Common Name(s):Eastern Prickly Pear, Low Prickly Pear, Devil's Tongue
USDA Hardiness Zones:
I originally wrote that it was hardy only to Zone 4, but a reader, Victor, wrote to tell me that it is actually native in zone 2 and that it's a common plan in his parents Biggar, Saskatchewan area (Zone 3). This plant is hardier than I.
Foliage: Stems are divided into flattened paddle-like segments approx. 2-5" long and can have a blue tint. The narrow spines are wedge shaped and jut out 1/4".
Flowers: Flowers of are a brilliant yellow and open in mid-summer. They are followed by edible purple or red fruits, called tunas. These are the prickly pears, although not as large and tasty as the prickly pears of O. ficus-indica, they can be made into nice jellies and pickles.
Form: The stems will continue to grow into segments, but Eastern prickly pear tends to stay close to the ground.
In cooler climates, it’s more of a novelty item than an accent. But Eastern prickly pear makes a nice little focal point in a small border.
It’s extremely drought tolerant and can easily be grown in alpine gardens and containers. The photo at right shows a prickly pear garden, which is very charming, but I wouldn’t want to weed it.
- Opuntia basilaris - Beavertail Prickly Pear: Velvety pads with a deep purple-red flower. 3' (h) x 24-30" (w). USDA Zones 8 - 10.
- Opuntia fragilis- Brittle or Fragile Prickly Pear: Slightly smaller than the Eastern prickly pear, with pads that break off and root easily. 6" (h) x 9" (w). USDA Zones 4 - 11.
Site: Prickly pears are cactus and so they need a well-draining soil, first and foremost. Plant in full sun in a sandy or gravely mix and go easy on the water.
Fertilizer: When planted outdoors in garden soil, no fertilizer is needed. Occasional feeding may be required indoors. Use a well-balanced fertilizer and let the plant tell you when it needs food. If its green color starts to pale or it doesn’t flower, it needs food.
To start new prickly pears from seed:
- Select a ripe red fruit.
- Slice the fruit open and either sprinkle the seeds in a pot or directly into your garden.
To propagate from cuttings:
- Cut off an individual pad.
- Allow the cut end to dry and heal over, for about 1 week.
- Plant the pad with the cut end about 2" into the soil.
- Water sparingly.
- Test for new roots by tugging gently, after about 1 month’s time. If the plant resists pulling, you have roots. If it comes loose, give it more time.
Winter Care: Don’t be alarmed if your plants deflate during the winter. This is there normal response to dormancy. They’ll plump back up in spring.
Pests & Diseases:The most common problem is too much water, which will cause the roots to rot and the cactus to collapse.
Diseases: Leaf spot, black spot, bacterial soft rot and viruses. Most of these can be avoided with the proper growing conditions.