How To Grow An Opuntia (Prickly Pear) Cactus

While they must be handled with care to avoid personal injury, Prickly Pear Cacti provide a unique and rustic feel to their surroundings. Whether indoors or out, they have a way of reminding us of simpler days, of adding rugged beauty and charm in return for so little care

Growing an Opuntia cactus in your yard may seem a bit unfriendly at first glance. But this desert plant has recently fallen into favor with homeowners for all the right reasons. Opuntia cacti add beauty and charm to any garden.

Opuntia Cacti are almost maintenance-free plants that can thrive in most soils as long as they are well drained. The one thing a cactus cannot tolerate is the wet. Some can withstand cold temperatures; others need mild to warm conditions year-round. Let’s take a closer look at how to grow an Opuntia cacti.

Opuntia Cactus may be grown from cuttings

  • With a sharp knife, carefully remove the pad
  • Place the pad on end so it does not curl while a scab forms over the cut end
  • When cured, (2 weeks or longer) dip the pad in a Bordeaux mixture to ward of fungal infections
  • Plant the pad upright one inch deep in a half-and-half mixture of sand and soil
  • Anchor with rocks to keep the pad upright until roots form
  • Water after one month; then water only when soil is dry
To grow the Opuntia cactus from cuttings, carefully obtain the pads and plant them upright using the right soil mixture.

Opuntia can be grown from the seeds found inside the fruit

  • Rinse the pulp off the seed, and make sure you let it fully dry before planting it. 
  • Potting soil is fine for planting Opuntia seeds if the soil is well drained. Spring seems to be the best time for planting Opuntia seeds.
  • A seeded Opuntia takes three to four years to flower and produce fruit while an Opuntia grown from a cutting will flower and bear fruit within its first year. For this reason, it is most common to propagate the species using cuttings.
  • The Opuntia can reseed itself from just one of the pads or “leaves” that has been severed from the mother plant.
  • It is not difficult to grow an Opuntia, but it does take patience and careful attention to detail.
You can obtain the seeds from your Opuntia fruit and plant them, ideally in Spring.

To grow an Opuntia from a cut pad, you need to select a pad that is at least six months old

  • Sever it from the mother plant using a sharp knife. 
  • Place it upright so it doesn’t curl while a scab forms over the cut end. This will take at least two weeks in dry areas; longer in humid areas.
  • Once the scab has formed, dip the cut end of the pad in a Bordeaux mixture made of 3 1/3 tablespoons of copper sulfate and 10 tablespoons of dry hydrated lime in one gallon of water. This protects the pad from fungal infections.
  • Plant the pad upright one inch deep in a mixture of equal parts sand and soil. Use rocks to stabilize plant until roots form. Do not water the plant yet; this may cause root rot. As a native desert plant, the Opuntia doesn’t need much water.
  • After one month, roots should have formed, and the pad should be able to hold itself upright. At this point, it may be watered. After that, it should not be watered again until the soil is dry.
  • Place in full sunlight, if possible. 
  • A balanced fertilizer may be added monthly, if desired. For larger pads, use a fertilizer high in Nitrogen. For fruit and flowers, use a Nitrogen-free fertilizer.

Be sure that you always wear sturdy work gloves when tending your Opuntia. The tiny glochids that cover the entire surface of the plant and fruit are quite painful when touching bare skin.

Plant or Pot Works Well

It is most common to plant Opuntia cacti outdoors, especially in warm, dry climates where the soil drains well. But they may also be potted. If you choose to pot your Opuntia, be sure the pot is large enough to accommodate their gangly size.

Although Opuntia cacti grow better outdoors, you can also pot them using a large container.

Opuntias will need to be transferred to larger and larger pots as they continue to grow. Depending on the variety of your Opuntia, this task may require two people to stabilize the cactus for transfer to avoid breaking the plant.

Keep It Drained

The soil your Opuntia lives in needs to be well drained. Opuntias get root rot from living in soggy soil. Watering should be restricted to about once every two weeks during the summer and about once a month in the winter.

You Can Eat Them

Opuntia pads are edible, at least, most of them are. Don’t let the bristles intimidate you; just don a good pair of work or welding gloves and harvest your cactus.

One way to escape being mauled by glochids is to grip the pad with a pair of tongs and cut it from the plant with a knife. You’ll want to choose young, tender pads for this. 

Prickly Pear pads are edible but you will need to remove all the glochids and spines thoroughly.

The best time to harvest cactus pads is midmorning to midafternoon. The acid content is lower at these times making for a more palatable taste. For a mature cactus, approximately one-third of the pads should be harvested yearly to keep the plant at optimal health.

After gathering the pads, you can scrape the bristles off with a blade under running water or burn them off over an open flame.

Prickly pear pads can be eaten:

  • Raw
  • Fried
  • Boiled
  • Sauteed
  • Made into soup
  • Added to a salad
  • Added to an omelet

Prickly Pear Cactus Fruit Is Versatile

The red fruit of an Opuntia is called 

  • Nopal
  • Indian Fig
  • Tuna
Prickly Pear fruit carries tons of health benefits and can be eaten after removing all the glochids.

It is edible cooked or raw, but care must be taken to ensure that all the glochids have been removed. If ingested, glochids can cause irritation to the 

  • Lips
  • Mouth
  • Throat
  • Digestive tract
  • Stomach

To eat the fruit raw, it is commonly split in half and the insides are scooped out with a spoon or it is peeled and eaten whole. These fruits are used in a variety of ways. They can be made into

  • Syrups
  • Preserves
  • Jellies
  • Liquor
  • Herbal remedies
  • Juices
  • Smoothies
  • Pancakes
  • Desserts
  • Candy

The fruit ripens at the end of summer. Most varieties turn a deep red on the outside when fully ripe.

To harvest cactus fruit, use thick gloves or a towel that is folded several times. Grasp the fruit and twist. If fully, ripened, it should come off the plant with little effort.

Grow an Opuntia Almost Anywhere

The Opuntia Cactus, also known as Prickly Pear Cactus, comes in many varieties. Some grow huge, up to fifteen feet tall while others are quite miniature at just six inches tall. 

This makes them a versatile shrub that can be grown:

  • Indoors
  • In sunrooms
  • On porches
  • Outdoors
  • In gardens
  • Along property lines
  • In xeriscapes
Prickly Pear cacti can grow almost anywhere on earth and this is want makes the plant so desirable worldwide.

They all flower, usually in the spring or early summer. Their flowers can be:

  • Red 
  • Yellow
  • Purple

Some have sharp spines, but most have glochids which are short, very fine hairs that grow all over the pads. These glochids easily detach from the pad and stick to skin, causing severe irritation. They are almost invisible and quite difficult to remove, so the use of gloves is recommended when touching an Opuntia.

Why Would You Grow an Opuntia Cactus?

For those in humid areas, it may seem a bit odd to plant a cactus in your yard. But if you have ever been to the desert, you understand how big a piece of your heart you leave behind. Something about the Old Wild West still intrigues us, and we want to bring it home with us however possible.

One way we can do that is by growing Opuntia cacti in  

  • Rock gardens
  • Yards
  • Flowerpots
  • Sunrooms

These hardy plants require little tending so if your green thumb turns plants brown, this is one species you should have good luck with. Besides that, they’re just beautiful! 

A bit intimidating because of their self-defense system, but mysterious and intriguing. They produce that arid feel of the desert. In a sense, they give us a chance to relive the Wild West days. 

Pick Your Opuntia

In all, there are about ninety different plants that are classified as Opuntia Cacti, or Prickly Pear Cacti. We will not study each one in depth here. We’ll only explore the species that most often end up adorning somebody’s rock garden or patio. 

Opuntia Microdasys

This species is known as the “bunny ears” cactus because the pad shape resembles a rabbit’s head. This cactus is relatively small, usually maxing out at around 60cm tall. This makes it the ideal species for growing indoors or in flowerpots.

The young plant is red and turns green as it grows older. When fully mature, this species will grow red or purple fruit. The fruits of the bunny ears cacti are edible, but extreme caution should be exercised when harvesting them. They are covered with almost invisible glochids.

Its flowers which bud in late spring are yellow and measure approximately two inches across. 

The Microdasys should be planted in full sun, if possible. At the most, it should be in only partial shade. A low-Nitrogen fertilizer should be used every other time it is watered. This cactus requires regular watering throughout the summer but shouldn’t be watered at all in the winter. 

This variety of Opuntia Cactus is not cold hardy. It should be kept in temperatures exceeding 45*F year-round.

Opuntia Basilaris

This Opuntia species has the “beaver tail” shape. It is a good option for growing indoors since it rarely grows more than sixty centimeters tall.

 Its gray-green or blue-green pads grow up to fourteen centimeters long and ten centimeters wide. They are fan shaped resembling a beaver’s tail. In dry summers they turn purple and wrinkle a bit but fill out again during the winter rains. 

The Basilaris has no spines, but it is loaded with glochids, so caution must be used when tending it. Its magenta-colored flowers are quite the star of the show as the plant itself is not attractive at all without them.

Native Americans used to depend heavily on the Basilaris buds as a source of food and medicine. Even the large, coarse seeds were ground up and used to make mush. 

The fruit of a Basilaris is brown gray in color and oblong in shape. It is not so readily consumed because it tends to be rather dry.

This is a low maintenance species that does well whether planted outdoors or potted indoors.

Opuntia Ficus-Indica

This is by far one of the most popular species of cacti grown literally all around the world. Most prickly pear recipes refer to this species. 

Topping out at sixteen and a half feet tall, this is one giant of a shrub. For this reason, it is not a good choice for an indoor plant, but it can successfully grow in pots. More often, this will be the cactus you find dominating a rock garden or xeriscape. 

Opuntia Ficus-Indica is the most popular Prickly Pear species that is characterized by orange-yellowish flowers and red fruits.

Its pads are thick and oblong, about two feet long and ten inches wide. The surface of the pads is waxy which causes them to reflect sunlight very well. 

From one year to two years old, the Ficus-Indica starts to produce yellow or orange-yellow flowers in the spring or early summer. Soon after, its fruit appears and turns red as it ripens, generally from August to October.

Is It Fruit or Vegetable? It’s Both!

Its red fruit is edible and so are its pads. The most popular way to eat Ficus-Indica fruit is peeled and chilled. It tastes like watermelon and contains myriad tiny seeds which are usually ingested along with the fruit, although this should be avoided in the presence of digestive issues.

These fruits contain the most Vitamin C of any fruit in the world. In fact, it has been proven that the health benefits of eating cacti comprise quite an impressive list.

The stems of the Ficus-Indica tastes much like a string bean. They are used extensively as a vegetable side dish or as a sort of stir-fry to some main dish like chicken or tacos.

 The Ficus-Indica is so popular because it’s so versatile. The pads can be eaten as vegetables and the fruit as dessert, or both can be used as medicine. The different components of the Ficus-Indica are used to make everything from dinner entrees to alcoholic beverages.

Especially in Mexico, the pads and fruits from this cactus are considered a delicacy. But food isn’t the only use of this cactus. 

Upgrade Soil with Cacti

In desert places like the Mediterranean, it is used to slow soil erosion and the shifting of sands. It also improves the quality of soil by replacing Nitrogen and organic matter into the soil.

Ficus Fills the Cows

In the US, the cattle industry has begun using the spineless variety to feed cattle on the desert ranges. Not only is it a cheap food, but its water content is so high that it reduces the need to water the animals who consume it.

Fuel Up with Ficus

Since the Ficus-Indica readily converts water into biomass, Mexico has developed a pilot plant for using the biomass form the Opuntia Ficus-Indica to produce a sort of biofuel.

This species grows very fast and is relatively maintenance free. It is extremely hardy, capable of withstanding temperatures as low as 10*F. It only needs full sun and a little water now and then.

This is one plant that gives back far more than it takes!

Opuntia Santa-Rita

The Santa-Rita grows more slowly than the Ficus-India, but it is well worth the wait. The Santa-Rita can put on a color show like no other cacti.

This variety of prickly pear produces flat pads in colors of

  • Purple
  • Pink
  • Red

The colors can change at times when influenced by climatic conditions. The depth of color in the pads increases during

The purple color fades a bit with too much water, and in warmer temperatures, the pads turn bluish-green. 

What makes this plant so interesting is the stacking of colors. The mature pads are blue-green while the young pads are purple or pink. Top that with red or yellow flowers and you have quite the painted desert show!

It needs to be watered only during the hottest summer months whenever the pads start to wrinkle or appear thinner than usual.

Its flowers can be yellow or red.

Santa-Ritas produce a small purple fruit that is edible, but you’ll have to fight with the birds for it. It seems that Santa-Rita fruit is their favorite snack.

This cactus does best when it receives six or more hours of full sun daily, preferably on a southern or western slope. With this species reaching a height and width of up to five feet, it does best when planted outside with plenty of room away from other plants.

This cactus is mostly trouble-free, and can tolerate cold temperatures, even frost with no problem.

Cacti Never Looked So Good

While they must be handled with care to avoid personal injury, Prickly Pear Cacti provides a unique and rustic feel to their surroundings. Whether indoors or out, they have a way of reminding us of simpler days, of adding rugged beauty and charm in return for so little care.

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