Prickly Pear - Growing the Hardy Cactus Opuntia compressa

Eastern Prickly Pear
Photo: © Marie Iannotti

Overview and Description of Prickly Pear Cactus

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 it has a cheery, delicate flower. Eastern prickly pear doesn’t have the stature of it’s dessert cousin Opuntia ficus-indica, which can top 15 ft., 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 approx. 2-5 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.

Botanical Name

Opuntia compressa syn. O. humifusa

Common Names

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?

Mature Size

6 - 18 inches (h) x 12- 30 inches (w).

Eastern prickly pear will grow a bit larger in warmer climates and ideal conditions.

Exposure

As with most cacti, Eastern Prickly Pear does best in full sun, although it can handle partial shade, especially in hotter climates.

Bloom Period

Expect to see flowers from mid-spring through mid-summer.

Prickly Pear Growing Tips

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 a 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:

  1. Select a ripe red fruit.
  2. Slice the fruit open and either sprinkle the seeds in a pot or directly into your garden.
  3. Water when the soil feels dry and be patient.
  4. Once your prickly pear germinates and starts to grow, treat it like a cutting (see below).

To propagate from cuttings:

  1. Cut off an individual pad.
  2. Allow the cut end to dry and heal over, for about 1 week.
  3. Plant the pad with the cut end about 2" into the soil.
  4. Water sparingly.
  5. Test for new roots by tugging gently, after about 1 month’s time. If the plant resists pulling, you have roots. If it comes loose, give it more time.

Caring for Prickly Pear Plants

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 there normal response to dormancy. They’ll plump back up in spring.

Design Tips for Eastern Prickly Pear

Using Opuntia humifusa in the garden depends a lot on the type of garden you have. If you garden in a desert climate, Eastern prickly pear makes a great front of the border plant or even an edger.

In cooler climates, it’s more of a novelty item than an accent. But Eastern prickly pear makes a nice little focal point in a small border.

It’s extremely drought tolerant and can easily be grown in alpine gardens and containers. Since the plants tend to spread, you could grow them in large masses, but be careful when you have to weed them.

Suggested Prickly Pear Varieties

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 & Diseases of Prickly Pear

The most common problem is too much water, which will cause the roots to rot and the cactus to collapse.

Insect pests: scale and mealy bug.

Diseases: Leaf spot, black spot, bacterial soft rot and viruses. Most of these can be avoided with the proper growing conditions.