If you live in a hot area and you love plants that serve double duty, you might want to grow prickly pear cacti. You can spot this plant by its distinctive flat, club-like pads that you’ll often see at grocery stores.
Traditionally, this plant was used for herbal remedies in Mexico and Latin America as it contains antioxidants and fiber. Today, it’s also a charming ornamental and essential addition to Mexican cuisine.
Even though most varieties of prickly pear cacti like hot climates, some species can be grown in USDA Hardiness Zone 4. You can also grow it indoors!
Here is everything you need to grow and look after a prickly pear cactus.
Best Species of Prickly Pear to Grow at Home
The prickly pear or nopal cactus are plants that belong to the Opuntia genus. There are dozens of species in this genus and many additional hybrids, as these plants readily hybridize in nature.
People grow many different prickly pear cacti as houseplants as they are easy to care for and provide a unique display. These plants flower between spring and summer with purple, orange, or yellow flowers followed by typically red fruits.
Look out for the glochids, though! These spines are sharp to touch, though some species have sharper glochids than others.
All Opuntia species cacti have edible pads, flowers, and fruits, but O. ficus-indica is the one most commonly grown for use in the kitchen. These edible pads are called nopales.
Here are some other wonderful species you can grow for food and beauty:
Purple Prickly Pear
If you want something bold and colorful, then a purple prickly pear (O. macrocentra) is for you. It has dreamy purple and pink skin that looks like a beautiful sunset. Plus, the red fruits are edible.
You can grow this eye-catching cactus in USDA Hardiness Zones 7-11. Native to the Sonoran desert, this cactus thrives in hot, dry conditions.
It can grow up to four feet tall and five feet wide, so be sure you have suitable space for this plant.
Tulip Prickly Pear
This species of prickly pear cactus (O. phaeacantha) has flowers that look similar to tulips, plus dense thickets and upright stems. As it grows, you might see pale blue, green, or reddish-purple segments. The yellow and orange flowers bloom in spring and summer, followed by edible red fruit.
For people looking for a decorative and edible plant, a tulip prickly pear cactus is a fantastic choice. This plant can be grown in USDA Zones 7-11.
Bunny Ear Cactus
This plant (O. microdasys) doesn’t just have an adorable name, but it looks lovely too. Many people grow this plant indoors as a houseplant as it’s low-maintenance while still being incredibly decorative.
This cactus rarely produces flowers indoors, but the pads’ resemblance to bunny ears are pretty irresistible on their own.
To grow a bunny ear cactus outdoors where it’s more likely to flower, you must live in Zones 9-11.
Pancake Prickly Pear
The name of this species refers to the flat, pancake-like pads that grow on this cactus. O. chlorotica reaches 6-9 feet in height and the pads have a gorgeous blue-green color. This cactus has bright pink flowers and trunks that are 11 inches long.
You can grow this plant in USDA Zones 4-11, which means it can tolerate a cooler climate than other prickle pear species.
Beavertail Prickly Pear
Those in USDA Zones 8 or up can grow the beautiful beavertail prickly pear (O. basilaris) outdoors. This is one of the smaller species as they grow only up to two feet tall.
However, the glochids are standard on all prickly pear cacti. A standout feature of this cactus is rose-purple blooms that appear in spring and summer.
In addition to these prickly pear cacti, there are some other varieties to try growing, such as:
- Easter (O. humifusa)
- Golden (O. aurea)
- Fragile (O. fragilis)
- Chenille (O. aciculata)
Let’s look at how to grow prickly pear cacti from seed.
Growing Prickly Pear Cacti From Seed
First, you’ll need to harvest the seeds from ripe fruit. Once you’ve rinsed the pulp from the seeds, you can let them dry. You’ll need to soften up the seed’s tough outer coating by soaking it for 24 hours and nicking it with a knife. They also do better with a period of cold stratification.
Now you can place them in a pot with moist, well-draining soil. Cover the seeds with an extremely thin layer of soil or sand.
Then, cover the pot in plastic wrap and place it somewhere sunny and warm. This may come as a surprise since the adult plants love it dry, but the seeds need humidity to germinate. You can expect the seeds to germinate in several weeks, but it can sometimes take months.
Sprouted seeds can be transplanted to other pots with a cactus potting mix.
Pull an entire pad off of the mother plant and let the raw end harden up over a few days. Place the cutting in cactus soil. After a few weeks, roots will have formed. Easy, right?
Well-draining soil is essential to the growth of prickly pear cacti. If the soil is too moist, it can lead to root rot and kill your plant. When planting your cactus, you need to pick or create suitable soil.
You can buy cactus soil or amend your native soil with sand and well-rotted compost.
During winter, reduce watering. Your plant shouldn’t look dry and deflated. This is often a sign of overwatering or not enough sun.
As prickly pears, cacti are desert plants that need at least six hours of sunlight daily. A south-facing window works best if you want to keep your plant indoors. But, if you live somewhere with extreme heat, then some shade is ideal during the day in summer.
No exact temperature and humidity level are perfect for prickly pear cacti as they are tolerant of several climates. Depending on the species, your cactus might like a bit more water than other types or might be tolerant of colder temps.
Get familiar with your particular species and its needs before planting.
Caring Tips for a Prickly Pear Cactus
Giving prickly pear cacti the right amount of water can be tricky. You don’t want to add too much or too little. Thankfully, this plant doesn’t need much water as it prefers dry conditions. That means you can limit the watering to every two or three weeks.
Otherwise, a simple finger test will determine if the soil is dry. Stick your finger in the soil. If you feel any moisture, hold off until the soil is totally dry. You don’t need to worry about adding water at all if your climate gets adequate rainfall, obviously.
Prickly pear cacti that are grown outdoors rarely require fertilizer. For planting in containers and pots, apply fertilizer once a year since the nutrients in the soil are flushed out each time you water. Use a cactus-specific fertilizer and follow the manufacturer’s directions.
If your cactus isn’t blooming, this might be due to the lack of food, so it’s a good idea to give it some fertilizer.
Common Pests and Diseases
Two main pests that infect this plant are mealybugs and scale. Mealybugs and scale can be killed by wiping them with a cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol. You can also gently scrape the bugs off. Regular application of neem oil can also help.
Generally, indoor plants are more susceptible to pests, so check your cacti regularly.
Prickly pear cacti are also susceptible to phyllosticta fungus, which causes lesions in the pad that can turn into large black spots and scabs all over the plant. Typically, this disease forms in humid and wet weather.
Although this disease doesn’t destroy your plant, it can spread to nearby plants and infect your whole garden. Unfortunately, there’s no direct cure for this disease, so the only solution is to remove the infected pads and prevent the fungus from spreading.
Some other problems that can happen when growing prickly pear cacti are shriveled pads, splitting pads, and patches of brown and white.
Shriveled pads are a result of underwatering. Give your plant enough water if you live in a dry climate to avoid damaging the pads. Split pads, on the other hand, are a sign of overwatering.
Patches of brown or white usually are when the cactus is getting too much sun. Typically, as the plant adjusts to the location it will send out new pads that will be the right color.
Harvesting Prickly Pear Cacti
Although some people don’t think of food when they look at a prickly cactus, this plant is full of delicious nutrition that is great for your health. Research suggests it can treat diabetes, lower cholesterol, and potentially reduce the risk of obesity.
You can harvest the fruit by removing them from the pads. Remember to wear gloves while doing this, as the glochids will be painful to touch. Some people even use tongs, instead. Ripe fruits come off easily.
In late summer when the fruits are fully red, pull and twist the fruit until it breaks off the pad. To harvest the pad, choose a young, small pad and slice or twist it off from the rest of the plant.
After removing the pad or fruit, you need to get rid of the glochids. Burning the glochids is a common way to make them disappear as it ensures no residue on the fruit. You can also peel them off with a vegetable peeler. Now you can dig into your juicy treasures!
Like most other fruits, you can use the fruits to make jams, jellies, syrups, or even ice cream. The choice is yours! The pads are delicious cooked with other veggies like tomatoes, chilies, and onions. Chop them and add them to scrambled eggs, or just roast them in oil.