Because succulents and cacti have become extremely popular over the past few years (thank you Instagram!), the lovely Opuntia has become an all-time favorite ornamental plant.
Commonly called the Prickly Pear cactus, the Opuntia can be found under many different names like the Paddle cactus or Nopal, because of its wide, flat, glossy pads. Nopal comes from the word nōpalli which means paddle in Nahuatl (a language spoken in central Mexico by the Nahua people).
Like most species of cacti, the Prickly Pear is native to the Americas, although people have introduced them to many different parts of the world. The central and western regions of Mexico are famous for the abundance of Prickly Pear species and so are the Caribbean Islands, but you can easily find these amazing cacti all over South America, in Australia, Africa, and the Mediterranean.
Prickly pears thrive in arid, semi-arid, and drought-prone areas and you can find them on sandy coastal beaches, sand prairies, rocky hillsides, etc. Although they love the sun and thrive in warm climates, the Opuntia is one of the most cold-tolerant types of lowland cacti. Some variations of Opuntia such as the Opuntia Santa Rita can withstand temperatures as low as 15°F (-9°C).
Several types of Opuntia produce pads and fruit that are edible. The edible pads of the Prickly pear are called nopales and they can be eaten raw or cooked. The fruits, commonly referred to as tuna, are red when ripe, can be eaten raw but are also used for jams and jellies.
- There are many different varieties of Prickly Pear. Some of them are small (6-12 inches/15-30 cm tall), while others can reach 10-15 feet (3-5 meters).
- Prickly Pear cacti are perfect for arid and semi-arid gardens and will thrive in USDA hardiness zones 9-11, so they are perfect for low-water cacti gardens, and rock or rustic style gardens.
- When grown in containers they can easily be grown in colder climates, provided they are brought indoors over the cold winter months. They can become quite heavy, so it’s recommended to choose a stable container that won’t tip over easily.
- They are low-maintenance and only need the essentials: well-drained soil, plenty of light, and temperatures above freezing.
- The Opuntia doesn’t need a lot of attention and won’t mind being neglected every once in a while. This makes it the perfect choice for gardening beginners and for people with busy schedules who want to spruce up their homes with an exotic plant.
- As mentioned above, the Prickly Pear cactus has edible fruit and stem segments. In Mexico, the ripe fruit is used to make desserts, beverages, appetizers, salads, soups, and many other dishes, while the nopales (the stem segments) are used for tacos, tortillas, etc.
- In alternative medicine, the juice and pulp of the Opuntia are used to treat digestive problems, as a coagulant for open wounds, and to prevent and slow down diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and other conditions.
- Some species of Prickly Pear can be used to make bioethanol, an alternative fuel that can replace petrol, and environmentally-friendly leather.
- They are not affected by pests or by serious plant diseases, but they can be susceptible to root rot if their soil is too damp.
Opuntia Features: An Overview
- Opuntia cacti belong to the Cactaceae family, are also called Prickly Pear and Nopal, and have edible fruits.
- Some Prickly Pear cacti have classic spines, but most of them have thick, flat pads covered in glochids, clusters of tiny, fine, wooly, or barbed spines. They are quite irritable and difficult to remove, so avoid touching them without gloves.
- Opuntia cacti are vigorous and some species have detachable spines, also known as glochids that can get lodged in the skin.
- The fruit of the Opuntia is edible and is commonly called cactus fruit, nopal, Indian fig, or tuna (in Spanish). It can be eaten raw or cooked and it must be peeled carefully until all the small spines/glochids are completely removed. If ingested, the spines can irritate the lips, tongue, throat, and even the stomach.
- Some varieties of Prickly Pear have large yellow, red, or purple flowers and are cultivated as ornamentals. Their pads can also vary in shape, color, width, and length.
Popular Varieties of Prickly Pear
There are 181 varieties of Opuntia cacti that come in different shapes and sizes. Some are low-growing and are perfect for indoor gardens, while others can get 18 feet (5.5 m.) tall. When choosing the perfect Prickly Pear, think of where you want to plant it and what size you can accommodate.
If you have children or pets and are looking for a Prickly Pear for your indoor or outdoor garden, it’s recommended to choose a spineless variation like Santa Rita, Beavertail, or Blind Pear.
Here are a few examples of beautiful Prickly Pear variations:
- Opuntia compressa or ‘Pink’ Prickly Pear – This variation is low-maintenance, easy-growing and it offers beautiful pink flowers in summer. It’s perfect if you live in USDA hardiness zones 4-9.
- Opuntia Humifisa – This North-American Prickly Pear is popular among cacti growers because it offers golden-yellow flowers in summer and its red fruits are edible. Perfect for zones 4-9, it grows 12 inches (30 cm) tall and 18 inches (45 cm) wide.
- Opuntia ellisiana – This Prickly Pear has tiny hidden spines so it’s generally considered a spineless cactus with yellow flowers. It grows 3 feet tall and 6 feet wide and it’s perfect for outdoor gardens in zones 7-10.
- Opuntia microdasys – Also known as Bunny Ear Cactus, this Opuntia is native to the American Southwest, it thrives in zones 7-10 and it has bunny-shaped nopals.
Prickly pear cacti are easy to grow and are perfect for indoor and outdoor gardens alike.
They are native to arid and semi-arid areas and they thrive in the desert. So, to keep your prickly pears happy, give them maximum sunlight. They are not sensitive to the midday sun, so you don’t have to worry about shade.
To have a better understanding of what most varieties of Opuntias need, think of a hot desert in the summer. They need very little water and they can tolerate a wide range of temperatures (desert nights can be quite cold).
If you want to grow these awesome cacti indoors, make sure you place them near a south or west-facing window. They need a container with drainage holes and a well-draining cacti soil mix. Try not to soak the soil completely, as the cacti will do perfectly well with just a little moisture.
Established Prickly Pear cacti that are grown outdoors can survive on rainwater. However, they need to be watered once every two or three weeks during the rooting phase.
It’s always recommended to repot plants that outgrow their container as this will encourage new growth. If the roots become too large or the plant doesn’t have enough stability in its current container, it’s time to move it to a larger and sturdier one.
The first thing you need to do before you repot your Prickly Pear is making sure that the soil is completely dry. Gently shimmy the cactus away from the container by holding its base and removing the old soil.
If the cactus has wounds, treat them with fungicide, then place it into the new container and add well-draining cacti soil mix. Repotted cacti don’t need to be watered right away. It’s better to let it adjust to its new environment for a while before you water it.
You should always wear thick gardening gloves and full-length sleeves when planting or repotting Prickly pear cacti. If the cactus is quite large or difficult to handle, you might need a second pair of hands to keep it stable and to avoid breaking it during the transfer.
Repotted cacti might need exterior support, especially if they are tall and unstable.
Most succulents and cacti are easy to propagate and the Prickly pear makes no exception. The ideal way to propagate them is by removing a six-month-old pad from the main plant and letting it dry for a few weeks in a warm area until the cut end callouses.
When the cutting is ready for planting, use a half and half soil mix of sand and soil. It usually takes a few months for the new plant to develop roots in its new container. During this time, don’t water the plant and make sure you offer it some support. Once the pad stands on its own, you can start watering it once every two or three weeks.
There are many different types of Prickly pear cacti available on the market. Some have sharp thorns, some have fuzzy glochids, and others are spineless, but all of them have beautiful flowers and delicious fruits.
These amazing cacti are easy to grow and don’t need much attention. They love dry environments and can withstand extreme heat and drought. To grow a happy and healthy Prickly pear, make sure it gets plenty of sunlight, well-draining soil, and just a little water once every two or three weeks.