Cacti are generally desert plants, but one type—prickly pear—thrives across most of the U.S. and even into Canada. Cactus isn’t for everyone—those spines really do hurt—but if you’re looking for a beautiful, low-maintenance, tough-as-nails plant that will take over a sunny, dry patch in your yard, and you don’t have pets or children to worry about, consider prickly pear. The most common species of prickly pear have bright yellow summer flowers and purple-red fruits in the fall. The edible fruits are used to make jellies and candies. The pads or cladodes are also edible, and are widely used in Mexican and Southwestern cooking (called nopalitos when prepared).
Common name: prickly pear
Botanical name: Opuntia spp.
Plant type: Perennial, succulent
Zones: 3 to 12, depending on species
Height: 1 foot
· Sun: Full sun
· Soil: Rocky, sandy, poor
· Moisture: Dry
· Mulch: None needed.
· Pruning: None needed.
· Fertilizer: None needed.
· By seed (with difficulty)
· By cuttings: Cut pad at joint, dry for a week, then plant in garden or potting mix.
Pests and diseases
· Mealybugs, scale insects
· Various rots (caused by poor drainage or too much water), viruses, black spot
· Prickly pear looks great in rock gardens, dry prairies, and gravel or sand patches.
· Blooms June-July.
· The pads or cladodes, which are not technically leaves but stems modified to store water, shrivel in the winter but plump up again in spring.
· If prickly pear finds a favorable spot, it may colonize. In the wild, plants spread by pads that break off and root.
· Beware of the spines! Prickly pear has large spines and, at the base of these, clusters of much smaller spines, called glochids, that are hard to see but very painful and difficult to remove once they’re in your skin.
· Prickly pear is so common in some areas that it’s considered weedy or invasive.
· Cultivars of prickly pear are hard to find in the nursery trade.
All in the family
· No matter where you live, there’s a prickly pear for your climate. Brittle prickly pear (Opuntia fragilis) grows in every state west of the Mississippi. Devil’s tongue or eastern prickly pear (O. humifusa, also O. compressa) ranges from the East Coast to Nevada and from Canada to Florida.
· Cold-hardy prickly pear include those mentioned above, as well as O. macrorhiza and grizzly bear prickly pear (O. phaeacantha var. erinacea).
· Prickly pear species for desert environments include Engelmann’s prickly pear (O. engelmannii), pancake or flapjack prickly pear (O. chlorotica), and Santa Rita prickly pear (O. santa-rita).
· Some references have prickly pear sharing the Opuntia genus with another (even less friendly) cactus: the cholla. Other references group chollas into their own genus, called Cylindropuntia. Species such as buckhorn cholla (O. acanthocarpa v. major), staghorn cholla (O. versicolor), and teddybear cholla (O. bigelovii) thrive in the arid Southwest, adding beauty but also pain for the unwary or clumsy visitor.
(Photo of Opuntia compressa courtesy of Missouri Botanical Garden’s Kemper Center for Home Gardening)