Prickly pear is a surprising cactus. It is easy and undemanding to grow, hardy enough to survive in climates down to at least USDA Zone 2, and has a cheery, delicate flower. Eastern prickly pear doesn’t have the stature of its dessert cousin Opuntia ficus-indica, which can top 15 feet, but this smaller version adds a touch of the southwest to cooler climates and makes up for its diminutive size with its hardiness. Both plants are edible, but it is O. ficus-indica that produces the actual “prickly pear.” Still, for an element of surprise in your mid-border, slip in an Eastern prickly pear or two.
Eastern prickly pear doesn't get very tall, but it does tend to spread open and low as it grows.
- Foliage: Stems are divided into flattened paddle-like segments approximately two to five inches long and can have a blue tint. The narrow spines are wedge-shaped and jut out 1/4 inch.
- Flowers: Flowers of prickly pear are a brilliant yellow and open in mid-summer. They are followed by edible purple or red fruits, called tunas. These are the prickly pears, although not as large and tasty as the prickly pears of O. ficus-indica, they can be made into nice jellies and pickles.
- Form: The stems will continue to grow into segments, but Eastern prickly pear tends to stay close to the ground.
Opuntia compressa syn. O. humifusa
Eastern Prickly Pear, Low Prickly Pear, Devil's Tongue
USDA Hardiness Zones
If you've always thought of cactus as being desert plants, it will surprise you to learn that prickly pear is hardy in USDA Zones 2-10. Yes, that's Zone 2! How many plants can say that?
6-18 inches (h) x 12-30 inches (w). Eastern prickly pear will grow a bit larger in warmer climates and ideal conditions.
As with most cacti, Eastern prickly pear does best in full sun, although it can handle partial shade, especially in hotter climates.
Expect to see flowers from mid-spring through mid-summer.
Use caution when working with any cactus. Even the young, fuzzy-looking seedlings can stab. Rose gloves, tweezers and kitchen tongs will come in handy.
- Site: Prickly pears are cactus, and so they need well-draining soil, first and foremost. Plant in full sun in a sandy or gravely mix and go easy on the water.
- Fertilizer: When planted outdoors in garden soil, no fertilizer is needed. Occasional feeding may be required indoors. Use a well-balanced fertilizer and let the plant tell you when it needs food. If its green color starts to pale or it doesn’t flower, it needs food.
To start new prickly pears from seed:
- Select a ripe red fruit.
- Slice the fruit open and either sprinkle the seeds in a pot or directly into your garden.
- Water when the soil feels dry and be patient.
- Once your prickly pear germinates and starts to grow, treat it like a cutting (see below).
To propagate from cuttings:
- Cut off an individual pad.
- Allow the cut end to dry and heal over, for about one week.
- Plant the pad with the cut end about two inches into the soil.
- Water sparingly.
- Test for new roots by tugging gently, after about a month. If the plant resists pulling, you have roots. If it comes loose, give it more time.
Prickly pear is virtually maintenance-free. However, you will need to keep the area weed-free, which is no easy task. You may also want to divide or remove plants if you don't want them to spread.
Winter care: Don’t be alarmed if your plants deflate during the winter. This is their normal response to dormancy. They’ll plump back up in spring.
Besides the Eastern prickly pear, you might want to try:
- Opuntia basilaris: Beavertail Prickly Pear: Velvety pads with a deep purple-red flower. 3' (h) x 24-30" (w). USDA Zones 8-10.
- Opuntia fragilis: Brittle or Fragile Prickly Pear: Slightly smaller than the Eastern prickly pear, with pads that break off and root easily. 6" (h) x 9" (w). USDA Zones 4-11.
Pests and Diseases
The most common problem is too much water, which will cause the roots to rot and the cactus to collapse.
- Insect pests: scale and mealybug
- Diseases: Leaf spot, black spot, bacterial soft rot, and viruses. Most of these can be avoided with the proper growing conditions.