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Prickly Pear Cactus: Growing And Care Of Opuntia

The Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia) is a member of one of the largest of cactus families.

When these cactus plants mature, they produce attractive red, orange or yellow flowers that can become edible “prickly pear fruits” on larger plants.

You find small specimens included in cactus garden arrangements.

potted prickly pear cactus ready for sale

These interesting and attractive cacti are an excellent way to get a started learning about the care of cactus plants.

Be prepared to provide your little prickly pear plenty of space in a stable environment.

Larger varieties grown outdoors can reach over fifteen feet high needing room to spread and grow tall outdoors.

Houseplant varieties can grow to be a couple of feet high and need proper potting, warmth and lighting to thrive.

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This cactus can live a very long time and attain heirloom status if well-cared-for.

In this article, we will look at the care and uses of the prickly pear cactus. Read on to learn more.

Where Does Opuntia Come From?

This type of cactus is a native of the Americas. It grows wild throughout Canada, the United States, Mexico and South America.

Because it is a popular plant, it has naturalized to many other parts of the world. Today it can be found happily growing in most countries worldwide. The most well-known prickly pear is the Opuntia ficus-indica.

What Does Prickly Pear Cactus Look Like?

This classic cactus has large, flat, dusty green paddles with lots of sharp thorns. The thorns are evenly distributed across the pads and also form an areola at the tip of each pad.

In addition to stationary thorns, the prickly pear also produces loose thorns called “glochids”. These thorns are barbed and can fasten onto skin and clothing.

With all of these thorns, it’s a bit hard to understand why the Opuntia is such a popular ornamental cactus until you see the blossoms, which grow from the areola of thorns.

Although it takes at least two years (longer indoors) for the plant to mature and bloom, it’s well worth the wait. Lightly fragrant, prickly pear blossoms are dazzling in shades of red, orange and yellow.

In addition to pretty flowers, the prickly pear cactus like the pencil cactus is an architecturally interesting plant.

With the pleasing color of its flesh and unusual configurations, it makes an excellent conversation piece indoors or outdoors, as long as you mind the thorns!

Are All Ornamental Prickly Pear Cactus Large?

You’ll find Opuntia in a range of sizes for landscape and indoor use.

Large, tall varieties (12-15’ high) do well outdoors in warmer climates and in greenhouse settings in cold climates.

Smaller varieties (16-20” high) can be enjoyed indoors as houseplants all year round or set out to enjoy the warm weather and sunny days during the spring, summer, and fall.

How To Use Prickly Pear

Of course, the smaller varieties of Opuntia are wonderful, low maintenance houseplants, and the larger varieties make great individual specimen plants.

The Opuntia can also be planted as a defensive hedge keeping unwanted animals out of your yard.

In many places, these cacti are grown as a food crop for both people and livestock.

Many people do not realize that cactus fruit and the pads are edible and tasty.

The pads called “nopal” can be carefully harvested and used in a wide variety of specific recipes calling for nopales.

Alternately, you can dice them and use them as a green veggie (similar to green beans) in soups and many other dishes.

Experimenting with them is fun.

Prickly pears are the fruit of the nopales cactus, and the brightly colored, prickly fruit is quite delicious with a sort of citrus/watermelon flavor.

The juice of the prickly pear can be used to make candy, jam, vinaigrettes, cocktails and more.

Mixed with citrus juice, it makes a nice dressing for fruit salad. It is also used as a flavoring in sweet foods, such as cream cheese frosting.

It imparts a lemon/lime flavor that is quite good.

Flower of the Prickly Pear Cactus

How Do You Cut And Handle Prickly Pears?

Before you cut and handle them, you have to get them.

If you live in the Mediterranean, Mexico, California or another area of the southwestern United States, you may have large, mature cactus growing in your area and harvest them yourself.

Otherwise, check out a local Mexican market or health food store.

You may find prickly pears for sale.

They may be labeled as cactus pears, prickly cactus or as “tunas.”

You may also find whole or chopped cactus paddles for sale. The whole paddles will be labeled “nopales” or “cladoles.”

Chopped cactus is usually labeled “nopalitos.”

Handling prickly pears and nopales that have been prepared for market is easy since the thorns or spines have been cleared off.

If you are harvesting them yourself, be sure to wear heavy leather gloves to gather them and heavy rubber gloves to give them a good scrubbing.

Scrub hard with a stiff brush to remove the tiny barbs from the surface of the fruit.

Preparing Prickly Pears For Use

Once you have the cactus clean, you can prepare them. Here’s how:

  • Slice off the ends of the fruit and toss them into your compost heap or worm bin.
  • Slice the fruit vertically down one side.
  • Pull the skin off the fruit starting at the slice. You should be able to peel it off in one piece. Remember to compost the skin.

Now you have a peeled prickly pear. You’ll notice that it’s full of seeds. You don’t need to remove these.

They are edible. Cut the fruit into pieces and eat it or use it in a recipe.

If you want to juice your prickly pears, put the fruit into a food processor or blender and pulse it to liquefy the entire fruit.

Strain it through a fine-meshed strainer or sieve to separate the juice from the pulp. Compost the pulp and seeds.

Keep an eye on your compost pile. It may take a long time, but you may eventually see some baby cactus growing!

How To Grow Prickly Pear From Seeds

When preparing a cactus pear for eating, you may want to remove some seeds specifically to try growing them.

To do this, pick the seed out and clean off the pulp by washing all the pulp off the seed.

Lay the seed on a clean, dry paper towel in a warm place for one or two weeks to dry completely. Keep the seeds in a tightly sealed bag or container until you are ready to plant.

It’s best to plant them in the late winter or early springtime. Use a cactus potting soil mix or any light, well-drained soil.

Begin by soaking the tough seeds overnight (at least eight hours) before planting. Lay the seeds on the surface of the soil and press them in gently.

Don’t cover them.

Once the seeds are planted, keep the soil evenly moist and warm until you see sprouts.

If your location is quite arid, lay a sheet of plastic or glass over the top of your container to retain moisture.

Keep the hopeful seeds in a warm, well-lit area, and don’t be disappointed if they don’t germinate right away.

Opuntia seeds are notoriously slow starters, and you may end up waiting as long as a year.

How To Grow Prickly Pear Opuntia From Cuttings

Because the cactus seeds take so long to germinate, rooting from cuttings is the preferred form of propagation.

Take cuttings at any time, but late spring or early summer (the height of the growing season) is best.

It’s very easy to cut off a pear pad, let it dry for a few days and plant the dried pad in a pot of cactus mix or other well-draining soil.

Just as with seeds, keep the soil slightly moist until you see signs of growth. Protect the cuttings from harsh, direct light.

Keep them in a warm, well-lit area with plenty of bright, indirect sunlight until they are well-established.

Once mature (2-3 years), grow them in full sun. [source]

How To Care For Your Prickly Pear Cactus

Common names: Prickly Pear, Indian fig, Bunny Ears, Beaver Tail, Barbary fig

Height: Larger varieties can grow 15 feet high. Houseplant varieties stay under two feet high.

Light: Immature plants (under two years old) do well with lots of bright, indirect sunlight. Once mature, full sun is appreciated.

Temperature: These plants are very hardy and forgiving. Mature plants can tolerate very high temperatures during the day and desert-like drops in temperature overnight.

They prefer hot, dry summers and cooler fall and winter months.

Generally speaking, protect your outdoor cactus from freezing, but if it does freeze don’t be surprised to see it rising from the roots in the springtime.

Water: Keep seedlings, cut, ings and immature plants in a lightly moist soil until they attain a bit of growth. Once they develop a couple of “leaves” you can allow the soil almost dry out between watering and then water thoroughly.

Mature plants are very drought resistant. Allow the soil to dry out thoroughly. Wait until the cactus looks a bit shrunken, then provide a deep, slow watering.

Fertilizer: Feed immature plants a week solution of water-soluble fertilizer every couple of weeks. Mature plants should only be fed two or three times during the summer months. If growing Opuntia cactus to produce flowers and fruits, use a low nitrogen fertilizer (0-10-10).

If you want to produce more paddles for eating, use a balanced fertilizer (10-10-10). Monitor results and adjust accordingly to suit your requirements.

Soil: Use a pre-mixed cactus soil, or make your own cactus mix using humus, sand and clay. Outdoor plants need light, airy, well-draining soil with plenty of sand mixed in.

Repotting: Repot young plants annually in the early springtime. Once plants intended for outdoors mature, place them in a very carefully chosen permanent location.

Mature indoor varieties may not need repotting once they attain their maximum size.

Grooming: Opuntia can be a grooming-free plant if you desire. You never need to prune them. Just cut off any unhealthy or unattractive parts as required.

You may need to dust or rinse the cactus occasionally. Use a feather duster for dusting and spray with the hose, outdoors in the summertime.

Troubleshooting: Problems with cactus are almost always related to water.

If your plant becomes shriveled or soft, it means it needs water. Give it a thorough watering and then drain off excess water.

If you fail to do this and your plant stands in water for a significant time period, it may begin to droop or develop dark flesh at its base.

This means it is beginning to rot. If this happens, you will not be able to save the original plant, but you may be able to start a new plant by taking a cutting from an unaffected area.

Taking Care Of Container Cactus Year-Round

Although cactus is very low maintenance, your prickly pear plant cannot just take care of itself.

This is especially true if you are keeping it as a houseplant.

Properly placed cactus in the landscape will do pretty well with natural sun and rain, but potted plants need regular care and attention.

In the wintertime, keep your potted Opuntia in a cool setting with plenty of bright, indirect light.

Water it very sparingly.

Wait until the plant begins to wrinkle a bit, then give it a good drink.

Allow it to soak for half an hour and then pour off excess water. In a cool, winter setting you may only need to water the Opuntia once or twice before spring.

When spring arrives, begin preparing your cactus for the growing season.

In early spring (around March) transition your plant to a warmer location.

As you gradually increase the amount of direct sunlight your plant receives, also gradually increase its water.

It should begin to fill out and may produce some new growth. Now is a good time to take cuttings!

During the summer your indoor cactus can enjoy spending time outdoors. Look for a sunny, warm spot where your plant can enjoy the natural rain.

It’s a good idea to set the pot right on the soil, but make sure rainwater drains off easily.

Your plant should never have to stand in water as this causes roots to rot. Provide a water-soluble liquid food every couple of weeks.

At the end of summer when the weather begins to cool, bring your cactus back indoors.

Transition it from a warmer room to a cooler setting and allow the plant to settle in for the winter.

The exact timing of this transition varies depending upon your climate.

Generally speaking, bring your plant in near the end of August and have it transitioned to its cool, winter setting by early November.

Remember not to overwater during the wintertime.

Is Growing Opuntia Prickly Pear Worth The Effort?

Care of Opuntia as a houseplant may sound a bit challenging, but it isn’t.

It boils down to keeping the plant comfortably warm, nicely lit and minimally watered during the cool months and setting it outside to enjoy the weather during the warm months.

Indeed, prickly pear cactus is a good choice for indoor gardeners who don’t want to go to much bother.

They are an ideal choice for outdoor gardeners who don’t want to be bothered at all.

If you want to enjoy the fruits, keep in mind that it takes quite a few prickly pears to get just a little juice.

In fact, you will need to process between six and twelve of them to get a cup of juice.

You can use the juice for drinking, cooking, as a cocktail mixer or any way you wish.

It is especially good mixed half and half with lemonade for a refreshing and unusual summer drink.

Nopales are well worth the effort. They are not quite as labor intensive as prickly pears, are very nutritious and make a tasty, thrifty addition to your menu.

Additionally, the gel from inside the Opuntia paddle is just as good as aloe vera gel for first aid and personal care uses. [source]