GROWING PRICKLY PEAR CACTUS


Photo by: Halitomer / Shutterstock.

Prickly pears are a subgroup of Opuntia, identified by their wide, flat, branching pads, and are often called nopal cactus or paddle cactus. Most varieties have a combination of detachable spines and tufts of barbed bristles (glochids) that can cause significant allergic skin reactions. There are also spineless varieties like O. ellisiana and others.

The pads, flowers and fruit of most varieties are edible after careful cleaning. Most prickly pear plants are found in warm, dry climates like the Southwest, although there are some cold-hardy varieties such as the Eastern prickly pear (O. humifusa). As the plants prepare for winter, pads may begin to look shriveled and wilted, but they will green up quickly in spring.

On this page: The Basics | How To Plant | Care | Edible Prickly Pear | Pictures | Design Tips

  • THE BASICS
  • HOW TO PLANT
  • CARE
  • EDIBLE PRICKLY PEARS
  • PICTURES
  • DESIGN TIPS

THE BASICS

Zones:

Generally zones 9-11; some varieties, such as O. humifusa, are cold hardy to zone 4.

Height/Spread:

Varieties range from 6- to 12-inch tall, 18-inch wide low-growing cactus to 10- to 15-foot tall trees.

Exposure:

Full sun

Bloom Time:

June to July

Color:

Prickly pear flower color varies by type, usually yellow, red or purple. Fruit colors can also vary in shades of red, green and yellow-orange.

Other:

Because of their spiny nature, prickly pear cactus are deer resistant.

HOW TO PLANT

When to plant:

Cuttings can be started at any time, but you may have better results if planted in spring or summer. Seeds should be started in late spring.

Where to plant:

Prickly pears need a location that receives full sun with well-draining soil.

How to plant:

Transplant at the same level as they are currently growing; deeper planting may cause them to rot. Handle carefully, not just for your own safety, but the pads can get top-heavy and break off. An extra pair of hands can be valuable because prickly pears can be heavy and awkward to lift and place in the hole.

Other:

Wear thick gloves and heavy long sleeves to guard against being poked by a spine or touching the skin-irritating glochids.

See more on starting from seed or pad cuttings under Propagation.

CARE

Pruning:

It’s not necessary to prune prickly pears, but they can be cut back. Remove individual pads as needed to maintain shape and size. Use tongs to hold the pad and a sharp knife to cut it off at the joint, or line where it connects to the next pad. Pads can be calloused off to be planted elsewhere or shared with friends. See more on propagating below.

Soil:

Prickly pears prefer alkaline to neutral soil. More importantly, however, the soil needs to drain well, as residual moisture or puddling can cause the plant to rot.

Amendments & Fertilizer:

Fertilize young plants with a balanced 10-10-10 fertilizer. For established plants, a 5-10-10 or even 0-10-10 water-soluble fertilizer will promote more flowers and fruit. If you are growing for the pads, use a fertilizer that is high in nitrogen.

Watering:

Prickly pears are extremely drought tolerant. Don’t water newly propagated pads for the first month. After that, water every two to four weeks for the first year — twice a month in summer and once a month other times of the year. In most areas, rainfall will be enough to sustain established plants. Supplement in times of drought with the twice-a-month/once-a-month seasonal schedule.

A new prickly pear growing from a pad cutting. Photo by: Selma Jacquet / Alamy Stock Photo.

Propagation:

Initial growth from seed is slow and it may take 3 to 4 years before your plant produces flowers and fruit. The seeds need shade to germinate and should be kept moist until that time.

Propagation from pads is much simpler and yields faster results. Here's how:

  • Pads that are at least 6 months old can be cut off by following the pruning instructions above.
  • Set the pads out in a dry area with light shade and allow the cut end to form a callus. This prevents the new plant from rotting at the base and can take 2 to 4 weeks in warm, dry weather, longer if it is cool or humid.
  • Once fully calloused over, plant pads in a mixture of half soil and half sand at a depth of 1 inch. If planted any deeper, your plant can rot.
  • Don’t water it for the first month, as there is enough moisture within the pad to sustain itself.
  • Prop it up with rocks or other means of support until roots grow over the next month or so. After a month, there should be enough roots that your plant can stand on its own, but continue the support if it’s still a little wobbly.
  • You can water it at this time as well and follow the watering guidelines above, making sure to let it dry out completely in between.

On new plants, flowers and fruit will usually appear by the second or third pad that grows.

Diseases and Pests:

Prickly pears don’t normally suffer from any serious disease or insect problems, although they can be affected by rot if grown with poor drainage.

EDIBLE PRICKLY PEARS

Photo by: Marco Mayer / Shutterstock.

Several types of prickly pears produce pads and fruit that are edible. The edible pads are often referred to as nopales and the fruit is commonly called tuna fruit.

Pads can be harvested any time of year, and up to 6 times per year on fast-growing plants, by following the same instructions for pruning above.

When harvesting pads:

  • Don’t remove any more than one-third of the total number of pads to keep your plant healthy and producing more pads.
  • For the best flavor, remove them from the plant mid-morning when the acid content within them is at its lowest.
  • Use tongs to hold them while cleaning and carefully scrape the pads and peel the fruit to remove all traces of spines and glochids; they can also be roasted to burn them off.

Pads can be eaten raw or cooked. They have a lemony flavor and have a somewhat slimy texture similar to okra when cooked.

The juicy red fruits are ripe when the glochids fall off (usually around September) and should be twisted from the pad to remove, not pulled. The fruits can be eaten raw or cooked and used for jams and jellies.

PICTURES

Swipe to view slides

Photo by: Ncristian / Shutterstock.

Opuntia humifusa (syn. compressa)
Eastern prickly pear, devil’s tongue

Zones: 4-9

Height/Spread: 6 to 12 inches tall and 1 to 2 feet wide

Exposure: Full sun

Bloom time: June-July

Color: Bright green pads, yellow flowers followed by red fruit

The only cactus widely found in eastern U.S., this cold-hardy variety handles snow and ice well.

Photo by: Amberdiehl / Pixabay.com.

Opuntia basilaris
Beavertail cactus

Zones: 8-10

Height/Spread: 6 to 12 inches tall and up to 4 feet wide

Exposure: Full sun

Bloom time: June-July

Color: Gray-blue pads with purple tint, bright pink-purple flowers followed by brownish-gray fruit

This southwest native lacks the large spines of other prickly pears. Birds are attracted to its fruits.

Photo by: Ekaterina Pokrovsky / Shutterstock.

Opuntia ficus-indica
Indian fig, barbary fig

Zones: 8-11

Height/Spread: 10 to 15 feet tall and 5 to 10 feet wide

Exposure: Full sun

Bloom time: June-July

Color: Blue-green pads; yellow, orange or red flowers followed by fruit that changes from yellow to red.

Many are spineless and also lack glochids. This Opuntia starts out as a succulent shrub and eventually matures with a woody trunk and becomes tree-like.

Photo by: Elgub / Shutterstock.

Opuntia microdasys
Bunny ears

Zones: 8-11

Height/Spread: 3 to 4 feet wide, 4 to 5 feet tall

Exposure: Full sun

Bloom time: June-July

Color: New pads mature from red to dark green, yellow flowers followed by purple or red fruit.

New pads appear in pairs, giving rise to its nickname, bunny ears. Although spineless, this variety still packs a punch with numerous clusters of glochids that can cause significant skin irritation with the slightest touch.

Photo by: Tracy Immodino / Shutterstock.

Opuntia engelmannii
Engelmann prickly pear, cow’s tongue

Zones: 8-10

Height/Spread: 3 to 6 feet tall and wide

Exposure: Full sun

Bloom time: June-July

Color: Light green to blue-green pads, yellow-orange flowers followed by purple-red fruit

The spines on this variety are relatively short, usually about 1 inch.

Photo by: Blickwinkel / Alamy Stock Photo.

Opuntia macrocentra
Black-spine prickly pear, Texas Santa Rita

Zones: 6-11

Height/Spread: 2 to 3 feet tall, 3 to 6 feet wide

Exposure: Full sun

Bloom time: June-July

Color: Blue-green pads turn purple in cold weather or drought, bright yellow flowers with red center followed by purple-red fruit.

Another variety that handles colder climates, with long dark spines that accent the blue-green or purple pads.

Photo by: Hans Braxmeier / Pixabay.com.

Opuntia robusta
Dinner plate nopal

Zones: 9-10

Height/Spread: 3 to 15 feet tall and wide

Exposure: Full sun

Bloom time: Spring

Color: Silver-blue pads, large bright yellow flowers followed by red fruit.

This large-growing variety can with or without spines, and its fruit is better left for the birds.

Photo by: Riet Bloemen / Shutterstock.

Opuntia santa-rita
Santa Rita prickly pear, purple prickly pear

Zones: 7-11

Height/Spread: 6 to 8 feet tall, 8 to 10 feet wide

Exposure: Full sun

Bloom time: June-July

Color: Blue-gray pads turn purple in winter, yellow flowers followed by purple fruit.

Birds are attracted to the small purple fruit of this colorful Opuntia.

Photo by: Garden World Images, Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo.

Opuntia cacanapa ‘Ellisiana’
Spineless prickly pear

Zones: 6-10

Height/Spread: 3 feet tall, 4 to 6 feet wide

Exposure: Full sun

Bloom time: Mid-summer

Color: Green pads, bright yellow flowers followed by red fruit

This cold hardy variety is completely spineless and lacks glochids.

DESIGN TIPS

  • Perfect choice for low-water, cactus, rock or rustic-style gardens.
  • Suitable for containers, but they can be quite top-heavy, so choose a sturdy container that won’t tip over.
  • In colder climates, plant non-hardy types in containers so they can be moved indoors.
  • Consider the mature size of your Opuntia cactus and plant where it won’t grow to interfere with pathways and unsuspecting passersby.
  • Use spineless varieties where people or animals might come in contact with them, or simply to get the look and not the poke!
  • Plant on sandy slopes or dry prairie areas.

Prickly Pear

Prickly pear, Opuntia lindheimeri. ©Gary Knox, UF/IFAS. Used with permission.

For a low-maintenance plant that can take the sun and survive with little water, try prickly pear. This evergreen cactus makes an attractive backdrop in mixed borders, and even adds some color of its own. It provides food and shelter for animals, making it a great Florida-friendly choice for any yard.

Gardeners love the colorful flowers that appear in spring and summer, and then give way to bright red, egg-shaped fruits. Just be sure to peel or singe them before eating, since they do have spines. Or try growing one of the spineless types for all the fun without the hassle.


Choosing the right soil

I recommend this wonderful cacti soil mix by repotme. The quality is better than anything else I found on the market, and should help you grow a healthy cactus.

    High Quality Mix, Handcrafted in small batches Blended With Monterey Pine Bark from New Zealand, Red Volcanic Rock, Diatomite, and Premium Grade Pumice.

If you leave your prickly pear with too much water for too long, it can get root rot.

On the other hand, if the water drains too fast, your cactus will not have enough time to absorb the nutrients it needs to grow.

The good news is that you have a lot of leeways when it comes to choosing the right soil for your prickly pear because it’s hardy enough to grow in not-so-perfect soil.

Prickly pear, however, will grow better and easier in sandy, loamy, and well-draining soil.

Tips and Tricks

If you have heavy soil that retains water, you can add sand or peat moss to amend it.

This will make heavy soil like clay or compacted soil drain better.

Further, if you are growing prickly pears in containers, you can add a layer of gravel at the bottom to help with draining the water.


Growing Engelmann Prickly Pear

Any southwestern U.S. desert garden is suitable for growing this prickly pear. It will tolerate a variety of soils as long as there is no chance of standing water. Full sun is important and it will be hardy to zone 8. Once your prickly pear is established, you shouldn’t need to water it. Normal rainfall will be adequate.

If needed, you can prune the cactus by removing pads. This is also a way to propagate the cactus. Take cuttings of pads and let them root in the soil.

There are few pests or diseases that will bother prickly pear. Excess moisture is the real enemy of the cactus. Too much water can lead to root rot, which will destroy the plant. And lack of airflow can encourage a cochineal scale infestation, so trim pads as needed to keep air moving between them.


How to Grow Cacti in Cold-Winter Climates

Cold-weather cactus plants that grow in northern regions prefer much the same conditions as their southern counterparts. Place them in sunny, dry locations they need sun to bloom.

How to Plant Cacti

Cacti require soil that drains quickly but avoid growing them in pure sand, which doesn't hold enough nutrients. Add 40-60 percent coarse sand and up to 10 percent compost to garden soil or purchased topsoil for a nutrient-rich, fast-draining mix. Or add pea gravel in place of some of the sand. Avoid using fine-grain sand it gums up the soil instead of adding drainage.

Raised beds are recommended to provide excellent drainage. The more rain your area gets, the more drainage you need. In super-wet regions, grow cacti in pots under shelter such as a roof overhang. Likewise, never plant cacti in regular or clay soil as they can easily get too much water and die.

Watering Cactus Plants

Cactus plants do need some water. The best practice is to simply let Mother Nature do the watering for you. However, if you go for several weeks in hot, dry weather without rain, feel free to water them. If the weather has been hot and dry and the plants look limp or are beginning to droop, they're telling you they need water.

Avoid watering cactus in the fall or winter. Cactus plants begin to shrink and take on a wilted, off-color appearance to prepare themselves for the coming weather. If you water them then, the excess water freezes and the plant dies.

Fertilizing Cacti

Cactus plants grown in the ground don't need much fertilizer but they benefit from spring applications of compost or a liquid fertilizer designed for bulb or vegetable use. Avoid fertilizers with a large nitrogen component (the first number of the three shown on the package). Nitrogen causes rapid growth, but the plant may be too tender and become susceptible to winter damage, especially late in the growing season.

After planting cactus plants, avoid disturbing the soil around their shallow roots. Pea gravel or other small rock mulch prevents soil from blowing away, assists with weed prevention, and keeps the soil temperature even.

Protecting Cactus Plants

In areas with plenty of snow cover, hardy cacti easily survive. In areas with harsh winds and sun but little snow, cacti can become sunburned or frostbitten. To prevent damage, carefully cover the plants with burlap as late in the season as possible. The burlap allows the plants to breathe while protecting them from sun, ice, and wind. During warmer winters, carefully place a structure such as a canvas tent over the cactus plants to shelter them from excess moisture.


Plant or Pot Works Well

It is most common to plant Opuntia cacti outdoors, especially in warm, dry climates where the soil drains well. But they may also be potted. If you choose to pot your Opuntia, be sure the pot is large enough to accommodate their gangly size.

Opuntias will need to be transferred to larger and larger pots as they continue to grow. Depending on the variety of your Opuntia, this task may require two people to stabilize the cactus for transfer to avoid breaking the plant.

Keep It Drained

The soil your Opuntia lives in needs to be well drained. Opuntias get root rot from living in soggy soil. Watering should be restricted to about once every two weeks during the summer and about once a month in the winter.

You Can Eat Them

Opuntia pads are edible, at least, most of them are. Don’t let the bristles intimidate you just don a good pair of work or welding gloves and harvest your cactus.

One way to escape being mauled by glochids is to grip the pad with a pair of tongs and cut it from the plant with a knife. You’ll want to choose young, tender pads for this.

The best time to harvest cactus pads is midmorning to midafternoon. The acid content is lower at these times making for a more palatable taste. For a mature cactus, approximately one-third of the pads should be harvested yearly to keep the plant at optimal health.

After gathering the pads, you can scrape the bristles off with a blade under running water or burn them off over an open flame.

Prickly pear pads can be eaten:

  • Raw
  • Fried
  • Boiled
  • Sauteed
  • Made into soup
  • Added to a salad
  • Added to an omelet


How to Grow a Prickly Pear Cactus from Seeds

The Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia sp.) thrives in hot, dry desert areas, growing 3 to 20 feet (0.9 to 6 m) tall, depending on the variety and growing conditions. It spreads to cover 3 to 15 feet (0.9 to 4.5 m). The leaves and fruit are edible once the spines are removed. Leaf pads are eaten as a vegetable. Fruits are eaten raw and used to make juice, jelly, and candy.

Prickly Pear Cactus is hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture hardiness zones 3b through 11. Once established, Prickly Pear Cactus are easy to care for and tolerate drought for two or three weeks.

  1. Fill small pots or a seed tray with cactus soil. Break up any lumps in soil. Water the soil thoroughly and allow it to drain.
  2. Sow the seeds in the late spring when night temperatures consistently reach above 45 degrees Fahrenheit (7 degrees Celsius). Rub the Prickly Pear Cactus seeds against a piece of sandpaper to scratch the seed coat. Scratched seeds germinate faster and more reliably than untreated seeds.
  3. Plant one seed per pot or plant seeds 1 inch (2.5 cm) apart in seed trays. Press the seed into the soil and cover with a fine layer of soil, barely 1/8 inch (3 mm) thick.
  4. Mist the soil surface with a fine spray of water. Cover the tray with the plastic lid or put individual pots in plastic bags. Cut a small hole in the plastic to create a vent.
  5. Place the pots or tray in a sunny window or under artificial lights. Check the soil daily for moisture and temperature. Ideal soil and air temperatures for prickly pear cactus is 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius). If heat builds up under the plastic, move the container or open the vent further to release excess heat. Water the soil as needed with a fine mist, keeping the soil moist but not wet.
  6. Inspect the seedlings daily. Cactus that turn yellow need more light. Brown or red cactus are receiving too much light.
  7. Transplant the seedlings into larger pots or outside once the roots are well-developed. Place the transplants in full sun spaced 24 to 36 inches (60 to 90 cm) apart. Keep the soil moist for the first two weeks or until the plant has adjusted to its new location. Increase the time between watering once the cactus is established, allowing the soil to dry out slightly.
  8. Fertilize with a balanced fertilizer such as 10-10-10 to encourage pad growth. If you prefer to encourage flowers and fruit, use a low-nitrogen fertilizer such as 0-10-10.

Harvest Prickly Pear Cactus seeds from the ripe fruit of a Prickly Pear Cactus. Wash the seeds to remove all pulp and dry them on a paper towel in a warm place for a week or two until completely dry. Store seeds in an air-tight container in a cool, dark place until ready to plant the following spring.

Warning

Prickly Pear Cactus earn their name. Wear gloves and handle the plants carefully the spines are sharp and cause painful irritation.

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