For starters, the prickly pear cactus is adaptable. Because it can thrive in temperatures spanning from zones 4-10, we put this species at the top of our list of must haves.
Briefly let me start with sharing some interesting facts about this darling cactus. To begin with, the Mexican beverage Colonche is made from the edible fruit of the prickly pear cactus. In fact, the juices from the fruit can be used to make jams, and candy. It can also make a delicious simple syrup for cocktails or a vinaigrette dressing for salads. Furthermore, you should be able to find some prickly pear at your local farmers market, Mexican and some natural food markets.
Actually, the prickly pear has many medicinal and nutritional benefits. Thereby increasing its importance in Mexico so much so, that the prickly pear and its paddles appear on the Mexican flag.
Photo: Frankie Lopez – Unsplash
In addition, the variety Opuntia humifusa contains antifreeze chemicals in its cells. Thereby allowing it to survive in temperatures as low as -35°F. So, if you live in a colder climate, you might want to consider this prickly pear type or the Opuntia poryapantha which can survive in temps as low as -25°F.
Now some Opuntia have prickly spines but most will have glochids which are fine fuzzy or wooly hairs. But don’t let these cute hairs fool you. While they may not prick you, if you touch them they are extremely irritable and difficult to remove. With this in mind, always remember to handle the prickly pear with heavy duty leather gloves.
Lastly, this cactus does produce flowers. However, if started from a seed, its slow growth can take anywhere from 3-4 years before you see it produce any blooms. Blooms can vary from yellow, orange, pink, red and magenta.
Let’s begin with some basic information about one of the more popular types, the Prickly Pear.
Prickly Pear aka The devil’s tongue, Indian Fig, Mission Cactus, Nopal Cactus, Paddle Cactus
Species & Family: Opuntia from the Cactaceae family
Some other Prickly Pear Species: Opuntia fragilis “Brittle Prickly Pear,” Opuntia humifusa “Eastern Prickly Pear,” Opuntia ficus-indica “Barbary Fig Cactus,” Opuntia microdasys “Bunny Ears Cactus.”
What is the best way to care for your prickly pear?
- Light: Full Sun
- Best Grown: In zones 9-11 with some species ideal for zones 4
- Benefits: The prickly spines are good at warding off deer
- Soil: Alkaline to Neutral well draining soil
- Watering: Don’t water a new plant in the first month. After that you can water every 2-4 weeks making sure the soil is completely dry between watering. If you live in a cooler climate you may water it more like once a month.
- Fertilizer: For a young cactus use a 10-10-10 water soluble fertilizer. For a more mature cactus try using 0-10-10 fertilizer.
- Repotting: If you fertilize annually repot every 2-4 years. If you’re not fertilizing annually, then repot every 2 years to infuse the soil with fresh nutrients.
- Toxicity: Is non-toxic to cats, dogs and horses but can cause mouth irritation from it’s prickly spines.
- How big it will grow: Anywhere from 6 inches to 15 feet and then to grow in wide clusters.
- Propagating: You can propagate by cutting one of the pads off at the joint. You’ll have better luck if your plant is at least 6 months old. After cutting the pad let it sit in a dry slightly shaded area so it can develop a callous over the cut edge. Once it’s calloused over, plant the pad about one inch deep in a mixture of half soil and half sand. Do not water for at least a month. In the meantime you may need to prop it by stacking rocks on both sides until roots begin to take hold. Once roots have formed this should provide more stability for your plant and the rocks will no longer be necessary.
- Temperature: Cold hardy cactus can survive in temperatures as low as -35°F, but all other cactuses ideal temperatures range from 45°F to 85°F
- Exercise Care: While the prickly pear cactus is adaptable, it can prick and/or cause skin irritation so wear heavy protective gloves and long sleeves when handling.
Don’t forget to check out my blog post on the barrel cactus if you need more inspiration for your home or garden.