Eastern Prickly Pear Cactus, Opuntia humifusa
Prickly Pear Cactus
A favorite of gopher tortoises and loved by pollinators, Prickly Pear Cactus makes an attractive addition to any hot, dry, well-drained landscape. Prickly pear prefers poor, sandy soils – in fact, if soil is too rich, it can cause the plant to grow too quickly and become soft, which can lead to problems with pests and diseases. Too much moisture can lead to root rot, so take advantage of those dry, well-drained areas of your landscape to grow this unique and useful plant. Salt tolerance is an added bonus to this native landscape specimen.
Flowers are primarily yellow, but occasionally orange or red variations occur. While individual flowers last for only a day, the plant will bloom profusely for several weeks each spring. Flowers are followed by bright red fruits in mid to late summer.
Growing prickly pear from seed can be a challenge, but it is very easy to propagate from the pads (so long as tongs and thick gloves are in your arsenal). Simply cut off a pad (flat, green, fleshy part) that is at least six months old (clean cut at the joint with a knife); set it out in a dry, shady location (takes about a week or two) until it forms a callus; then plant about an inch or two deep (can prop up with stones if falls over) in a pot filled with well-drained soilless medium (1/2 perlite and 1/2 peat works well). Place pot in a bright location and water once or twice a week, letting it dry out in between watering. Once rooted, transplant into your garden or move to a larger pot.
The main pest of concern for the prickly pear is the cactus moth, Cactoblastis cactorum, which can occur year round. The damage occurs when the larvae hollow out young cactus pads by feeding. This provides a place for pathogens to enter the plant, causing more problems. If you notice this damage early on, simply remove and destroy the eggs and/or infected pads to prevent spreading.
Both the pads and the fruits are edible, so long as you remove the spines beforehand. While the pads may or may not have obvious large spines, both pads and fruits have tiny, hair-like barbed spines known as glochids. Glochids are not something you want to eat or touch! Harvesting with tongs and thick gloves is your best defense against getting pricked. When it comes time to prepare for eating, the easiest way to remove the spines is to singe them off with a flame.
This versatile plant can be used in breads, desserts, drinks, candies, jellies, as a side vegetable and more. It is best to eat the pads when they are young and tender, tasting a bit like green beans. The fruit can be eaten raw or prepared, at room temperature or chilled.