The prickly pear cactus

How to Propagate a Prickly Pear Cactus

Over the centuries—in the course of adapting to harsh soil and climatic conditions—opuntias have developed the ability to propagate readily and rapidly, both vegetatively and by seed. Which (in simple terms) means that if you live in a not-too-moist part of the country and you’d like to start your own backyard prickly pear patch, you can do so—quite easily—with just a few cuttings. Here’s how:

First, sever a number of pads from a parent plant and allow them to dry for a few days so that a callus forms over the wounds. (This is of paramount importance, for if the cuticle is not allowed to heal properly, it’ll be subject to bacterial rot which can then quickly kill the cutting.)

Next, place each healed pad—callus side down—in a dry mixture of sand and soil in a clay pot. (Some folks prefer to plant their cuttings directly in the ground where they are to grow permanently. Depending on how dry your soil and climate are—and the drier, the better—this might not work the first time you try it.) Don’t water your cuttings—or any cacti, for that matter—until they first show some sign of growth … and then always be careful not to give the plants too much water at one time.

Incidentally the unripe fruit of the opuntia—when plucked from the mother plant and treated as above—is also capable of producing roots, stems, flowers … and more fruit.


Prickly pear seeds may be sown in flats and new adult cacti grown from seedlings, but this is a time-consuming process. (Most nurserymen age the seeds for at least a year before planting them, to ensure proper germination.) If you wish to go this route, however, remember to rinse away all traces of pulp from the seeds and dry the seeds thoroughly before sowing them. Otherwise, fungi may—possibly—interfere with germination.

The ideal time to sow prickly pear seeds is in late spring. Cuttings, on the other hand, may be planted at any time of year. (Nonetheless, for the best growth it’s advisable to place cuttings in the ground in spring or summer. The plants will take root in fall or winter … but they won’t grow until the arrival of warm weather. So you might as well wait until the days get nice and long to plant your cacti outside.)

Aside from being prolific producers of fruit, opuntias make a fine hedge plant. One of the oldest opuntia hedges surrounds the San Diego (California) Mission—founded in 1769—where, after centuries, the original botanic barrier is as strong as ever.

The opuntia: house, fruit, and hedge plant all in one!

Planting Prickly Pear Cactus: How To Grow A Prickly Pear

Drought tolerant plants are important parts of the home landscape. Prickly pear plant is an excellent arid garden specimen that is appropriate for USDA plant hardiness zones 9 to 11. Growing prickly pear in colder climates can be done in containers where they are moved indoors when cold temperatures threaten. The question, “How to grow prickly pear?” is best answered with a little background on the plant.

Prickly Pear Plant Characteristics

Prickly pears are vigorously growing cactus with detachable spines which means they may not be suitable for every garden. The plants are perfect for the hot as a griddle areas of your garden. The plant is comprised of wide, flat, thick pads that are covered in spines and segmented stems. There are 181 species of prickly pear plant that range from low growing plants just over a foot high to 18 foot high giants.

Types of Prickly Pear

The wide range of cactus available for the home garden, provide a plant for every warm season situation.

The diminutive Beavertail prickly pear (Opuntia basilaris) has bluish gray pads that are slightly triangular in shape and carried on a 20 inch tall frame that can spread 20 to 30 inches wide.

The Indian fig prickly pear (Opuntia ficus-indica) is a monster of a cactus that grows in a treelike habit. It bears an edible fruit and large orange or yellow flowers.

The types of prickly pear have numerous descriptive names, among them bunny ears (Opuntia microdasys) and cow’s tongue (Opuntia engelmannii).

Planting Prickly Pear

The first thing to remember when planting prickly pear is to wear thick gloves and full length sleeves. It will be helpful to have a second pair of hands to keep the cactus stable when lowering it into the hole.

Plant the prickly pear at the same level it was growing in the nursery pot. Some exterior support may be necessary for larger specimens while it establishes. Planting prickly pear cactus requires careful handling to avoid damaging the plant and you.

How to Grow a Prickly Pear

Prickly pears are easy to grow. They need well-drained soil and can survive on rainwater after established. During rooting, the plant should be irrigated every two or three weeks. When you choose a cactus, consider the size it will eventually become and plant it away from pathways and areas where people will brush against it. Growing prickly pear successfully relies on a warm, dry climate.

You can easily grow your own prickly pear. Propagation from pads is quick and quite simple. The pads are actually specialized flattened stems. Six month old pads are removed from the plant and set out in a dry area to form a callus on the cut end for several weeks. A half and half mix of soil and sand is good for planting prickly pear pads. The pad will form roots in a few months. During this time, it needs support and should not be watered. The pad can be watered after it will stand on its own.

Prickly Pear Cactus

Prickly Pear Cactus Flowers

Most prickly pear cactus have yellow, red or purple flowers, even among the same species. They vary in height from less than a foot (plains, hedgehog, tuberous) to 6 or 7 feet (Texas, Santa Rita, pancake). Pads can vary in width, length, shape and color. The beavertail, Santa Rita and blind pear are regarded as spineless, but all have glochids.

Prickly pear cactus information

Prickly pear cactus represent about a dozen species of the Opuntia genus (Family Cactaceae) in the North American deserts. All have flat, fleshy pads that look like large leaves. The pads are actually modified branches or stems that serve several functions — water storage, photosynthesis and flower production. Chollas are also members of the Opuntia genus but have cylindrical, jointed stems rather than flat pads.

Like other cactus, most prickly pears and chollas have large spines — actually modified leaves — growing from tubercles — small, wart-like projections — on their stems. But members of the Opuntia genus are unique because of their clusters of fine, tiny, barbed spines called glochids. Found just above the cluster of regular spines, glochids are yellow or red in color and detach easily from the pads. Glochids are often difficult to see and more difficult to remove, once lodged in the skin.

Tiny, barbed spines called glochids.

The fruits of most prickly pears are edible and sold in stores under the name “tuna.” Prickly pear branches (the pads) are also cooked and eaten as a vegetable. They, too, are sold in stores under the name “Nopalito.” Because of the glochids, great care is required when harvesting or preparing prickly pear cactus. Both the fruits and the pads of the prickly pear cactus are rich in slowly absorbed soluble fibers that may help keep blood sugar stable. Prickly pear nectar is made with the juice and the pulp of the fruits and is available from our online store.

Range & Habitat

Prickly pear cactus are found in all of the deserts of the American Southwest, with different species having adapted to different locale and elevation ranges. Most require coarse, well-drained soil in dry, rocky flats or slopes. But some prefer mountain pinyon/juniper forests, while others require steep, rocky slopes in mountain foothills.

What is that white stuff on my cactus? Cochineal (an insect) is present in much of the lower elevations in the western United States and Mexico. It feeds almost solely on the pads of selected prickly pear cacti species. To find out more information and pictures of cochineal

There has been medical interest in the prickly pear plant. Some studies have shown that the pectin contained in the prickly pear pulp lowers levels of “bad” cholesterol while leaving “good” cholesterol levels unchanged. Another study found that the fibrous pectin in the fruit may lowers diabetics’ need for insulin. Both fruits and pads of the prickly pear cactus are rich in slowly absorbed soluble fibers that help keep blood sugar stable. There are ongoing studies though at this point there are no proven results on humans. You can make your own study and see if works for you, which is the only test that really counts. More…

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In addition to the North American native prickly pear cactus listed below, there are many varieties, non-native imports and hybrids, so identification can often be difficult. Information on the 15 species listed below is based on wild, non-cultivated samples.

15 species of prickly pear cactus

Opuntia strigil

Opuntia basilaris

Opuntia rufida

Desert: Chihuahuan near Big Bend, Texas
Height: Up to 6 feet
Pads: Circular, 6 inches, covered with velvety hairs and reddish glochids
Flowers: Bright yellow, orange with age
Fruit: Red and fleshy
Elevation: 2,000-3,500 feet

Opuntia phaeacantha

Opuntia engelmannii

Desert: Sonoran and Chihuahuan
Height: Up to 5 feet
Pads: Blue-green, 12-inch circular or oblong
Flowers: Yellow to peach with age
Fruit: Large, juicy, reddish purple
Elevation: 1,500-6,200 feet

Opuntia erinacea

Opuntia humifusa

Desert: Great Basin, Mojave, Sonoran and Chihuahuan
Height: Up to 2 feet
Pads: Oval or round, 3-6 inches
Flowers: Sulfur yellow with red base
Fruit: Pear-shaped and hairless
Elevation: 0-5,500 feet

Opuntia phaeacantha

Desert: Chihuahuan Desert
Height: Up to 3.5 feet
Pads: Green, 4-6 inches with downward spines
Flowers: Bright yellow, 2 inches
Fruit: Pear-shaped, reddish purple
Elevation: 500-3,000 feet

Opuntia chlorotica

Desert: Mojave and Sonoran
Height: Up to 7 feet
Pads: Circular, bluish, arising from a thick, round trunk
Flowers: Yellow with red centers
Fruit: Fleshy, purple-gray
Elevation: 2,000-6,000 feet

Opuntia polycantha

Opuntia violacea

Desert: Chihuahuan
Height: Up to 3.5 feet
Pads: Oblong, bluish purple, with long black or white spines
Flowers: Yellow with red centers
Fruit: Oval to 1.5 inches, green
Elevation: 3,000-5,500 feet

Opuntia violacea

Desert: Chihuahuan
Height: Up to 6 feet
Pads: Hairless lavender to purple
Flowers: Lemon-yellow
Fruit: Oval to 1.5 inches, green
Elevation: 1,500-7,500 feet

Opuntia spinosbacca

Opuntia lindheimeri

Desert: Chihuahuan
Height: Up to 5.5 feet
Pads: 10-inch oval with translucent yellow spines
Flowers: Yellow
Fruit: Purple with white top
Elevation: 0-4,600 feet

Opuntia macrorhiza

Desert: Sonoran and Chihuahuan
Height: 6 inches
Pads: Dark green or blue-green
Flowers: Yellow, red centers or all red
Fruit: Juicy and spineless
Elevation: 2,000-9,000 feet

More Cactus Aricles
Desert Cacti
Cholla Cactus
Beavertail Cactus
Chain Fruit Cholla
Desert Christmas Cactus
Prickly Pear Sweets & Treats
Desert Plant & Wildflower Index

Cactus Roots Grow Deep

Posted January 26, 2010 12:12 pm & filed under How-to.

Cactus in the desert can have wide spreading shallow roots. But what about in wetter areas like here, this winter?

Cactus Museum has this to say.

Roots: Cactus roots help to gather and preserve water in several ways. In some cacti, shallow, extensive root systems spread laterally away from the plant (e.g. some prickly pear roots spread 10 to 15 feet away). In brief showers which only wet a few inches of soil, the shallow roots help the plant maximize water intake from a large area.

Cactus roots also change characteristics as the water supply fluctuates. After a rainfall, existing dehydrated roots become more water conductive and new rain roots are formed to help soak up water. In times of drought, the rain roots shrivel and fall off and the existing roots dehydrate. The shrinkage of the existing roots creates an air gap that helps to prevent water in the roots from escaping back to the soil. A corky layer on the roots also helps to prevent water loss.

Now that may be true in the desert, but we have found in a densely planted garden where there is water down in the (fast-draining) soil (that you’ve added or amended in your garden), the roots can be deeper. Competition between adjacent plants will cause roots to try deeper than wider, and when they find water down there, which they won’t in the desert but they will in your garden, they’ll want to stay down there.

In fact, we notice that they will go down until they hit the water table in winter, and then they’ll rot off back up to the drier parts of the soil, which also tends to match up with the depth to which you amended your soil to make it faster draining.

This will then cause them to spend the early part of spring growing new roots before they start growing new branches. Every year this cycle repeats, and if you haven’t amended your soil deep enough, then eventually the cactus will fail.

The Lesson: make sure you have amended your soil to be fast draining deep enough that the roots will have plenty of depth to establish and survive the winters. For larger cactus, we recommend at least 2 feet of depth, and don’t crowd them too close to each other either. Give the roots room to grow above the winter water table.

Prickly pear

Prickly pear, also called nopal, any of several species of flat-stemmed spiny cacti of the genus Opuntia (family Cactaceae) and their edible fruits. Prickly pear cacti are native to the Western Hemisphere. Several are cultivated, especially the Indian fig (O. ficus-indica), which is an important food for many peoples in tropical and subtropical countries.

  • prickly pearPrickly pear cactus (Opuntia), Arizona, U.S.© Index Open
  • Engelmann prickly pear (Opuntia engelmannii)Grant Heilman Photography

The Indian fig is bushy to treelike, growing to a height of 5.5 metres (18 feet). It bears large yellow flowers, 7.5 to 10 cm (3 to 4 inches) across, followed by white, yellow, or reddish purple fruits. It is widely grown in warmer areas for the fruit and edible paddles and as a forage crop. The hard seeds are used to produce an oil. Because of their high water content, the stems, especially of spineless varieties, are used as emergency stock feed during drought.

Some prickly pear species are cultivated as ornamentals and are valued for their large flowers. They are easily propagated from stem segments. Two of the best-known species, Engelmann prickly pear (O. engelmannii) and the beaver tail cactus (O. basilaris), commonly occur in the southwestern United States.

eastern prickly pearEastern prickly pear, or devil’s tongue (Opuntia humifusa).AdstockRF

Some species have become invasive in regions outside their native ranges. When prickly pears were first introduced to Australia and southern Africa by early explorers, they prospered, and, having left behind their natural parasites and competitors, they eventually became pests. In some cases they have been brought under control by introducing moths of the genus Cactoblastis.

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News flash: If you’re new to succulents, beware the prickly pear. It is the one cactus that strikes fear into every desert gardener, and now the drought has made these cactuses available far and wide. Its paddle-shaped leaves make it the most easily recognized of all cactus, a playful shape that hides a devastating secret. In homes with kids and dogs, this is a need to know before planting anything from this genus.

Prickly pear cactus are all genus Opuntia, along with their cousins, the cigar-shaped cholla. Many are native to the American West, with many more ubiquitous throughout the warmer New World regions. So why are the prickly pears so despised by those who love cactus so much?

It’s their spiny armor. Each stem is pocked with orderly grids of tubercles, which are the source of spines, flowers and fruit.

There are two types of spines that occur on the tubercles of Opuntias.

The large, wickedly sharp spines are dangerous because they are stiff and penetrate deeply with some so barbed they become very difficult to remove from flesh.

The second spine type is called a glochid. These are like human eyelashes or even smaller, almost microscopic sometimes. They tend to exist like fur in the tubercle, appearing soft and fuzzy to the touch.

Glochids enter skin at the slightest contact, then often break off in the process of extraction. Various removal methods include painful bikini wax or sticky tape for larger areas. Otherwise it’s magnifying glass and tweezers time with a very bright light. Unless removed immediately after penetration, it’s almost impossible to get them all. We cactus aficionados are the living burial ground of many old glochids that eventually disappeared.

With hundreds of Opuntia species, there’s a great deal of variation. Many lack big sharp spines, but they retain their microprotection, so don’t assume spineless is safe. In fact, these spineless-looking ones are all glochids, making them the most hated of all. Inevitably they end up coming home from succulent racks at the garden center only to get spread everywhere. Once infested, leather gloves and clothing are useless and must be discarded.

One of the popular Southwest natives, Opuntia basilaris, looks touchable because it lacks visible spines, but each tubercle is packed with small, dark glochids. The plant’s roots are studded with glochids, too, to keep thirsty desert rodents from their succulent tissues and roots. Many desert gardeners have discovered this the hard way when transplanting what looks like a spine-free native prickly pear.

When bringing new prickly pear plants into your dry garden, be ever aware of their locations. Keep them well back from activity areas so there’s no chance of a misstep. Don’t hesitate to prune your plants at natural joints when they grow too close for comfort. Anytime you handle a plant or those pruned-off pieces, use newspaper layered thick enough to resist the bigger spines, or try barbecue tongs. Root the cuttings after they’ve sat in the open air for a week so the wound dries out. Line a plastic nursery pot with newspaper, fill with moist sand, insert paddles and place in bright shade until roots form. Check often for signs of rooting. Once they start, transplant into well drained garden soil or pots of cactus potting soil to encourage growth.

Prickly pear is one of the most diverse and useful cactuses for home gardens. Cactuses in larger containers sold at home improvement stores can be highly successful, but don’t assume they are cold hardy enough to survive the winter. That’s why some of the most successful garden plants have been grown from cuttings taken from locally established prickly pears that have proved their ability to adapt best to your yard.

Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Learn more at

Cacti of West and Southwest USA – Opuntia

Plants > Cacti > Opuntia Opuntia (‘prickly pears’) are branched, jointed cacti, usually densely spined, though a few species have no spines. They are characterized by flattened pads, unlike the related cylindropuntia genus (cholla), where the pads are cylindrical, and the low-growing, especially spiny grusonia genus (club cholla), where the pads are club-shaped; narrow at the base and wider towards the end. Some opuntia become large and tree-like while others stay at ground level, often forming extensive mats. There are many Southwest varieties, often similar in appearance, a few hybridized and many difficult to identify. The regular spines are surrounded by tiny bristles known as glochids, which are very irritating to the skin if touched. Opuntia are the most widespread US cactus genus, with nearly 40 species, growing in every state and in Canada.
Other US opuntia species:
Opuntia atrispina, border prickly pear, close to the Rio Grande in south Texas, around Del Rio
Opuntia chisosensis, Chisos Mountain prickly pear, Big Bend region of west Texas
Opuntia cymochila, grassland prickly pear, Great Plains states (CO, KS, NE, NM, OK, TX)
Opuntia dillenii, erect prickly pear, Florida
Opuntia humifusa, eastern prickly pear, all of east and central USA
Opuntia littoralis, coastal prickly pear, southern California coastline (south of Santa Barbara)
Opuntia macrorhiza, twist spine prickly pear (Great Plains, southern Rocky Mountain states and Arizona)
Opuntia martiniana, seashore cactus, northwest Arizona and southwest Utah
Opuntia monacantha, common prickly pear, southeast USA (AL, FL, GA, LA, MS)
Opuntia pinkavae, Pinkava’s prickly pear, northwest Arizona and southwest Utah (a small area south of Zion NP)
Opuntia pusilla, cockspur prickly pear, southeast Texas, along the Gulf Coast to Florida and north along the Atlantic coast
Opuntia stricta, erect prickly pear, along the coast of southeast USA
Opuntia triacantha, Spanish lady, Florida (Keys)
Opuntia valida, San Antonio prickly pear, New Mexico

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