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What’s Blooming in Paradise: Prickly Pear (Opuntia cochinellifera)

By Staff | Jan 28, 2015

First impression: Christmas cactus-like blooms in reddish pink. These bright blossoms cover the multitudes of paddle shaped light green pads. I notice the architecture and am amazed at the massive height and width of our 40-year-old specimen. Somewhere under all these pads is a substantial trunk. No fragrance that I can detect, but a hummingbird would love to partake of this beauty. A sticky situation might occur if you try to pick these blossoms; you can look, but don’t touch this unique bloom at the Botanical Gardens of the Sanibel Moorings.

Upon further investigation: Prickly green pads, dimensional flowers, and a tasty fruit are clues on how our star got its name. Prickly Pear hails from the Cactaceae plant family, which include over 250 species. Opuntia, also known as nopales or paddle cactus, is a genus in this family.

As a member of this genus you can expect drought tolerance and oodles of plant stages that are attractive to wildlife. Pollinators, including hummers, feed on the sweet nectar from the long and slender red to pinky flowers. Each blossom consists of several flowers emerging from the end of the next flower, reminiscent of Christmas cactus blooms. When the flowers begin to wilt, they produce an amber-colored, pear-shaped edible fruit.

Our massive beauty has flowers and fruit all over its pads at the same time. The cochinellifera pads are said to be spineless, but there are very small minute barbs, so look out! These barbs try to protect our cactus from all those critters, including us, who want to eat its delicious fruit. This fruit is an important food source for wildlife, who are rewarded when they can figure out the safest method of consuming some. Birds, foxes, raccoons, turtles and rabbits use their survival smarts to enjoy a refreshing meal. Songbirds, reptiles, turtles, tortoises and small mammals shelter under and around, protected by the plant’s spiny stems and pads.

Hey what about us humans? If you are patient enough and remove all the spines, the pears taste like watermelon, with lots of juice. Peeled, sliced and sprinkled with lemon, they have a refreshing sweet tangy taste. The fruit is called Nopales; sometimes I see them in the grocery store labeled Tuna or Indian Figs.

Prickly Pear is a fast growing cactus and in southwest Florida our star may reach 10 feet in height and 10 feet wide. Pruning can be done carefully, but really not necessary with propagation usually accomplished by division. Always wear thick leather gloves and long-sleeved shirt. Wrapping a long rolled-up section of newsprint or fabric around a pad provides a convenient handle that avoids the long spines and short glochids. Pads can then be cut off larger plants with hand clippers or saws. The cut pad’s wound should dry for about three days. I place mine in shady area under bushes etc. Plant the wounded pad with the wound in the ground. The wound will establish the new cacti with roots. Whaa-laanother fabulous cactus, which will reward you for many years with ever changing stages of growth and beauty and lots of lessons in patience.

Pros:

Unique bloomer

Does well in sandy soil

Full sun

Easily propagated by pads

Salt tolerance

Makes great jelly

Is great for a specimen plant

Great barrier for unwanted neighbors

Must have for hummers

Cold tolerant

Great habitat plant

Non-invasive

Easy care

Cons:

Be careful with barbs

Fast grower

Non-native

Who doesn’t love hummers????

Conclusion: Are cacti ugly? I think not. They can give us inspiration as true survivors. How do you show your love to our Prickly Pearvery carefully!

Don’t wanna miss this bloomer!