Sometimes things in life can be a bit prickly, but owning and caring for a Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia) doesn’t have to be.
Join me as I walk you through the basics of taking care of the newest member of our plant family.
Background of the Prickly Pear
This beautiful and unique plant is native to both North and South America. It was introduced to Europe by Christopher Columbus when he gifted Queen Isabella of Spain with a beautiful Prickly Pear.
Since then, it has been known to spread worldwide, but today it is most commonly seen in the Americas in arid, desert regions.
It is also called an Indian Fig or Bunny Ears. It is also known as one of the “pokiest” plants in the world due to its large spines.
These plants are known for their flat, fleshy pads that look like large leaves. The pads or paddles, as some call them, are actually modified branches or stems. These serve several functions – water storage, photosynthesis, and flower production.
The Prickly Pear also has tiny, sharp hair-like thorns called “glochids.” These easily detach from the plant and will lodge in the skin or other tender membranes.
When the Prickly Pear matures, it can grow flowers at the tips of the paddles in a variety of colors such as pink, yellow, orange, magenta, or red.
The Prickly Pear can be grown either indoors or outdoors. If you decide to grow them in both places, it is a good idea to grow them in pots which allows you to bring them outdoors during the warmer months.
You will have no doubt you can grow a Prickly Pear in your climate zone if you source your plant locally. Always be sure to consult your local garden center for this information.
Varieties and Species
There are many varieties and species of the Prickly Pear. The numbers tend to vary greatly, so I won’t even begin to make a guess. In my research, I came upon numbers from 181 to 1,800, so that shows how varied the numbers are!
Well, the jury is still out on whether the Prickly Pear is toxic or not. In all the research I did, there was nothing conclusive as to whether it is or it’s not. Several places I read said it was extremely toxic to both children and pets. Several other places said it was safe for pets and humans alike!
However, we do know this – you do not want to expose your pets or children to the prickly hairs on this plant. They certainly would be dangerous if ingested. And they could be harmful and difficult to remove if the plants are picked up or eaten by an animal or child.
Caring for your Prickly Pear
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Prickly Pears are extremely drought tolerant. If you grow them indoors, they do not need much watering. Overwatering is definitely not their friend! Excess water is stored in the plump pads of the plant, so it does not need to be watered often.
Use your finger to check the soil. If it is wet at all, don’t water. Wait until the soil is dry to the touch. Use a pot that has plenty of drainage holes.
Indoors Prickly Pears need to be in a brightly lit position either in a south or west facing window. Keeping one in a heated greenhouse (which would be my dream!) will also help it thrive. They require good, consistent all around light for a minimum of 4-6 hours each day.
Also be sure to rotate your plants on a regular basis so they get equal light on all sides. When plants don’t get sufficient light or only on one side, they tend to stretch looking for that light to thrive.
Soil for your Prickly Pear
Prickly Pears don’t do well in regular potting soil. They need a sandier mix. A ½ and ½ mix of soil and sand is a good mixture. You can also add pumice or perlite to lighten the soil.
You should always use a well draining and extremely porous mix. Never allow the roots to become compacted. They need oxygen to grow properly. Dry, gritty, gravelly mixes of soil are best for growing your Prickly Pear.
Fertilizing your Prickly Pear
Prickly Pear typically only require fertilizing once in the spring and once in the summer. Use an all-purpose liquid plant food diluted to half strength.
Do not fertilize your Prickly Pear in the fall or winter when the plant growth slows down. You can purchase liquid fertilizer at your local garden store or online at many different places such as Amazon.
No fertilizer should be used on new plantings or immature plants as this can harm young cacti.
Temperature and Humidity
Prickly Pears prefer warm and dry conditions. Indoors they can tolerate temps between 55 and 90 degrees. They require no additional humidity than is in the typical household.
The Prickly Pear will grow larger and flower more often if grown in warmer temperatures. This is true mostly when the plants are grown outdoors, however, can also apply when grown in the proper conditions indoors.
As mentioned before, if you want to grow your plants both indoors and outdoors, but live in a cooler climate, plant your Prickly Pears in pots. This way, when the weather warms up, you can bring them outdoors to enjoy on a patio or porch during the warmer months.
Pests and Diseases
Prickly Pears don’t suffer from many pests or diseases. One they are prone to is an infestation of cochineal scale. This is where it covers itself with a waxy coating that looks like white tufts on the paddles or stems of the plant.
If you crush the waxy material, a deep red fluid will come out. This is a definite sign your cactus is infested with this pest. It can be eliminated with rubbing alcohol or insecticidal soap.
Interestingly, this red fluid is used as a natural dye for textiles, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and food dyes.
These plants are also prone to root rot if they are overwatered or kept in overly humid conditions. It can also produce scab, which appears as rusty colored corky areas on the paddles. These plants should be allowed to dry out completely between waterings.
Pruning and Repotting your Prickly Pear
This is one of the easiest plants to repot. They have natural segments which can be twisted off and repotted easily. After removing a segment from the mother plant, allow the end of it to harden off or scab over for several days.
After the cutting scabs over, you can dip it in rooting hormone powder, but this isn’t necessary. It just helps it to root faster when placed into the soil.
Plant the cutting in a good quality, well draining soil for cacti, such as the mix mentioned above. You can then water the soil once it dries out. After a few weeks, gently pull on the cuttings to see if they are resisting and staying in the pot. If so, they have developed roots and you have been successful!
You should never cut one of the pads or paddles in the middle of the segment. This will allow openings for disease to grow. The natural segments on the plant make for easy separation when propagating.
Be sure to safeguard your hands and arms with good thick gloves when working with these plants. The small hairy like spines are easily embedded in skin and hard to remove.
They can be very painful if left in your skin for any period of time. As they say in the plant world, these plant are well armored against their natural predators. They can readily cause harm to both humans and pets if not handled and placed properly.
Prickly Pear prefer a lot of light. Established plants can tolerate heave sun exposure and hot temps during the peak season. In cooler months, they are fine indoors with bright, indirect light from a window.
No, they are actually modified stems. These pads take on various functions such as storing water, photosynthesis, and producing flowers.
Overwatering is the No. 1 cause of Prickly Pear death, especially for potted plants. A consistently overwatered Prickly Pear will start rotting from the roots and will eventually work its way up the entire plant.
So, you want to grow a Prickly Pear. Give it a try – it’s not that difficult. Find a good, reputable seller to purchase one from, then bring it home and watch it grow.
If you give it the right care and conditions, it can bring a lot of interest to your already booming plant collection.
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