Prickly pear cacti are found throughout the Americas, especially in the planes and deserts of the U.S. and much of Mexico. They can even be grown as far north as USDA Zone 4. They belong to the vast genus Opuntia. This type of cacti grow flat paddle-like cladodes that cluster together. They are armed with two types of needle-like defenses that cannot be touched with bare hands. The prominent spines are large, smooth, and fixed to the cacti. Glochids are very small, hair-like structures that detach when touched. Bright yellow flowers emerge on most of the cladodes when spring emerges. Prickly pear can grow so dense and vigorous that they even become a nuisance in some regions, especially non-native regions.
Growing prickly pear cacti is relatively easy when given the proper climate, soil, and location. The most rewarding part of growing them i is the ability to easily propagate and grow more prickly pear cacti fairly quickly. Growing and propagation is similar to many other succulents, such as jade. Seed germination and cuttings are both viable propagation methods.They can even be carefully peeled and eaten, as well as the fruit after the flowers finish blooming.
Light: As desert cacti, prickly pears require maximum sunlight to thrive and should be kept in direct sunlight whenever possible.
Water: Very little water is required. These drought-resistant plants grow best in hot, dry areas and excessive water could cause them to rot.
Temperature: Hot temperatures are best, but these cacti will tolerate a very wide range of temperatures.
Soil: The most important soil requirement for Opuntia is that it drains well. Other than that, a basic potting soil is fine – these cacti will grow in rock gardens, as well.
Prickly pears can propagate either by cuttings or by seed. To propagate by cuttings, sever pads from a plant and let them dry so that the wounds heal.
Then place the plants in a dry soil and refrain from watering them until they begin to grow to avoid rotting them. To propagate by seed, rinse away pulp from the seeds, make sure they’re thoroughly dry, and plant – ideally in the spring. Again, the crucial factor in keeping the seeds alive and growing is keeping their soil well-drained and dry.
Though Opuntia will grow just fine in a garden, they can be grown in pots as well. To repot, ensure the soil is dry, then remove the pot and knock away the old soil. After treating any cuts with fungicide, place the prickly pear in a new pot and backfill it with potting soil. As with a new cutting, make sure not to water a newly repotting prickly pear for a brief period to avoid rotting its roots.
There are over 200 species of prickly pears, many of which hybridize quite easily with each other. For instance, the Opuntia leucotricha, or arborescent prickly pear, is a large, tree-like variety that can grow up to sixteen feet tall in the Mexican desert! More commonly grown by gardeners is the Opuntia aciculate, an ornamental cactus is known for its yellow and red spines.
Though the large variety of species within the Opuntia genus means different types of prickly pears may need slightly different care, all are desert cacti that need lots of sun, lots of light, and very little water.
If you live in a hot, arid area – particularly the American Southwest – these plants can generally be planted outside, left alone, and enjoyed.