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Growing Prickly Pear Cactus

Sean has been in the industry of gardening and landscaping since 2006. He is also a certified arborist that tends to focus on plant health.

Prickly pear cacti in bloom

Prickly pear cacti in bloom

Prickly Pear Overview

Prickly pear cacti are found throughout the Americas, especially in the planes and deserts of the U.S. and much of Mexico. They can even be grown as far north as USDA Zone 4. They belong to the vast genus Opuntia. This type of cacti grows flat paddle-like cladodes that cluster together. They are armed with two types of needle-like defenses that cannot be touched with bare hands. The prominent spines are large, smooth, and fixed to the cacti. Glochids are very small, hair-like structures that detach when touched. Bright yellow flowers emerge on most of the cladodes when spring emerges. It can grow so dense and vigorous that they even become a nuisance in some regions, especially non-native regions.

Growing this cactus is relatively easy when provided the proper climate, soil, and location. The most rewarding part of growing them is the ability to easily propagate and grow more fairly quickly. Growing and propagation is similar to many other succulents, such as jade. Seed germination and cuttings are both viable propagation methods. They can even be carefully peeled and eaten, as well as the fruit after the flowers finish blooming.

Use sand to amend clayey or highly organic soil for prickly pear cacti.

Use sand to amend clayey or highly organic soil for prickly pear cacti.

Soil

The cacti are native to areas with sandy soil that drains quickly. Sandy loam is ideal for drainage and provides some nutrient content. Perlite can also be used to facilitate drainage by mixing into the soil as well. Clayey soils retain far too much moisture and will need to be amended with sand or perlite before planting prickly pear cacti. Soil that is high in organic matter will retain high amounts of moisture and may cause root rot. Highly organic soil can be amended with sand and perlite also.

Prickly pear cacti in a rock garden that receives sunlight most of the day. Protected from winter winds by a garage and fence.

Prickly pear cacti in a rock garden that receives sunlight most of the day. Protected from winter winds by a garage and fence.

Location

These cacti love the sun and should be placed in an area that receives sun during most of the day. Do not plant in areas where water collects and sits for long periods of time due to possible root rot.

Winter winds in the lower USDA regions can damage and even kill prickly pear cacti. Protection is needed against winter winds, especially a northern wind. Plant the cacti in an area that offers protection against northern winds at the very minimum. Structures, fences, trees, and hedges provide adequate protection from cold winds. Plant accordingly depending on the locations of the wind-breakers.

Granular fertilizer that consists of a 19-6-12 mix of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.

Granular fertilizer that consists of a 19-6-12 mix of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.

Fertilizing

A balanced fertilizer can be used from spring until autumn. A fertilizer of 10-10-10 contains 10% nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium while the remaining 90% possibly consists of secondary nutrients, trace nutrients, and fillers. Always check labels before use. Fertilizers high in nitrogen will promote cladode growth, while fertilizers with only phosphorus and potassium will promote flower and fruit growth.

Watering

Like every other cacti, these have adapted to resist arid conditions by storing water and having a deep root system. They are easy to care for when it comes to watering. A little now and then is all it really needs. They also have a little resistance to wet conditions, such as rainy periods during spring.

Note: Never let prickly pear cacti sit in waterlogged soil. This is a sure-fire way for the roots to begin rotting, and root rot will ultimately kill it. Water thoroughly once every week or two, depending on the season. Cladodes will show signs of requiring water when they begin to slightly wrinkle. This is a sign that it is drawing stored water from the cladodes. When the fall arrives, the cacti require less water—only once every few weeks.

Prickly pear cacti cuttings are quick to populate within two years.

Prickly pear cacti cuttings are quick to populate within two years.

Propagating

Seed Germination

Seeds can be scattered in a shady area with constant moisture. The seeds are mostly viable, but propagating via seeds requires much more time compared to taking cuttings from a mother plant.

Cuttings

Remove a cladode that is at least 6 months old. Younger cladodes are more able to adapt and revert to a rooting phase compared to older cladodes from prior seasons. Cleanly cut the cladode at the point where it grows from an older mother cladode. Let the removed cladode sit to allow the cut to callous over. The callousing of the wound signals the cladode to begin rooting. Once calloused, place the cut-end an inch or so into a half sand and half loam soil mixture. Water very lightly and do not let the cut cladode remain moist for long periods of time. The delicate roots that emerge from the calloused wound are susceptible to rotting. Once the roots are established, the cacti can resist periods of heavy rain or drought. Water lightly once a week, or until slight wrinkling of the cladodes occurs.

Native Regions of Prickly Pear

Prickly Pear Cacti Poll

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: Do you have any prickly pear tips?

Answer: Make sure you do not over-water prickly pear. Always grow in soil that drains quickly. Symptoms of over-watering can be discoloration, softened tissue, and/or rot. Prickly pear grow best in a sunny location.

Comments

Richard Lindsay from California on April 03, 2016:

I planted some of this a few years ago. Now I have transplanted cuttings in several places. It grows really well. But the cold winds in the winter do a lot of damage to mine, because of where I planted mine.

Sean Hemmer (author) from Wisconsin, USA on July 08, 2013:

If they are beginning to uproot, I would attempt to stake them upright and possibly select the worst of the uprooted lobes and plant them in a temporary container and replant later. Taking a couple cuttings/divisions from the most mature cacti will reduce weight and increase stability. The cuttings/divisions can be planted elsewhere or given as gifts to friends/family. It's a bit of a tricky situation so try out a few ideas and see what happens.

rita on July 06, 2013:

We have 6 ft tall by 6 ft wide prickly pear and we have had a deluge of rain here in central florida. How can we keep them rooted?