How to Grow Opuntia – Prickly Pear

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Opuntia — commonly called prickly pear–are cacti that usually have pad-like and flattened or sometime cylindrical and club-shaped or spherical segmented branches. Optunia bear funnel- or bowl-shaped flowers usually at the tips or from the sides of branch segments.

Optunia bear spiny obovoid or spherical fruits called prickly pears. In a few species, the prickly pears are edible. Optunia is armed with barbed spines that can be large and needle-like or small and hairlike. Spines can easily pierce a glove. The number of spines varies, but all species have tufts of barbed bristles in each areole.

Optunia needs full sun and sandy or gritty soil that is well-drained. In well-drained soil, Optiunia can survive cold and even freezing weather.

Optunia is a genus of more than 200 species of cacti ranging from tree-like to bushy to groundcover size. Opotunias can be grown in cactus gardens and small species can be grown as houseplants.

Yellow Opuntia humifusa flower
Yellow Opuntia humifusa flower

Get to know Opuntia 

  • Plant type: Perennial. 
  • Growing zones and range: Zones 4 to 10; optimal temperature is day, 75° to 85°F (24° to 29°C); night, 65° to 70°F (18° to 21°C).
  • Hardiness: Hardy in coldest winters but requires perfect drainage to survive freezes
  • Height and width: 10 to 15 feet (3-4.5m) tall and 24 inches (61cm) to 5 feet (1.5m) wide depending on the variety.
  • Foliage: Succulent, cactus that lacks true leaves; produces fleshy branches that are either flat and padlike or rounded; branches are well armed with barbed spines, which can be large or very small.  
  • Flowers: Showy bowl-shaped flowers bloom in summer, open during the day; spiny, rounded fruit called “pears” follows the flowers; “pears” are edible; in some cases, they turn a handsome red when ripe.  
  • Bloom time: Late spring into summer. 
  • Uses: Cactus or rock garden or speciment
  • Garden companions: Stonecrops (Sedum), yuccas. 
  • Common name: Prickly pear, beavertail, bunny ears
  • Botanical name: Opuntia
  • Family name: Cactaceae
  • Origin: Arid regions of North, Central, and South America

Where to plant Opuntia 

  • Plant Opuntia in full sun.  
  • Plant indoors in bright light, with 4 hours direct sun daily, from southern to eastern exposure.
  • Air circulation is important.
  • Plant Opuntia in fertile, well-drained soil. Use sandy or gritty soil that is fairly rich. 
  • Growing indoors in pots use a cactus/succulent mix.
  • Keep Opuntia away from areas where unwary visitors may come in contact with the spines.  
  • Small species can be grown as a houseplant.
Prickly pear fruit
Optunia Prickly pear fruit. The fruit of some species is edible.

When to plant Opuntia 

  • Set out container-grown plants in spring or summer. Handle plants with folded newspaper or thorn-proof gloves.
  • Sow seed in warm soil in late spring or summer  

Planting and spacing Opuntia 

  • Space Optunia 24 inches (61cm) to 5 feet (1.5m) apart depending on the variety
  • Weed Opuntia thoroughly before planting to avoid problems later.  
  • Pre-soak seed before sowing; sow seed in a succulent or cactus mix.

How to water and feed Opuntia 

  • Give Opuntia moderate to little water. Let soil dry between thorough waterings. Avoid overwatering. 
  • Wet soil, especially in winter, is fatal to Opuntia. 
  • Fertilize Optunia every 6 weeks during growing season, with low-nitrogen, high-potassium fertilizer; for plants at least 1 year old.

How to care for Opuntia 

  • Keep small weeds from growing large near Optunia.
  • Keep Optunia away from areas where people are close by.
  • Repot contianer-grown Optunia each year.
  • Optunia should rest during winter. Set it in cool, bright location. Give Optunia just enough water to keep plant from shriveling and withhold fertilizer during the dormant period.
  • Propagate Optunia by stem cuttings or seeds.

Opuntia pests and diseases 

  • Opuntia can develop crown gall and rot. 
  • Opuntia is susceptible to aphids, mealybugs, spider mites, nematodes, and scales. 
Prickly Pear Cactus -- Opuntia, ficus-indica
Prickly Pear Cactus — Opuntia, ficus-indica

Opuntia propagation 

  • Take Opuntia cuttings from the older parts of the stem and root them.. 
  • Sow pre-soaked seed in warm soil.

Opuntia varieties to grow 

There are more than 200 species of Optunia; here are a few commonly planted:

  • Optunia basilaris, beavertail. Slow grower to 8 to 12 inches (20 to 30 cm) tall; pink blooms appear on 4- to 5-year-old specimens. 
  • O. compressa (also known as O. humifusa) is hardy as far north as Zone 4; grows 6-12 inch (15.2-30.1cm) tall, clump-forming; bears bowl-shaped yellow flowers followed by round or oval fruits, usually with spines: the “prickly pears”; needs desert conditions–full sun and sandy soil; grow them in a border, add a bit of soil to raise their planting area a few inches to ensure good drainage, because they cannot tolerate wetness over winter; excellent container plant and also a good choice for planting along the top of a rock wall where drainage is excellent; propagate it by dividing the clumps in spring or rooting the individual flattened pads. Wrap the pads in folded pieces of newspaper to avoid contact with spines.  
  • O. cylindrica. Columnar, bright green stem growing to several feet with a diameter of 2 inches (5 cm); stem is covered with flat, diamond-shaped tubercles with a woolly white areole in the center. 
  • O. ficus-indica, big shrubby or treelike cactus to 15 feet (4.6m) wide; bears yellow flowers in spring or early summer; the large red or yellow fruit that follows is sold in groceries in some areas; can be grown as a common hedge or houseplant.  
  • O. microdasys, bunny ears: sometimes a house plant; fast growth to 2 feet (.6m) high, 4-5 feet (1.2-1.5m) wide (much smaller in pots); pads flat, thin, nearly round, to 6 inches (15.2cm) across, velvety soft green with neatly spaced tufts of short golden bristles in polka-dot effect; yellow flowers may appear in summer. ‘Albispina’ has white bristles; small, round new pads atop larger old ones give plant silhouette of rabbit’s head. A favorite with children.  
  • O. ovata. Grows to 6 inches (15 cm) tall with pale green, thick, oval pads which spread out to form a clump; bristles are pale yellow. 
  • O. robusta. Large plant composed of flattened, gray-green, jointed segments with a bluish coating; circular in form that vary from 2 inches (5 cm) to more than 12 inches (30 cm) across. 

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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