Prickly pear plants (Opuntia spp.) are a large genus of cacti native to the Americas. They are both edible and ornamental plants of historical significance in southwestern United States and Mexico. One even appears on the flag of Mexico as part of the country’s creation story.
Prickly pear plants are popular for their distinctive pads and colorful fruit, both of which are highly nutritious. These plants are hardy and easy to grow, which make them a popular choice for gardeners. However, when growing prickly pear, it is important to know that this is a prolific plant that can spread and grow into a dense colony under the right conditions.
Opuntia is a large plant genus with many species. Their specific growth needs and geographies vary, but all tend to favor full sun and well-draining soil. Prickly pear plants are a great addition of visual interest and flavor to many gardens.
Quick Care Guide
|Common Name(s)||Prickly pear, jointed cactus, Indian fig, barbary fig, eastern prickly pear, bunny ears cactus, nopal, tuna fruit, tiger pear|
|Scientific Name||Opuntia spp.|
|Days to Harvest||Depending on the species, it can take several years of growth to be able to harvest the cactus fruit.|
|Water||Water every 10-14 days and check to make sure the soil is completely dry before water.|
|Soil||Well-draining gravelly to sandy soil|
|Fertilizer||Typically no fertilizer is needed for outdoor plants. Indoor plants may benefit from a balanced fertilizer. Use high nitrogen fertilizer to promote pad growth for harvest. Use a low-nitrogen fertilizer to promote fruiting and flowering.|
|Pests||Cochineal scale, cactus longhorn beetle, cactus moths, cactus bugs|
|Diseases||Phyllosticta pad spot, Opuntia Sammon’s virus|
All About Prickly Pear Plants
Prickly pears are part of the genus Opuntia and subgenus Platyopuntia, or “flat-Opuntia”, because of their distinctive fleshy pads that stack on top of each other. As they grow, new pads develop on top of previous ones. These pads are covered in spines and are typically green to blue in color.
One variety, the O. santa rita, is striking because of its bright violet color. Due to their shape, prickly pear plants are also known as paddle cactus and jointed cactus. Prickly pear cactus are known for their showy pink, orange, red, or yellow flowers which can bloom under the right conditions in spring or summer.
The flowers result in edible, pear-shaped fruits which are called cactus pear or tuna fruit. These fruits could take on many different colors such as green, yellow, red, or purple. The appearance of flowers, fruits, spines, and pads are all dependent on environmental conditions.
Prickly pear plants are well adapted to arid climates which means that they have wide-spreading and fibrous roots to maximize their surface area to capture limited moisture. They also have the capability of fixing carbon dioxide at night and closing their stomata during the day to assist with water retention.
They most commonly spread vegetatively when pads break off and root, but can also spread over large distances in the droppings of animals who consume the fruits. New plants can grow year-round and require minimal care once established.
Certain species of Opuntia are native to the American southwest while others originate from Mexico and the West Indies. Prickly pear can also be found in other regions of the world such as around the Mediterranean basin, Africa, and Australia. Of the nearly sixty different species of Opuntia, one species, O. aurantiaca, is federally classified as a noxious weed.
Prickly pear pads and fruits are both considered superfoods for their high nutritional value but need to be prepared with care. While some prickly pear plants have large spines, others have hair-like barbed bristles that can irritate the skin. The pads or nopales can be sliced and pickled, juiced, or cooked and used in salads. The fruits can be eaten raw or used to make jams, jellies, candies, wines, and syrups.
There are many additional uses for prickly pear plants including as livestock feed and even natural dye. The juice of mature fruits has been historically used to dye wool or fabric due to the strength of the color and also antifungal and antibacterial properties.
Prickly Pear Varieties
Prickly pears are part of a large genus of Opuntia plants with many varieties and nearly 60 species. Here are a few common varieties:
Opuntia ficus indica, commonly known as Indian fig or barbary fig, is a species native to Mexico and Central America. It is widely cultivated around the world as a domesticated crop for its sweet edible fruits. A typical specimen has a blue-green coloration, thick and flat pads, and orange or yellow flowers. It grows well in poor soil conditions and under high temperatures.
Opuntia humifusa is a sprawling species native to the eastern United States and Canada and is commonly known as the eastern prickly pear cactus. It has clusters of small, round pads and showy pink or yellow flowers. Because this species can tolerate cold temperatures, it is one of the only prickly pear plants that can be found throughout the eastern U.S. and even as far north as Ontario.
Native Americans not only ate the pads and the fruit for food but also used them for medicinal benefit. This species tends to shrivel and dry up in the winter but will regain its blue-green color starting in early spring to early summer.
Opuntia microdasys is also known as angel’s wings, bunny ears, or polka-dotted cactus for their clusters of sharp yellow glochids. It is native to northern Mexico and southwestern U.S. This species is not frost tolerant compared with the eastern prickly pear and will need to be brought indoors during cold spills. It is also commonly grown as a houseplant.
Other well-known varieties of prickly pear plants include beavertail cactus (Opuntia basilaris), violet prickly pear (Opuntia santa-rita), pancake prickly pear (Opuntia chlorotica), giant prickly pear (Opuntia streptacantha), Texas prickly pear (Opuntia engelmannii), and coastal prickly pear (Opuntia littoralis).
In perennial cool seasons, prickly pear cacti can grow up to 12 feet tall and 4 feet wide. Broad and waxy ones can have pads that grow up to 6 inches long and can reach 20 feet tall.
Planting Prickly Pear Cactus
Prickly pear cactus is an easy visual interest to add to your garden or home. They can be planted at any time of year, but the best time to grow them is during the warmer months of the year when the soil is warm and there is full sun.
As with many succulents, planting depth is important to prevent rotting. Young prickly pear pads should be able to stand upright and at a depth of around ½ to ¾ inches below the soil surface at its deepest.
Prickly pear cactus prefer well-draining soil and full sunlight. They are extremely drought tolerant and can grow in a variety of soils, but they do best in sandy or rocky soil. They can be planted in the ground or in containers, as long as the container has ample drainage.
Prickly pears, like many succulents, can be easily rooted and propagated. While it is possible to start them from seed, the germination rates are low and it takes a long time for the plant to grow.
Prickly Pear Plant Care
Prickly pear cactus is relatively low maintenance and can thrive with the right mix of sunlight, water, and nutrients. Proper care and fertilization can encourage fruit production. One of the most common mistakes when it comes to caring for prickly pear plants is trying to give it too much love by overwatering.
Sun and Temperature
Prickly pear cactus thrives under full sun conditions. It’s best to grow them in an area that receives ample and direct sunlight per day. While most Opuntia cactus are not tolerant of cold weather, there are specific species that can be hardy down to zone 3b and thrive in the cooler climates of Canada.
Water and Humidity
As desert dwellers, these cacti are highly adapted to survive in arid conditions and dry weather. Water your plants every 10-14 days or whenever the soil is completely dry at a depth of 2-3 inches below the surface. Do not water if this region has any wetness. You may need to reduce irrigation in the winter months with shorter daylight hours and less evaporation.
When the nighttime temperatures drop below 60° F, stop watering altogether. These plants are often recommended to drought-conscious gardeners as a water-efficient ornamental. Use general watering best practices, and keep irrigation close to the base of the plant instead of overhead.
Prickly pear cactus thrives in well-draining soil and can even tolerate poor soil conditions. If you’re growing these plants as a houseplant, select a cactus potting mix to ensure that the soil is suitable. Prickly pear plants do not have specific pH requirements and can grow in poor soil quality.
Fertilizing Prickly Pear Cactus
Most growers do not use additional fertilizer for prickly pear, as water is the most important factor that impacts the health and growth of the plant. However, if you plan to have large harvests of pads, you can use a more nitrogen-based fertilizer.
To promote more showy flowers and ample fruits, use a fertilizer that does not have nitrogen or one with a 0-10-0 NPK. Follow the manufacturer’s directions on the label and apply once a month year-round. Indoor cacti can also benefit from occasional fertilization with a balanced (10-10-10) fertilizer since the nutrients in pots tend to get depleted faster.
Pruning Prickly Pear Cactus
Pruning prickly pear cactus is not generally required unless the purpose is to control the expansion of the plant, take cuttings or remove a damaged or diseased section. There are several pathogens that can affect prickly pears.
The removal of these disease sections will help manage the spread of the disease, particularly if the pathogen spreads through sporulation. Pads on the lower part of the plant are the most vulnerable to disease due to the relatively higher humidity near those areas.
Prickly Pear Cactus Propagation
Prickly pear cactus can be propagated using a variety of methods, including cuttings, seeds, and grafting.
The most common and effective method of propagation is to take pad cuttings, similar to how prickly pear spreads in the wild. Use rubbing alcohol to sanitize tools before starting. Snip a healthy pad off of a mature plant and wait a few days for the wound to dry. Place the cut-side down into a pot with soil and water well. The cutting will root within a weeks days. Eventually, new pads will bud from the margins of the cutting.
Another method is to plant seeds although the germination rate can be low. Take a ripe fruit and wash away any fruit pulp surrounding the seed. Use a sharp tool or sandpaper to scarify the tough outer seed coat and then soak the seeds for several days before planting. Make sure the seeds are buried very shallowly to encourage germination.
We at Epic Gardening have a post that details both taking cuttings and growing from seed for prickly pear cactus propagation.
The third and more commercially used method of propagation is grafting. This technique is typically used to produce a more desirable growth habit, flowers, or increase the plant’s survivability by grafting it onto hardier root stock. This method is very time intensive and not typically used by the home gardener.
Harvesting and Storing Prickly Pear Cactus
Prickly pear cacti can be harvested for their fleshy pads or for fruits. Make sure to handle both with care as to not injure yourself in the process. Do not wash the pads or fruits until after the spines and glochids have been removed. Even spineless varieties can still cause irritation from their tiny glochids.
Prickly pear fruits must be harvested when ripe because they will not continue to ripen once picked. In North America, their season typically starts in August and ends in September. Once the fruit has been harvested, it can be stored in the refrigerator for several days or processed and frozen for long-term storage.
One of the best ways of harvesting is to use tongs in addition to wearing gloves. Gently squeeze them to test for ripeness. The fruits are ready to be picked when the tongs leave behind a slight indentation. The size and color may not always be the best indication of ripeness since that depends on the variety.
Use the tongs to carefully twist the fruit until it separates from the pad. Because the glochids on the fruits can be very sharp and tiny, they may cause irritation if not removed. Use the tongs to hold the fruit in place while using a long lighter to burn the outside of the fruit.
These glochids easily burn off and can make processing easier. You can also char off the outside using tongs and the flames of a gas stove. Run the charred fruit under water and use a vegetable brush to remove the skin.
Use tongs and wear thick gloves when harvesting prickly pear pads. Bend the pad away from the supporting pad underneath. Make a clean cut at the joint using sanitized tools such as a sharp knife. It is better to harvest the pads in the morning because the acid content in them varies throughout the day.
Harvest younger pads rather than large pads for a more tender texture. Use a knife to carefully cut away the spines or needle beds and peel the pad to access the flesh. Nopal cactus is an ingredient available in grocery stores. Typically, commercial growers grow spineless nopales varieties for culinary use.
Prickly pear fruits can be stored for several days in the refrigerator before use. Whole fruits can also be stored in the freezer as one of the steps to juicing. Prickly pear juice can be stored for up to one year in the freezer. Juices can also be made into jelly, candies, jams, syrups, and even alcoholic drinks to extend the shelf life.
If you’re not using the fruits for juice, peel them, remove the seeds, and slice them into bite-sized chunks. Place the pieces in a single layer on a tray until frozen. They can then be transferred into freezer bags and stored for several months.
Prickly pear pads cannot be stored for long-term in the refrigerator due to their high water content and tendency to turn slimy. While they can be frozen or pressure canned like green beans, these processes will change the texture of the flesh to be mushier. Prickly pear cactus can be preserved as a pickle or dehydrated using the oven or a dehydrator to 175° F degrees over several hours to assist with long-term storage.
Prickly pear is typically an easy plant to care for, but there might be some common issues associated with growing conditions, pests, and diseases. It’s important to observe the plant and narrow down the possible causes to find the right solutions.
The most common growing problems can occur due to overwatering. Root rot is an issue that can occur when the soil is too wet for too long. It is important to let the soil dry completely between watering and not to bury cuttings too deeply to prevent this issue. Having adequate draining is also important for healthy growth. Poorly draining soil will also increase the chances of root rot.
Underwatering can also occur, especially with houseplants. The pads will wilt, yellow, and brown, and eventually die if not water for a long period of time.
Various weather conditions can also cause some growth issues. Sunscald is possible even for desert plants if they were originally grown in greenhouses and nurseries. Sunburn on cactus manifests in large tan patches that will eventually scar.
If you are purchasing cacti from a greenhouse and plan to use them in the landscape, you should slowly move the plant outside for a few hours a day to help them acclimate to a different environment and full sun. Transplanting in late winter might also help to prevent sunburn since the solar rays are less intense.
Frost and freeze can damage species that are not cold-tolerant. Select the right species for your local conditions and cover your plants with a floating row cover or cotton sheet in case of an unseasonable cold spell. If your plants are potted in containers, they can be moved indoors until the weather improves.
Hail can also cause some damage to prickly pear plants and can be mitigated using these same methods.
With its sharp spines and irritating barbs, the prickly pear cactus has a natural defense system against many animals and common pests. However, there are several insects that are not put off by their formidable appearance.
Cochineal scale (Dactylopius coccus) is a mealybug-like scale insect that secretes a white, waxy outer coating; it looks like tufts of cotton on the stems and pads of the plant. To verify this insect, crush the insect and look for deep red body fluids. Crushed scale was used traditionally as cochineal dye. The scales can be washed away by a strong stream of water or an application of insecticidal soap.
Cactus longhorn beetle (Moneilema gigas) is another common pest that attacks several types of cacti including those in the Opuntia genus. Adult beetles range from 1-1 ¼ inches in length and are shiny and black in appearance. They tend to feed along the margins of the pads and their larvae might tunnel through the stems and roots which will cause the plant to die.
The beetles are active in early mornings and evenings and are easy to spot to pick off. Hand-picking this pest usually can help to get the issue under control. Very spiny varieties are typically not affected due to their natural defenses.
During long periods of drought, small mammals might nibble on the cacti to access water. These plants can recover from a few bites and no additional controls are needed.
Several insects have also been used as a biological control to control the spread of invasive cacti. The cactus moth (Cactoblastis cactorum) was successfully used against invasive cacti in Australia and was introduced from South America. The larvae of this moth burrows into the pads and consumes the flesh from the inside.
The invasion also makes the plants more vulnerable to secondary fungal and bacterial infections. This insect is not found in North America. Other species of insects have been used in the U.S. which includes the North American cactus moth (Melitara dentata), the blue cactus borer (Olycella subumbrella), and the cactus bug (Chelinidea vittiger).
Prickly pears are hardy and resilient plants that are not susceptible to many diseases. There are only two to be aware of.
Phyllosticta pad spot is caused by a fungal pathogen. The fungus will produce small, black reproductive structures that result in black lesions on Opuntia species. Spores spread quickly through rain or wind and can cause heavy infections after wet periods. The best way to combat this disease is to keep the pads dry and to remove any pads with visible lesions. In case of a severe infection, the entire plant should be removed.
Like the Phyllosticta pad spot, another disease, Sammons’ virus, also does not have control methods besides removal of the infected parts or the whole plant. This virus is closely related to the Tobacco Mosaic Virus and is categorized as a Tobamovirus. Like TMV, this virus results in yellow rings at the tip of the pads. The infections do not seem to cause noticeable damage to plant health.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Where does prickly pear grow best?
A: Grow prickly pear plants in sunny locations with gravelly to sandy soil. Often, plants in the wild can be found on the rocky side of south-facing slopes and hills. They are well suited for arid to semi-arid landscapes.
Q: How fast does prickly pear grow?
A: Under the right conditions, prickly pears can quickly colonize an area through vegetative propagation and form a dense colony. This poses some concern for wildlife and the grazing quality of land. During drought years, they can typically outperform other native plants like grasses.
Q: Why are prickly pears a problem?
A: They can spread quickly if unchecked in wild areas around the world and is a particular issue in Australia. There is also one species that is classified as a noxious weed in the U.S. A typical land management practice is to use scheduled burning to control their spread. However, plants can be easily managed in home gardens.
Q: Are prickly pears easy to grow?
A: Yes, prickly pears are easy to grow once established.
Q: Can you touch prickly pear?
A: No, you should not touch them because they have detachable spines or sharp hairs called glochids. Both can cause discomfort and skin irritation. It’s best to handle prickly pear plants with heavy-duty rubber gloves and tongs.
Q: What month do prickly pears bloom?
A: Prickly pears typically bloom from late spring to late summer depending on the specific variety and growing environment. Some can start blooming as early as April while others won’t start until early summer. The months in bloom also depend on in which hemisphere these plants are grown.
Q: What is the lifespan of a prickly pear cactus?
A: These plants have a wide lifespan depending on the variety and can live a long life under suitable conditions. The Opuntia ficus indica, for example, can live up to 80 years.
Q: Can you eat a prickly pear fruit raw?
A: Yes, you can eat raw prickly pear fruit or juice the fruit to consume as a drink or to be used as a natural dye. The most commonly consumed variety is the O. ficus indica.