Prickly pears are to the Southwest United States what junipers are to the Midwest. They’re in landscaped yards and in abandoned lots; in the desert wilderness and in city gardens.
They’re so common that if you live there, you may take them for granted. Unless you’re a gardener, that is! One of the most common species of prickly pear is Opuntia engelmannii, a cactus with thick green pads like spiny Mickey Mouse ears that can spread to form dense thickets.
In spring, the pads sprout bright yellow or orange-red flowers. In summer, these turn into purple-red edible fruits about 3 inches long.
Common name: Prickly pear , cactus apple, Engelmann’s prickly pear
Botanical name: Opuntia engelmannii
Plant type: Cactus
Zones: 8 to 12
Height: 4 to 6 feet
• Sun: Full sun
• Soil: Well-drained mix of sand, gravel, and garden soil
• Moisture: Dry
• Mulch: None needed.
• Pruning: None needed.
• Fertilizer: None needed.
• By cuttings
Pests and diseases
• Possible target for scale insects and mealybugs.
• Leaf spot, black spot, and bacterial soft rot can be problems. Susceptible to root rot if there’s poor drainage.
• Opuntia engelmannii loves a dry, sunny spot. Be sure to put it in a place that doesn’t get nearby traffic, and where pets and children can’t get at it.
• Remove all weeds in the area before planting, as it’s no fun to weed around a prickly pear.
• Learn to use tongs when caring for your cactus. Spines can penetrate even the thickest gloves. And beware of glochids—tiny hairlike spines—as they are even harder to remove from skin than the large spines.
All in the family
• There are about 200 species of Opuntia. Some are ground covers and some are as tall as trees.
• Not all cacti are restricted to the desert. Several are hardy to Zone 6 or 7. At least one species of prickly pear, O. compressa (also called O. humifusa), is hardy to Zone 5.
Where to buy
• Desert Moon Nursery, P.O. Box 600, Veguita, NM 87062, 505-864-0614
• Desert Nursery, 1301 S. Copper, Deming, NM 88030, 505-546-6264
• Mesa Garden, Belen, NM, 505-864-3131, www.mesagarden.com
Photo by Tracy Walsh