Prickly pear is a surprisingly simple cactus. It's easy and undemanding to grow, hardy enough to survive in climates down to at least USDA Zone 4, and boasts a cheery, delicate flower. Native to the northeastern United States, the eastern prickly pear cactus 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. The cactus can either be started from cuttings in the early summer or from seeds in late spring.
Both plants are edible, but only the Opuntia ficus-indica produces the actual “prickly pear” fruit popularly known. Still, for an element of surprise in your landscape, slip in an eastern prickly pear or two.
|Botanical Name||Opuntia compressa|
|Common Name||Prickly pear, Eastern prickly pear, devil's tongue|
|Mature Size||6–12 in. tall, 12–18 in. wide|
|Sun Exposure||Full sun|
|Soil Type||Sandy, well-drained|
|Soil pH||Neutral to acidic|
|Hardiness Zones||4–9 (USDA)|
|Native Area||North America|
Prickly Pear Care
Eastern prickly pear is an easy-to-care-for cactus, favored by desert dwellers and cool-weather gardeners alike. Its stems are divided into flat paddle-like segments that are approximately two to five inches long with a blue tint. The narrow spines are wedge-shaped and the flowers, which come into bloom in mid-summer, are a brilliant yellow. The flowers are followed by edible purple or red fruits called tunas. These are the prickly pears and, though they're not as large and tasty as the prickly pears of O. ficus-indica, they can be made into nice jellies and pickles.
Prickly pears are a cactus, 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. Also, don’t be alarmed if your plants appear to deflate during the winter—this is their normal response to dormancy, and they’ll plump back up in spring.
As with most cacti, the eastern prickly pear does best in full sun for at least eight hours a day. That being said, it can handle partial shade if it's planted in hotter climates, like a more traditional desert landscape. More light exposure will also lead to a larger plant and more blooms come mid-to-late spring and summer.
In order for the prickly pear to thrive, it needs to be planted in well-draining soil. Your best bet is a mixture that is dry, sandy, or gravelly, but it can also do well in a mixture that is primarily clay, so long as it drains very well and the soil does not retain much moisture. When it comes to pH levels, prickly pear isn't especially high-maintenance and can thrive in a neutral-to-acidic mixture with a pH level of 6.0–7.5.
As to be expected, the prickly pear cactus is extremely drought tolerant, so when it doubt, water it less than you think it needs. In most areas, your typical rainfall will likely be enough for the cactus to thrive but if not, you can plan to water the plant every two to four weeks.
Temperature and Humidity
Like any cactus, the prickly pear likes warm, dry weather. Though it's more cold-hearty than most other cacti and can survive cold temperatures down to 14 degrees Fahrenheit, it will grow larger (and bloom more) when raised in warm temperatures. Keep in mind, it needs to be kept dry, so any additional humidity (like misting the plant) is unnecessary.
When planted outdoors in garden soil, no fertilizer is needed. However, 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 should be fed.
Propagating Prickly Pear Cactus
While you can grow prickly pear from seeds, it can take up to three years to have a substantial plant, so propagation is often the preferred method. To do so, remove an individual pad from the mother cactus that's at least six months old. Allow the cut end to "heal" for at least a week, or until it scabs over. At that point, you can plant the pad cut end down in a mixture of soil and sand. It will likely need to be supported on either side until it grows roots, so use stakes or other supports to hold it upright. After about a month, test for new roots by tugging on it gently—if the plant resists pulling, you have roots. If it comes loose, give it more time. You can water the cactus sporadically after it's able to stand on its own.
Pests and Diseases
The most common problem when growing a cactus is giving it too much water, which can cause its shallow, fibrous roots to rot and the cactus to collapse. They're also susceptible to a variety of insect pests, including scale and mealybug, both of which can be treated with rubbing alcohol, neem oil, or, when very serious, a pesticide.
Prickly pear cactus (and other cacti in the opuntia family) can also be afflicted by the phyllostica fungus. Brought on by tiny spores that colonize the tissue of the cactus when the weather is particularly wet or humid, phyllostica can eat lesions into the pads of the cactus, eventually causing large black spots that scab over. While not deadly to the prickly pear cactus, phyllostica is very contagious and can easily spread to neighboring plants through heavy wind or rain. There is no effective treatment for phyllostica—instead, it's recommended that you dispose of infected pads or cacti to ensure the disease doesn't spread.