers in the northeast of the country and are currently in negotiations with supermarket groups and exporters.

“It’s very difficult to say how much dragon fruit is produced in South Africa at the moment. Many growers have small areas under production, mostly in the Malelane-Komatipoort area, but also some plantings in KwaZulu-Natal,” says Wynand Espach of Amorentia Nursery. 

Dragon Fruit SA is involved in setting up small test plots of dragon fruit in rural areas of KwaZulu-Natal where it has huge potential for generating income in impoverished areas. Growers are even growing the fruit in areas of Gauteng with sharp frosts in winter, like the Randfontein area.

The American Beauty variety that is suitable to the north of the country is self-pollinating, but those adapted to KZN conditions need to be hand-pollinated. In nature moths and bats pollinate the flowers at night, and bees during early morning before the cactus-like flowers close. For that reason, Peckham adds, growers need to take into account the labour involved in the variety, despite it being an easy grower. Dragon fruit are vigorous climbers grown on trellises and flower only once a year, but the advantage is that plants start bearing fruit in their second year.

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