The prickly pear cactus is an eye-catching, drought-tolerant, and fruit-bearing plant that can reach 23 feet in height, and spreads fairly vigorously. Depending on the variety, these cacti can grow in shrub-like forms or form tree-like trunks that raise their greenery high off the ground. Prickly pears grow wide, flat, blue-green pads and bloom summer flowers in yellow, red, pink, or purple. They are low-maintenance and hardy, making them a great choice for beginner gardeners.
Make sure to use thick gloves when transplanting a prickly pear cactus, to protect yourself from the plant's spines. You may want an extra pair of hands, too, since the combined prickliness, fragility, and weight of the plant can make it a bit awkward to handle. Prickly pears should be planted at the same depth as the transplant was growing previously, since planting the cactus too deep can lead to rot. Prickly pear cacti can be grown directly in the garden or in pots. If you grow your cacti in a pot, make sure to choose one that has good drainage and is fairly large.
Prickly pear cacti need to be planted in well-draining soil since they are susceptible to overwatering. Alkaline soil that is somewhat sandy or gravely will be best for your cactus. Otherwise, though, prickly pears are not too picky about their soil type and they will tolerate a wide range of varieties, so long as they drain well.
Prickly pear cacti grow nicely in hardiness zones 9 to 11, but certain varieties will do fine in zones 5 to 12. This means that prickly pears thrive in a warm and dry climate. They require a spot that gets full sun exposure throughout the day. In slightly colder climates, prickly pears can be grown in pots and brought indoors for the winter.
Being drought-tolerant plants, prickly pear cacti need very little watering. In most climates, rainfall will be a sufficient water source for the plants. In a drought situation, prickly pears can be watered once to twice a month, depending on the season. Watering these cacti involves simply moistening the surrounding soil — don't soak it.
Prickly pear cacti are quite resistant to pests and disease but are susceptible to overwatering. Too much moisture will cause root rot, which can lead to the plant collapsing. Pest cases are very rare in these cacti, but mealybug or scale could affect them. If these pests show up, remove the affected areas of the plant as quickly as possible. Spray your plant with insecticidal soap, try to remove visible bugs, and use a rubbing alcohol-soaked cotton swab to get rid of any leftover mealybugs. Diseases are equally rare, but leaf rot or black spot can occur if your cacti is faced with improper growing conditions.
When grown outdoors, prickly pears do not usually require fertilizer. Cacti grown in pots or indoors will be more likely to need extra nutrients; you'll know something is missing from their diet if the pads become pale or the cacti stops blooming. Young prickly pears can be fertilized using a 10-10-10 mix of fertilizer — equal parts nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. For older cacti, look for a fertilizer with less or no nitrogen.
Propagating a prickly pear from a seed is not difficult, but keep in mind that it can take the new plant up to 3 years to bear fruit. Take a ripe fruit from an established prickly pear plant, cut it open, and remove the seeds. Sprinkle the seeds into the ground or into a pot of mixed sand and soil. Lightly water the soil when it becomes quite dry, and wait for the seeds to germinate. When the cactus begins to grow, continue to water it infrequently and lightly. After around a month, check on your plant's root growth by lightly pulling on it while wearing gloves. When your plant holds strong when lightly pulled, it has enough root growth to be transplanted.
Propagating a prickly pear from a cutting is even easier than starting one from seed. Remove a pad from an established plant using tongs to hold the pad and a knife to remove it at the base. Let the pad sit in a dry area for around a month, until the base forms a full callus. Once fully calloused, the pad can be planted an inch deep in a mix of sand and soil, using rocks or sticks to prop it up. Wait one month before starting to water your pad, then water it infrequently and sparingly. Use the same pulling method as used with the seed-grown plant to test root formation before transplanting.
The main benefit of growing a prickly pear cactus, aside from its unique appearance, is the edible fruit that many varieties bear. Both the pads and the fruit of these varieties are edible either raw or cooked. Pads can be harvested year-round, but never remove more than 1/3 of your plant's pads at one time. Use tongs and a knife to remove the pads, as when propagating the plant. Remove the outer skin — by cutting it away or roasting it off — before consumption. The fruit of the cactus is ripe when the glochids, the small prickles, fall off of them. The fruits are typically ready in September and are removed by twisting them off the plant while wearing gloves.
The Eastern prickly pear cactus is the most common variety. Also known as the Indian fig, this plant produces bright yellow-gold flowers and brownish-red fruit. The Opuntia leucotricha variety grows in a tree-like form, producing yellow flowers, and fragrant red or yellow-fleshed fruit. The Puntia basilaris, also known as the beavertail variety, does not bear fruit but produces particularly beautiful and big pink-to-purple flowers in the summer season.