How to Grow Prickly Pear Cactus or Opuntia Ficus-Indica and Harvest Prickly Pears

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Prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica) are useful in the landscape for dramatic impact, adding a southwestern feel to any landscape. Opuntia cactus also have edible pads and provide the red cactus pears of commerce. This cactus variety grows wild in the southwestern United States and Mexico. Prickly pear cactus have deep green branching pads, grow up to 15 feet tall and as wide around in as little as 5 years. The oval cactus pads can be up to three feet long and over a foot across.

In spring Opuntia ficus-indica gets stunning bright yellow to orange flowers measuring 3 to 5 inches across. These turn into pinkish red, edible prickly pears. Over time these cacti form brown, woody trunks. Most Opuntia varieties are not fussy about soil conditions, are cold hardy to 30 degrees below zero and many also have edible pears and pads. Cattle are also known to have a taste for Opuntia cactus and in some parts of the world it is used as feed.

Outdoors, prickly pears look especially good in silhouette against a sunset. They also make very effective security barriers. They can take regular pruning to maintain shape. Always cut at the joints, where the two pads meet. Cuttings can easily be rooted by burying part of a pad in moist, well drained soil. Opuntia species have also been known to take root where pads have fallen on the ground.

Indoors, Opuntia cactus can be grown in pots but they generally don't grow to more than a few feet tall. They do best in full sunlight with very little water. No cacti like to be over watered and they will rot if they remain in saturated soil. Water sparingly and improve soil drainage in areas that receive a lot of rain. My cactus lets me know when it needs water with thin pads and droopy tips. One year we got over 20 inches of rain and the pads swelled up with so much moisture they broke off under their own weight.

The cactus pads do not have prominent thorns. Instead, they have clumps of small, hair-like needles. It is very easy to get the needles painfully lodged in your skin just by brushing against the pads. Usually the only way to get them out is with tweezers and a magnifying glass. It is recommend to use tongs, a large fork, or cardboard to handle any part of cactus. You should also wear leather gloves or two layers of cotton gloves. The gloves will need to be checked for thorns though, so you may want to avoid handling cacti using your hands.

Cactus pears have the texture of watermelon and a mild, sweet taste like pears or banana. They are high in fiber too. The seeds are black and about the size of a pea. You can also eat the pads raw or cooked. Young, bright green cactus pads are best for eating. Thorns should be washed or scraped off before the cactus skin is peeled. Visit for photos of prickly pears and more info on how to root cacti and succulent plants.

Prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica) are not only beautiful, but a useful addition to any drought tolerant landscape.

Laura Zinkan is a freelance writer who cultivates a gardening website at with plant profiles, growing tips and lore about succulents and California native plants. You can share her unique vision of California at her regional web site Copyright 2007 by Laura Zinkan ( This article may be reprinted as long as author credit is given with website. All rights reserved.

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