How to Plant and Grow Prickly Pear Cactus
The opuntia genus of the cactus family, more commonly known as prickly pear cacti, are native to the Americas and are found in the largest populations in Mexico and dry, arid regions of the western and southern United States. The pads (also known as paddles or leaves) and the fruits of these cacti are culinary staples for communities indigenous to these areas and are used in traditional medicine as a natural remedy for a variety of ailments.
While you can forage for the fruits and pads or purchase them at grocery stores, you may be interested in growing your own opuntia cactus to harvest the fruits or leaves to eat at home or share with friends.
Prickly pears are easy to grow and will grow well in most areas of Southern California. They require little water, are drought tolerant and are an attractive addition to low-water, low-maintenance landscaping.
One important note before we talk about how to grow prickly pear cactus: Because they have harmful spines and glochids, prickly pear cactus should not be grown in areas where children or animals spend time.
How to Grow Prickly Pear Cactus
The first step in how to grow prickly pear cactus is to determine where you want to grow your cactus. Prickly pears can be grown in containers or in the ground. If you are growing in a container, choose a succulent and cactus mix for your soil and make sure the container has drainage holes. For better drainage, you can start with a layer of gravel at the bottom of the container. When growing prickly pears in containers, you will need to transplant them into larger pots whenever the cactus gets rootbound.
Opuntia cactus will tolerate less-than-ideal soil, but they do prefer well-draining, sandy or loamy soils and may not do as well in some areas of coastal Southern California where there is heavy, clay soil unless you amend it to improve drainage. If you are working with heavy, clay soil that is slow draining and retains moisture, consider mixing in some peat moss or sand to improve soil structure.
Once you have decided whether you are growing your cactus in the ground or in a container, you will need to decide how you want to start your cactus. You have three options for this: starting from seed, propagating from a cutting, or purchasing a young plant at your local nursery.
Purchasing a young plant at a nursery is, of course, the easiest way to get started and simply requires transplanting your cactus to a sunny spot with well-draining soil. Established plants can handle full sun all day and require minimal water. It is best to transplant prickly pears in spring, but if you are in a dry, arid area of Southern California, you really should be fine to transplant your cactus any time of the year.
Growing Prickly Pear Cactus for Cuttings
If you want to start your own cactus, the easiest way to do this is through propagation using a cutting. You will first need to acquire your cutting, which you can do through foraging or asking someone who has an established plant. Choose a healthy pad and use gloves and a sharp knife to hold the pad and remove it from the plant by cutting above where it attaches to the plant. Be careful not to cut into the plant below where the pad is attached, since this can damage the plant.
Once you have cut the number of pads you wish to propagate, lay them out in a dry, shady area away from children and pets. Leave them out for about a week to allow the cut to dry and form a callus. Then place the callused end of the pad one to two inches deep in a container and tamp the soil to help the pad stand upright. If you are having issues with it leaning or falling over, you can use small rocks to help support it.
It is best to allow your cactus to grow in the container for about a year before transplanting it into your garden. This will allow you to better control the growing conditions and allow the plant to take root and start producing new growth. You may want to keep the planted pad out of mid-afternoon sun until it begins to establish, but you can move it outside as soon as it is planted most times of the year. If you live in an area with particularly cold winters, you may want to keep your opuntia indoors until spring.
Your cactus will require a bit more water early on, so watch for the soil drying out, and then give it about an inch of water. You may need to do this once or twice per week at first. You will know your cactus is established once you start to see new growth. At this time, you can reduce irrigation to about one-quarter inch of water per week during hotter months and one-quarter inch of water every other week in colder months.
Once your plant is established, it will be able to handle full sun all day, so you can move it to its permanent location.
Growing Prickly Pear Cactus from Seeds
Growing prickly pear cactus from seeds is possible, but it takes longer and requires a bit more work. It is much easier and more convenient to grow your cactus from a cutting, but if cuttings are not available or you prefer to grow from seeds, here are some tips to get you started.
First, you will need to acquire prickly pear cactus seeds. You can purchase seeds online or at some nurseries, or you can harvest them from a prickly pear fruit. If you harvest them from fruit, you will need to completely clean off any pieces of the fruit and allow them to dry before planting them.
Fill small pots or a seed tray with succulent and cactus mix, place one seed in each pot or each section of the seed tray, and push them just slightly into the soil. Since opuntia seeds require light to germinate, you do not want to push them too far into the soil. Place your pots under grow lights or on a sunny windowsill to allow for germination.
Keep the soil moist but not wet as you wait for them to germinate. Once you have seedlings, watch the color to see if they need more or less light. If they look yellowish, move them to a sunnier spot. If they look red or brown, they need a spot with less light. If they are green, then they are happy where they are.
If you start your seeds in pots, you can allow them to grow in that pot until they outgrow it. If you start them in seed trays, make sure they are developed and healthy before transplanting them to pots to continue growing.
General Tips for Growing Opuntia Cactus
Your prickly pear cactus will not need pruning except to remove damaged pads. These cacti also do not require fertilizer, but you can encourage health and growth of young plants with a 10-10-10 liquid fertilizer applied monthly. If you want to encourage the production of more flowers and fruits, use a 5-10-10 or a 0-10-10 fertilizer.
How to Harvest and Eat Prickly Pear Cactus
The pads, flowers, fruit and stems of the prickly pear cactus are edible. The sweet fruits, which are generally called prickly pears or tunas, are eaten raw or used in making candies, jellies and jams. You can also make or buy prickly pear juice that can be enjoyed alone or used as a mixer for cocktails or mocktails. The pads (aka leaves) are eaten raw or cooked in a variety of dishes, including salads, soups, tacos, jams, or egg dishes.
Both the pads and fruits are used in traditional medicine to treat an array of illnesses, including diabetes and high cholesterol. You will most often see it called nopal or nopales when purchasing powders, teas or other natural remedies made from the opuntia cactus for these purposes.
According to the Mayo Clinic, prickly pear cactus is high in fiber, carotenoids and antioxidants, and “Some preliminary evidence shows that prickly pear cactus can decrease blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes. Some research also suggests that prickly pear cactus extract may lessen the unpleasant effects of a hangover, possibly due to its anti-inflammatory effects.” (MayoClinic.org)
Harvesting prickly pear pads and fruits can be dangerous, so it is imperative that you take appropriate precautions to protect yourself during this task.
Before you can use the fruits or pads, you must first remove them from the plant. The mature pads will have sharp spines and a more fibrous texture, so it is best to choose young pads that are bright green and about the size of your hand. Wear thick gloves to protect your hands and arms from the spines while you hold the pad with one hand or sturdy tongs. Use your other hand to cut the pad, or nopal, from the plant.
Once you have harvested the pads, use a vegetable peeler to carefully remove the spines and the outer edge of the pads. Wash the pads, and then store them in the refrigerator to use within a few days, or use them immediately raw or cooked. The easiest ways to cook with nopales are to either grill the pad whole, and then cut it into strips to serve as a side dish, or to chop the nopales into strips or cubes and sauté them to add to egg dishes, side dishes or salsa.
To harvest prickly pear fruits, also known as tunas, you will need thick gloves or tongs to remove them from the cactus. While the fruits do not have spines, they do have glochids, which are nearly invisible, hair-thin splinters that are easy to get in your skin and difficult to get out. Therefore, while wearing your thick gloves for protection, twist each tuna off of the cactus to harvest them. Greener fruits are younger and will not be as sweet as riper fruits, which will be shades of oranges, red or purple.
Once you have gathered your opuntia fruits, you will need to remove the glochids before you can consume the fruits. You can achieve this by burning them off or peeling them off. To burn them off, stick a fork in the end of the fruit to provide a handle for holding it over an open flame. Use the flame from your stove, barbecue grill or a culinary torch to burn off the glochids.
Alternatively, you can peel the skin off by using two forks to avoid touching the fruit with your hands. To begin, stick the fruit with one of the forks. Cut off both ends of the fruit, and then slice the skin lengthwise from end to end. Hold the fruit with one fork while using a second fork to peel the skin off of the fruit. If you do not burn off the glochids before peeling the fruit, remember that these can easily fall off onto your cutting board or counter top, so be sure to properly clean all surfaces and tools.
Once you have peeled the fruit, you can eat it as is or use the fruit in jelly, candy or juicing recipes. While it is okay to swallow some seeds, they are too hard to chew, and you do not want to consume them in large amounts.