Prickly Pear Cactus: Everything you Need to Know

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prickly pear

You can easily identify prickly pear cacti by their upside-down pear-shaped pads or segments.

Their gray-green fleshy pads can produce beautiful flowers in the spring that turn into red, spiny fruits later in the season.

It is interesting to note there are 150 varieties of prickly pear cacti, and all of them are hardy in climate zones from 12 to 24.

Moreover, these are drought-resistant plants and need low-maintenance house plants that add a little bit of Southwestern flair to your room.

Additionally, you can also propagate them through cuttings.

Most varieties of these cacti have a combination of detachable spines and tufts of barbed bristles or glochids that can cause severe allergic reactions.

However, there are certain spineless varieties that you can also have at home.

Let’s discuss them in detail.

Prickly Pear Care

Eastern prickly pear is easy to care for and hot desert weather and cool weather gardens both favor its growth.

Its stems divide into flat paddle-like segments that are almost 2 to 5 inches long with a blue tint in them.

The narrow spines are wedge-shaped and the flowers often bloom in the mid-summer. There is a shade of yellow in color.

Later, the flowers are followed by edible purple or red fruit called Tunas.

prickly pear cactus care

These are prickly pears and although they are not as large or tasty as the prickly pears of O. ficus-indica, you can make them into nice jellies and pickles.

Prickly pears are a cactus, thus, they will need well-draining soil through all stages of their growth.

Plant them in full sun either in a shady or gravely mix and go easy on watering them.

More importantly, they will appear to deflate during the winters, which may worry you.

However, it happens in winters and this is the normal response to dormancy and they will return back to their original shape in the spring.

Varieties of the Prickly Pear

The following are a few varieties of the prickly pear:

Opuntia leucotricha

This one is commonly known as arborescent prickly pear, and this species is a large, tree-like plant.

It can reach up to 16 feet tall in the desert and grows in zones 7 to 10.

Opuntia aciculata

Known as chenille prickly pear, old man’s whiskers, and cowboy’s red whiskers, is ornamental cactus.


It is popular for its yellow and red spines and can grow up to 4 feet. It grows best in zones 88 to 12.

Opuntia basilaris

Also called beavertail prickly pear, it has velvety pads and deep purple-red flowers.

This one reaches almost 36 inches tall and 24 to 30 inches in width and grows best in zones 8 to 10.

Opuntia fragilis

Brittle or fragile prickly pears are small plants that mature at 6 inches tall and 9 inches in width.

Moreover, its pads can break off easily, however, they grow roots readily and grows best in zones 4 to 11.

Light and Soil for Prickly Pears

Just like most of the cacti, prickly pear grows best in full sunlight for at least  8 hours a day.

With that being said, it can also handle partial sun if you plant it in hotter climates like a traditional desert landscape.

However, it is important to note that the more sunlight exposure, the more it will lead to a larger plant and more blooms come mid-to-late spring and summer.

For prickly pears to thrive, you need to plant them in well-draining soil.

Make sure that the mixture is dry, sandy, or gravelly, however, it can also do well in clay soil, as long as it drains well and the soil does not retain much moisture.

When it comes to the pH of the soil, they are not high-maintenance and can thrive in a neutral to acidic mix with a pH level of 6.0 to 7.5.

Learn more about types of soil here.

Water, Temperature, and Humidity

Prickly pear cactus is extremely drought-resistant, thus, if you are in doubt, water it less than you think it needs.

In most areas, your regular rainfall is enough for the plant to thrive, however, you can also plan to water it every 2 to 4 weeks.

prickly pear cactus

Moreover, these cacti like warm and dry weather like other types of cacti. Though it is more cold hearty than other types and can also survive cold temperatures down to 14 degrees Fahrenheit.

It will grow large and bloom more when you raise it in warm temperatures.

It is important to keep in mind that you need to keep it dry, so any additional humidity is unnecessary.

Fertilizing Prickly Pear

If you have planted your prickly pear in garden soil, then you do not need any fertilizer.

However, you may need occasional feeding when you choose to keep them indoors.

Fertilize immature plants a week solution of water-soluble fertilizer for cactus every couple of weeks.

However, fertilize mature plants only 2 to 3 times during the summer season.

If you are growing the Opuntia cactus and want it to produce flowers and fruits, you can choose low nitrogen fertilizer or 0-10-10.

Additionally, if you want to produce more paddles, use a balanced fertilizer or 10-10-10, monitor the results, and adjust accordingly to your requirements.

Propagating Prickly Pear Cactus

While you can also choose to grow prickly pear from seeds, it can take almost 3 years to have a substantial plant.

Thus, most often individuals prefer to propagate them.

To do so, you can remove an individual pad of the plant from the mother cactus that is at least 6 months old.

Make sure to allow the cutting end to heal for at least a week, or until it scabs over.


At this point, you can plant the cutting in the mixture of the soil and sand.

It needs to be supported on either side until it grows roots, so you can use stakes or other supports to hold it upright.

After a month or so, you can test for new roots by tugging on them gently, however, if the plant resists pulling, you have roots.

However, if it comes looses, give it more time to grow roots. Waer the plant sporadically, after it stands on its own.

Pests and Diseases

One of the most common problems with growing a cactus is watering it in excess which can cause its shallow, fibrous roots to rot and the plant can collapse.

They are also suspectable to a variety of insect pests and include scale and mealybug.

You can treat them by rubbing alcohol, neem oil, or in severe cases, with a pesticide.

It is important to note that phyllostica fungus can also affect this plant.

They come with tiny spores that colonize the tissue of the cactus when the weather is especially wet or humid.

Phyllostic can eat lesions into the pads of your cactus, thus causing large black spots that scab over.

While it is not deadly, it is very contagious and can easily spread to neighboring plants through heavy wind and rain.

There is no effective treatment for this disease and many gardeners recommend disposing of the infected plants or the cacti to make sure the diseases do not spread.

Harvesting your Plant

There are a number of varieties of prickly pear that produce pads and fruit that are edible.

These pads are often referred to as nopales and the fruit is commonly called tuna fruit.

You can harvest the pads any time of the year and up to 6 times per year on fast-growing plants, by following certain instructions of pruning.

harvesting it

When harvesting them follow the steps:

  • Do not remove any more than 1/3 of the total number of pads to make sure your plant remains healthy and produces more pads.
  • If you want to use its fruit, make sure to remove them mid-morning when the acid contents within them are at their lowest concentration.
  • Use tongs to hold them while cleaning and carefully scrape off the pads and peel the fruit to remove all traces of spines and glochids.
  • However, you can also roast them to burn off the spines.

Potting and Repotting the Plant

If you want to grow prickly pear in containers, choose a pot that has generous drainage holes at the bottom.

Fill it will a well-draining potting mix, that is made especially for succulent plants, then put on thick protective gloves to plant your new plant in its pot.

However, when your plant is root-bound and is too large and unstable in its container, only then consider repotting your plant.

To do so, make sure the soil is dry. Then, take the plant out from the pot by grabbing its base and knocking away the old soil.

Place it in a slightly large pot and backfill with a well-draining potting mix.

It is important to note that you should not water the repotted prickly pear right away. Allow it to reintegrate its root first and then water it.

Final Thoughts

Prickly pear cacti are a type of cacti that are native to South America, Central America, and the southern parts of North America. Though they prefer to thrive in desert climates, they can grow well in a wide variety of soils, moisture levels, and temperatures.

Moreover, the pads of this cacti are also edible, however, in most cases, individuals intend to choose it as an ornamental cactus because of its beautiful flowers that range from orange to yellow to white in color.

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