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Prickly Pear - Growing the Hardy Cactus Opuntia compressa - Eastern Prickly Pear

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Prickly Pear Garden

Prickly Pear Garden

Photo: © Marie Iannotti (2008) licensed to About.com, Inc.

Overview:

I don’t know what’s more surprising to me: that a cactus is hardy enough to grow in USDA Zone 4 or that it should have such a pretty flower. Eastern prickly pear doesn’t have the stature of it’s dessert cousin Opuntia ficus-indica, which can top 15', but this smaller version adds a touch of the mid-west to cooler climates and makes up for its diminutive size with its hardiness. Both plants are edible, but it’s O. ficus-indica that produces the actual “prickly pear”. Still, for an element of surprise in your mid-border, slip in an Eastern prickly pear or two.

Latin Name:

Opuntia compressa syn. O. humifusa

Common Name(s):

Eastern Prickly Pear, Low Prickly Pear, Devil's Tongue

USDA Hardiness Zones:

USDA Zones 2 - 10.

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.

Mature Size:

6 - 18" (h) x 12- 30" (w). Eastern prickly pear will grow a bit larger in warmer climates and ideal conditions.

Exposure:

Bloom Period:

Spring - Mid-summer

Description:

Eastern prickly pear tends to spread open and low as it grows.

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.

Design Tips:

Using O. humifusa in the garden depends a lot on the type of garden you have. If you garden in a desert climate, Eastern prickly pear makes a great front of the border plant or even an edger.

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.

Suggested Varieties:

Besides the Eastern Prickly Pear, you might want to try:
  • 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.

Growing Tips:

Use caution when working with any cactus. Even the young, fuzzy looking seedlings can stab. Rose gloves, tweezers and kitchen tongs will come in handy.

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:

  1. Select a ripe red fruit.

  2. Slice the fruit open and either sprinkle the seeds in a pot or directly into your garden.

To propagate from cuttings:

  1. Cut off an individual pad.

  2. Allow the cut end to dry and heal over, for about 1 week.

  3. Plant the pad with the cut end about 2" into the soil.

  4. Water sparingly.

  5. 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.

Insect pests: scale and mealy bug.

Diseases: Leaf spot, black spot, bacterial soft rot and viruses. Most of these can be avoided with the proper growing conditions.

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