"There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion" Francis Bacon 1561-1626

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Leaf of the Day: Dragon Fruit

It's Monday and you may think that, as I have been head down and working hard, the approach of Hurricane Fay has passed me by. No indeed! We have the weather channel to hand and are laying in supplies. I bought a useful torch and some water today so I can keep on painting.
However I spent most of this morning packing up the assignment which was double wrapped and protected with extra layers of foamcore for its perilous journey to the UK and is now posted. Joy..

Meanwhile through all the angst of last week, the good dragon fruit have been sitting quietly in the fridge. It's ten days now and they seem very little changed. They are odd things and, most interesting to me, they are the fruit of a cactus, Hylocereus undatus.


Photo from plantogram here

This strange and beautiful plant originates from Central America where it is also known also known as pithaya or pitahaya. It is referred to as a vining cactus which will twist its way through trees and over fences and can reach 20ft in length. It is this twisting green body which then sports these scaly red "heads" that gives the dragon fruit its name. It really does remind me of the beautiful ink paintings of the dragons appearing from mist in the old Japanese screens. I was so delighted to find this image from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts here .


Doan (Yamada Yorikiyo), Japanese Dragon, ink on paper, around 1560.
It must be one of my favourite dragon paintings. Somewhere I still have an old photocopy of this image, from at least 25 years ago when I was researching Japanese dragons and legends.

The cactus has huge and beautiful white flowers which can be over a foot in length but it is another night blooming species so unless you are an insomniac you are not likely to see one.




Developing fruit and flower from tradewindsfruit website here. They have some wonderful fruits.

The plant seems to be happy growing over fences or as trees in commercial orchards and also it looks very nice in pot!
I have cut one in half and not found it that exciting to eat. The one I have is the white pulp variety with millions of tiny black seeds.. the more beautiful one which I had in Nicaragua had flesh of a stunning dark magenta.

William Chow has written a book about dragon fruit and has a website here with some wonderful photos..this one really shows the plants in their full glory.



And this delightful photograph of a whole bundle of dragons is from
I love pithya.co here



You really do want there to be a legend about the dragon fruit don't you? But it seems the only one, something to do with eating the dragon's fire, was made up by some creative marketing people to enhance the fruit's appeal. But I guess all legends have to start somewhere.

Frida Kahlo's has painted dragon fruit..here is her painting "Pitahayas".
Superficially it is a still life, but typically of Kahlo, there is an uneasy element in the shape of a little skeleton sitting on the adjacent rock holding a scythe. It is a surreal image and reminds me of the English artist Tristram Hillier, whose classic 1950's illustrations for the old Shell guide books have the same disturbing feeling.


Frida Kahlo, Still Life: , 1938, oil on aluminum, 10 x 14 inches. Collection of Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.

I quote from the Madison Museums description of the painting.

"In many respects, Kahlo's depiction is realistic, even including two pitted rocks and round cactus to suggest the fruit's habitat. But the artist takes liberties and makes certain decisions that give her still life its special meanings. First, these pitahayas are decomposing; the healthy yellow skin has over-ripened to a garish red-orange. The skins have burst open, and brown rot has set in. One has been sliced open to reveal what we would expect, the white flesh and black seeds. But the cuts are perfectly rounded rims. The sectioned fruits stare out with other-earthly eyes. Presiding over the fruits is a small seated skeleton who holds a scythe that identifies it as the grim reaper—death itself. This figure is a calavera. It is associated with El Dia de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead), Mexico's most popular holiday that commences for two days on November 1—All Saints Day in the Catholic liturgical calendar.
Kahlo's still life is a meditation on death. Because of its watery freshness that can provide sustenance in the most barren of terrains, the pitahaya is known as the "fruit of the shipwrecked man." But even this most life-giving of fruits is given to decay. If realistic in certain details, this still life is magical. "


Hmmm "the fruit of the shipwrecked man" I like that. A fruit, growing in the desert. A welcome and refreshing relief for a stranded traveller in a scorched and barren land. There must be a legend in there somewhere.
What have I done? Well so far a drawing. I do have a drawing ready to paint but tomorrow I have to spend a day on my other blog so maybe Wednesday..
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Dragon Fruit


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