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Master Gardener Journal  

M E E T   T H E   N A T I V E S

The Prickly Pear: Handle with Care!

by Christine Bahto,
Master Gardener Intern

Opuntia spp.

Prickly pear cactus, beavertail, Santa Rita, Indian fig, bunny ears, cow's tongue, etc.

A beautiful desert garden can be achieved with a good mixture of desert-adapted trees, shrubs, succulents, and wildflowers. One great natural choice for an Arizona garden is the prickly pear. From treelike and shrubby to low-growing mound, there is a prickly pear to fit the needs of almost any landscape. Unfortunately, they don't often find a place in the garden due to the dreaded glochid, those nasty, nearly invisible bristles that become detached at the slightest touch. They're also prone to outgrow their welcome over time, but with proper pruning they can be kept in bounds.

The genus Opuntia is the largest and most widespread of the family Cactaceae, subfamily Opuntiodeae. It contains 181 species plus 10 naturally occurring hybrids, and is found from Canada to southern South America. It is divided into the Opuntias (prickly pears) and Cyclindropuntias (chollas).

Opuntias and Cyclindropuntias are distinguished from other cacti by four characteristics: First, their stems are segmented into distinct joints or pads called cladodes. Stems have determinate growth, that is, the onset of the dry season permanently stops the elongation of joints or cladodes. Second, although regular spines may be present or absent, they all bear glochids. (Some more than others!) Third, rudimentary leaves are present as new pads or joints are formed. They dry and fall off as the spines become visible. Fourth, while most other cacti have shiny black seeds, Opuntia seeds have a pale covering called an aril.

Opuntias have been an important food source for many of the native peoples of the Americas. Native Americans in Mexico and the Caribbean were cultivating Opuntia ficus-indica (Indian Fig Cactus) prior to their conquest by Spain in the sixteenth century.

The Spanish took the Indian Fig Cactus back and introduced it to their country, and it spread from there to North Africa, Italy, Greece and other Mediterranean countries. It has since become naturalized in these areas.

Indian fig has been used for medicinal purposes as a treatment for diabetes, whopping cough, rheumatism and nosebleeds. The fruits (called tuna in Spanish) of some species are very tasty. With the glochids and spines removed, they can be eaten fresh, or the juice can be expressed to make jellies, drinks, and syrup.

The Aztecs had large plantations of Opuntia cochenillifera infested with cochineal scale, Dactylopius coccus, to support their dye industry. The dye, made from the dried crushed bodies of the cochineal insect, was used to color the robes of the Aztec emperors. Like O. ficus-indica, the Spanish brought the dye back to Europe. At the time, it was worth more than gold! Interestingly, the dye was used to color the "redcoats" of the British soldiers who fought in the American Revolution.

Opuntias have also played a part in the construction of Spanish missions in California. The mucilage from the stem joints was used to strengthen adobe mortar. It was most recently used in the restoration of the San Xavier del Bac Mission in Tucson.

People aren't the only creatures to find Opuntias useful. Javelina, rabbits, and packrats eat prickly pear pads. Packrats and some birds build nests in low growing prickly pears, safe from coyotes.

Beavertail Prickly Pear (Opuntia basilaris) is a beautiful low-growing plant. The wedge-shaped pads are blue-gray and grow from the base of older pads. It spreads about 2 to 3 feet with a height of about 20 inches. Magenta flowers appear around late February or early March.

Santa Rita or Purple Prickly Pear (O. violacea v. santa rita) has blue-gray pads with a purplish coloration that intensifies in times of drought or cold weather. It grows about 4 to 5 feet tall and as wide, with more of an upright (rather than spreading) growth. Yellow flowers bloom from April through May.

Engelmann's Prickly Pear (O. engelmannii) makes an outstanding specimen plant. It grows to form a spreading mound about 4 to 5 feet tall and 10 feet wide. Yellow flowers bloom between April and June, but the real show starts with the formation of the dark red to purple fruit, which persist for months.

Indian Fig Prickly Pear (O. ficus-indica), with its treelike growth and height of 6 to 18 feet, makes for an excellent border or background plant. Flowers are yellow or orange-red, and the fruits are edible. With its origins in tropical America, this prickly pear needs a little more water in the summer than the others listed.

Prickly Pears are a great plant to consider if you have a spot in your garden that is too hot to grow anything else. Purchase smaller plants, which are definitely easier to handle. Once established, they will grow pretty quickly (for a cactus, anyway). Remember to consider the mature size of the plants and pick a site away from pedestrians and play areas. Use beaker tongs, a piece of folded newspaper, or old (no longer in use) garden hose to handle the plants. Minimal water is needed. Once every 2 to 3 weeks in the summer is sufficient for new plants. When established they can generally survive on rainfall alone. As with any herbaceous plant, however, shriveling or wilting means they need to be watered.

Propagation couldn't be easier! Using beaker tongs or a piece of folded newspaper, just cut off a pad. (You can swap pads with a friend)! Let the wound dry for about a week, then plant the pad in a shallow depression cut side down. Water every 2 weeks to get the roots started.

Pruning your prickly pears is also a simple matter. First and foremost, be fearless but focused! Use either a clean saw and tongs to hold the pad steady, or loppers. Forget the gloves! You'll only end up throwing them away. (Remember prickly pears have glochids). Step back and really look at the plant to determine which pieces you want to remove. Make sure you see all the pads that are connected to the ones you want to remove. (You can't reattach them)! For a natural look follow the line of pads to be removed and make the cut where the remaining pads will hide it. It's an easy process...just watch your fingers, elbows, knees, etc!

Should you notice white cottony masses showing up on the surface of your Opuntias, they are the aforementioned cochineal scale, there to feed on the plant's juices. A good blast of water from a garden hose should dislodge them. Since they need the plant to feed on, once they are dislodged they soon die.

So there you have it...the perfect plant (if you forget about the glochids)! They can take the heat, sun, cold, and lack of rain, and they don't have problems with pests. Better yet, if you plant them around the perimeter of your yard or under a vulnerable window, you can keep pests of the human type out!

Anderson, Edward F., The Cactus Family
Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum, A Natural History of the Sonoran Desert
Quirk, Patrick, Cactus Horticulturist, Desert Botanical Garden

Photos courtesy of Candice Sherrill

Maricopa County Master Gardener Volunteer Information
Last Updated May 28, 2003
Author: Lucy K. Bradley, Extension Agent Urban Horticulture, University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, Maricopa County
© 1997 The University of Arizona, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Cooperative Extension in Maricopa County
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