Prickly pear cactus (or Opuntia) is among the most widespread cactus genus in the US. With over 40 species, this plant is best characterized by 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 most prized for their edibility, as they grow cactus fruit (or tunas) 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 thirst-quenching drinks, craft cocktails, candy, and jellies. When grown outdoors, the cactus' ornamental blooms surface mid-summer. But for cactus lovers who don't live in arid desert climates, consider potting and growing them indoors for year-round enjoyment.
Varieties of Prickly Pear
Over 200 species of prickly pear cactuses exist, many of which hybridize quite easily. For instance, the Opuntia leucotricha, or arborescent prickly pear, is a large, tree-like variety that can grow up to sixteen feet tall in the Mexican desert (probably not the best choice for an indoor houseplant). Opuntia aciculate, an ornamental cactus known for its yellow and red spines, is a popular choice for outdoor gardeners. But miniature prickly pear cactuses—like Opuntia aurea (golden beavertail prickly pear) or Opuntia microdasys (bunny ear cactus)—are the best choices for indoor growing. Their colorful flowers with brighten your space without overwhelming the pot or the room.
The best way to bring this piece of outdoor desert life indoors is to propagate the plant through cuttings or by seed. To propagate by cuttings, sever a few pads from the plant and let them dry on the counter, allowing 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. (This technique can be used for other succulents as well, like jade plants and aloe.) To propagate by seed, rinse the pulp from the seeds, make sure they’re thoroughly dry, and then sprinkle them into a pot of moist (not wet) well-drained soil. Lightly cover the seeds with a thin layer of soil or sand, and then dress the pot in transparent plastic wrap and place it in a warm, well-lit area of your home. Then be patient—seed germination can take several weeks or months.
As a desert cactus, prickly pears require maximum sunlight to thrive and should be kept in direct sunlight whenever possible. A west- or south-facing picture window works best. Also, very little water is required to maintain them, so limit your watering to every two to three weeks or when the well-drained soil is completely dry. Since prickly pear cactus thrives in hot, dry desert summers, replicating hot temperatures is best. However, they will tolerate a very wide range of temperatures (remember, desert nights can be cool). The most important requirement for any plant in the Opuntia genus is soil that drains well. Choose a soil that is specially formulated to drain easily, and when watering, simply moisten, don't soak.
When your prickly pear becomes root-bound or is much too big for its home, only then consider repotting. To do so, first, make sure the soil is dry. Then, shimmy the plant away from the pot by grabbing it at its base and knocking away the old soil. After treating any wounds with a fungicide, place the prickly pear into a larger pot and backfill it with well-draining potting soil. As with new succulent cuttings, don't water your repotted prickly pear right away. Allow it to reintegrate its roots first.
Different types of prickly pears warrant slightly different care. Yet, for indoor growth, all varieties will benefit from bi-annual fertilization to assure health and quality blooms. In the spring, prune any renegade pads or deformed growth. And, if indoor temperatures become too cool or the soil stays wet too long, look for a softening of the cactus' tissue (indicating rot) and treat your plant with a fungicide.