The prickly pear cactus (Opuntia) is among the most widespread cactus genus in the U.S. With over 40 species, this plant is best characterized by its flat, club-shaped pads that contain spines (hence the name "prickly pear"). Many varieties have large, round spines, while others have tiny, hair-like barbs that detach upon contact.
Prickly pears are prized for their edibility, as they grow cactus fruit that are commonly enjoyed as a refreshing snack in Mexico and the American Southwest. The distinctive reddish-purple juice of the cactus fruit can also be used to make drinks, candy, and jellies. However, the plant’s growth rate is fairly slow, and it can take three to four years before a new plant starts fruiting. Prickly pear is best planted outside in the spring after the threat of frost has passed. Indoors, you can take a cutting to start a new plant at any point during the growing season.
One of the most common types of prickly pear grown outside of desert areas is the Eastern prickly pear, Opuntia humifusa (synonymous with Opuntia compressa), which grows 6 to 12 inches tall and 12 to 18 inches wide. It has yellow flowers and is suitable for growing outdoors in zones 4 through 9.
|Botanical Name||Opuntia spp.|
|Common Name||Prickly pear|
|Plant Type||Herbaceous perennial|
|Mature Size||6 inches to 36 inches tall with a similar spread, depending on variety|
|Sun Exposure||Full sun|
|Soil Type||Dry, sandy or gravelly, well-draining|
|Soil pH||6 to 7.5|
|Bloom Time||June to July|
|Flower Color||Pink, yellow|
|Hardiness Zones||4 to 11|
Prickly Pear Care
Prickly pear is a favorite low-maintenance plant in hot, dry climates as well as for indoor growers. It has excellent drought-tolerance and is often used in landscape beds, as borders, and in containers.
The different species of prickly pear require slightly different care. But in general, ample sun and well-draining soil are key to their growth. Sitting in soil that’s too moist can quickly kill the plant with various forms of rot. Otherwise, prickly pear rarely has problems with insects or diseases.
Prickly pear and other cacti go dormant in winter, and their pads appear to dry up or deflate. They will return to their normal plumpness in spring, when you can prune off any unsightly pads or deformed growth.
As a desert cactus, prickly pear prefers full sun to thrive. That means at least six hours of direct sunlight per day. Indoors, a west- or south-facing window works best.
The most important requirement for any plant in the Opuntia genus is soil that drains well. Prickly pear easily grows in sandy or gravelly soil, but it can tolerate other soil types as long as there's good drainage.
Prickly pear likes dry conditions, and very little watering is required to maintain the plant. This is why the cactus is often used in low-water gardens. Limit your watering to every two to three weeks or when the soil is completely dry. When watering, simply moisten and don't soak the soil. If you get minimal rainfall, that's often all the plant needs.
Temperature and Humidity
Prickly pear cactus thrives in hot, dry desert summers. But many of its species have good cold tolerance. (Remember, desert nights can be cool.) It generally does well in regions that have mild winters and hot summers with low humidity. Prickly pear can struggle in areas that have very high humidity, even if the temperature is to the plant's liking. Typical indoor temperatures and humidity levels are usually fine for prickly pear. However, keep the plant away from heat and air-conditioning sources, as they can cause extreme temperature fluctuations.
Prickly pear rarely needs fertilizer when planted in the ground unless you have very poor soil. In containers, it will use up the soil’s nutrients faster. If the plant’s green pads start to appear dull or it doesn’t flower, that can mean it needs food. You can apply a balanced fertilizer during the growing season, following product instructions. You also can choose a high-nitrogen fertilizer for larger pads or a low-nitrogen fertilizer for more flowers and fruits.
Varieties of Prickly Pear
- Opuntia leucotricha: Commonly known as arborescent prickly pear, this species is a large, tree-like plant that can reach up to 16 feet tall in the desert. It grows in zones 7 to 10
- Opuntia aciculata: Referred to as chenille prickly pear, old man’s whiskers, and cowboy’s red whiskers, this ornamental cactus is known for its yellow and red spines and a potential height of 4 feet. It grows in zones 8 to 12.
- Opuntia basilaris: Also called beavertail prickly pear, this species has velvety pads and deep purple-red flowers. It reaches 36 inches tall and 24 to 30 inches wide and grows in zones 8 to 10.
- Opuntia fragilis: Known as brittle or fragile prickly pear, this small plant matures at 6 inches tall and 9 inches wide. True to its common name, it has pads that break off easily, but they also root readily. It grows in zones 4 to 11.
Propagating Prickly Pear
You can propagate the plant through cuttings or by seed. To propagate by cuttings, sever a few pads from the parent plant, and let them dry to allow the wounds to heal. Next, place the butt end of the prickly pear in a pot with dry soil, and refrain from watering (to avoid rot) until you witness growth. When the cutting has taken root, it will provide resistance to a gentile tug; if there is no resistance, and the cutting comes right out of the soil, reposition it and wait some more.
To propagate by seed, cut open a ripe fruit, scoop out some seeds, and rinse the pulp from the seeds. Let them dry thoroughly. Sprinkle the seeds into a pot of moist (not wet) and well-draining soil. Lightly cover the seeds with a thin layer of soil or sand. Then, cover the pot in clear plastic wrap, and place it in a warm, sunny spot. Seed germination can take several weeks or months.
Potting and Repotting Prickly Pear
When growing prickly pear in containers, choose a pot with generous drainage holes at the bottom. Fill it with a well-draining potting mix, such as one specially made for succulents. Then, put on thick protective gloves to plant your new prickly pear in its pot.
When your prickly pear becomes root-bound or is too large and unstable in its container, only then should you consider repotting. To do so, first make sure the soil is dry. Then, shimmy the plant away from the pot by grabbing its base and knocking away the old soil. Place it in a slightly larger pot, and backfill with well-draining potting mix. Don't water your repotted prickly pear right away; allow it to reintegrate its roots first.