Growing Prickly Pear Cactus

Updated on November 23, 2016
seh1101 profile image

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 | Source

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 grow 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. Prickly pear can grow so dense and vigorous that they even become a nuisance in some regions, especially non-native regions.

Growing prickly pear cacti is relatively easy when given the proper climate, soil, and location. The most rewarding part of growing them i is the ability to easily propagate and grow more prickly pear cacti 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. | Source

Soil for Prickly Pear Cacti

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 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 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. | Source

Location for Prickly Pear Cacti

Prickly pear 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. | Source

Fertilizing Prickly Pear Cacti

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 Prickly Pear Cacti

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.

Never let prickly pear cacti sit in water logged 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 requires 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. | Source

Propagating Prickly Pear Cacti

Seed Germination
Seeds can be scattered in a shady area with constant moisture. 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

A
South Dakota:

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Prickly pear are native as far east as South Dakota and Iowa.

B
Nevada:

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Prickly pear can survive in the most arid of conditions such as Nevada.

C
Mexico:

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Prickly pear thrive throughout Mexico.

Prickly Pear Cacti Poll

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Questions & Answers

  • Do you have any prickly pear tips?

    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

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    • lrdl3535 profile image

      Richard Lindsay 

      2 years ago from California

      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.

    • seh1101 profile imageAUTHOR

      Sean Hemmer 

      5 years ago from Wisconsin, USA

      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.

    • profile image

      rita 

      5 years ago

      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?

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