How to Grow Optunia – Prickly Pear

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Opuntia is a cactus genus with three distinct groups based on growth form: the prickly pears that have flat-jointed pads, one growing out of the other; the tall cylindrical-jointed chollas; and the dwarf species with globular or cylindrical stems.

Most Optunia species grow rapidly and are free-flowering with blooms of yellow, white, orange, purple, or red.

Plant Optunia singly or in groups in spacious natural settings. Optunia must be given plenty of room; they produce sharp bristles and spines that can be quite hazardous in small gardens.

Indoors, potted Opuntias such as O. microdasys are perfect as house plants in a sunny window garden. Indoors Optunia must get sufficient light otherwise branches can become spindly and misshapen. Potted opuntias rarely get large enough to produce many flowers.

Get to know Optunia

  • Plant type: Cactus; succulent, perennial cacti
  • Hardiness temperature: 35℉ (1.7℃)
  • Shape and size: 2 to 15 feet (.6-4.5m) tall; a variety of shapes with sometime cylindrical leaves; ranges from dwarf and chusion shaped to shrubs and tree-shaped plants; will remain small if potted and kept indoors
  • Foliage: Optunia lack true leaves; they produce fleshy branches that are either flat and padlike or rounded
  • Flowers: Mostly tubeless, bowl-shaped blossom appear at the sprout edges
  • Bloom time: Spring, summer
  • Common name: Chollas, prickly pear
  • Genus name: Optunia
  • Family name: Cactaceae
  • Origin: Canada to Argentina
Bunny ears cactus, Optunia microdasys
Bunny ears cactus, Optunia microdasys

Optunia planting

  • Light: Sun, sunny window; coolness at night is desirable
  • Soil: Sandy or gritty soil; mineral soil with a lot of loam and nutrient salts; soil must be well-drained
  • Grown outdoors Optunia should be placed in a very hot, sunny spot; place in a south-facing spot in porous ground.
  • Keep plants away from areas where passerby can some into contact with the spines; spines will pierce gloves.
  • Outdoor winter hardy species include O. rhodantha, O. vulgaris, O. camanchica, and O. polyacantha.

How to water and feed Optunia

  • Water: Optunia needs a lot of water, escecilally the Cylindropuntia
  • Feeding: Heavy fertilizing from time to time

Optunia care

  • Protect Optunia growing outdoors from winter cold.
  • Wet soil, especially in winter, is fatal.

Growing Optunia as a houseplant

  • Opuntia requires direct light, average to warm room temperature, good air circulation, and low humidity.
  • Optunia needs little water.
  • Fertilizer can be applied once every other month in spring and summer.

Optunia pests and diseases

  • Optunia can be damaged by mealybugs and scale insects.

Optunia propagation

  • Optunia can be propagated by dividing clumps in spring or rooting individual flattened pads. Wrap pads in newspaper to avoid contact with the spines.

Optunia species to grow

  • Opuntia acanthocarpa (buckhorn cholla). Rare species bears springtime reddish blooms.
  • O. basilaris (beaver tail). Flat, nearly spineless, gray or purplish pads; low branching to 4 feet. Blooms range from most common purple to carmine, pink, sometimes yellow. Can be found throughout much of the United States and northern Mexico.
  • O. bigelovii (teddy bear cactus). A native to Arizona, Nevada, and California. Treelike cactus has a woolly trunk covered with vicious silvery yellow spines. Flowers, appearing in early spring, are pale green, yellow, or white marked with lavender. Grows slowly from 2 to 8 feet in hottest, driest desert.
  • O. compressa. Clump-forming, semi-prostrate cacuts with stems divided into flattened, obvoae segemtns; rpoduces funnel-shaped bright yellow flowers; grows 4 to 12 inches tall.
  • O. fecus-indica (indian fig). Often grown for its fruit. Shrubby cactus has a woody trunk and smooth gray, flat joints. Yellow flowers appear in spring or early summer. Edible fruits are either yellow or red. Handle carefully—bristles break off easily.
  • O. microdasys (bunny ears). A popular house plant. Beautiful mexican dwarf species has flat, oblong, spineless pads covered with tufts of golden bristles called glochids. Available in many varieties, all with variously colored glochids ranging from white on O. m. ‘albispina’ (polka dot) to reddish brown on O. m. rufida.
  • O. prolifera (jumping cholla). Erect cactus grows 3 to 8 feet tall, has reddish brown spines and easily detached joints. Rose to purple colored flowers appear in spring or summer.
  • O. ramosissima (pencil cholla, darning needle cholla). Extremely rare. Inconspicuous flowers hide deep within spines; flowers open only for a few hours during the hottest part of day.
  • O. vulgaris. Large, treelike, tropical or subtropical cactus. Variety O. v. ‘variegata’ is nicknamed joseph’s coat cactus because of its strange markings—some joints are green, some white or yellow, others mottled.

Written by Stephen Albert

Stephen Albert is a horticulturist, master gardener, and certified nurseryman who has taught at the University of California for more than 25 years. He holds graduate degrees from the University of California and the University of Iowa. His books include Vegetable Garden Grower’s Guide, Vegetable Garden Almanac & Planner, Tomato Grower’s Answer Book, and Kitchen Garden Grower’s Guide. His Vegetable Garden Grower’s Masterclass is available online. has more than 10 million visitors each year.

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