Our native prickly pear cactus — Opuntia humifusa — is blooming now, with its beautiful yellow/pink flowers. You can see it on the dunes, or any hot, dry, sandy and sunny location.
Do you have a spot in your garden that gets baked? Which isn’t too close to where kids play or people gather? A prickly pear might be the perfect plant for there. Preferring full sun and sandy, dry conditions, the Eastern prickly pear cactus is a must-have for the driest parts of your garden.
This plant is surprising in so many ways: It is a typical cactus with a stem that acts as a leaf. This stem also stores water, and because of special antifreeze chemicals in its cells, it can survive the freezing temperatures of the northern and middle states. The stems, or pads as they are often called, can be 2 to 7 inches long and 1.5 to 5 inches wide. Pads are jointed in a linear or branched fashion.
Even though it doesn’t die back to the ground, it is considered a perennial, although by the end of winter many of the pads look pretty dried up. Don’t worry — they’ll plump right back up, and be green and healthy soon in spring’s warmth and sun.
You may have noticed that the plant has both prickles and spines — seems like overkill, but it’s actually a great defensive mechanism since many animals like to munch on the pads for water and food.
Prickly pears are easy to grow. They need well-drained soil and can survive on rainwater after established.
When you choose a cactus, consider the size it will eventually become and plant it away from pathways and areas where people will brush against it.
Growing prickly pear successfully relies on a warm, dry climate, which we certainly have here. This is a great plant if you’re not here all the time — it only needs water once every few weeks.
To plant it, transplant at the same level as they are currently growing; deeper planting may cause them to rot. Handle carefully — not just for your own safety, but the pads can get top-heavy and break off. An extra pair of hands can be valuable, because prickly pears can be heavy and awkward to lift and place in the hole. Wear thick gloves and heavy long sleeves to guard against being poked by a spine or touching the skin-irritating prickles.
But the plant’s main attraction is its beautiful flowers, sometimes tinged with pink in the throat. It’s blooming now, attracting tons of pollinators. These flowers will mature to attractive, edible fruit. Prickly pear is also striking as a design element in the garden — the flat, oval pads look wonderful as a textural contrast.
Pair it with seaside goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens), Little Bluestem Standing Ovation, or any of the shorter switchgrasses. You could mix it with a juniper groundcover, such as Blue Pacific, with a blue fescue grass nearby.
This is a beautiful plant, with several surprising attributes; we are lucky to have it growing in our area!