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Growing Cactus Pear: Opuntia ficus-indica

Botanical Overview

Members of the Cactus (Cactaceae) family, Opuntia, Cactus Pears have been domesticated for thousands of years as a food source in Mexico. While 194 Opuntia species are recognized, all domesticated varieties are hybrids assigned to the species name Opuntia ficus-indica. The name Prickly Pear, used for wild Opuntia species, is sometimes used for this plant as well. Opuntias have adapted to many climates throughout the Americas and are now naturalized in dry regions throughout much of the world.

Description

Form: A succulent cactus shrub, with spines, that may become tree-like over time.
Lifespan: Over 80 years.
Leaf retention: The stems are evergreen.
Growth rate: Rapid.
Mature Size: 10-15' high and as wide.
Flowers: Many overlapping, yellow, orange or red petals open into a large cup shape. A green stigma in the center is surrounded by many pollen-tipped stamens.
Bloom: Spring or summer, depending on cultivar. Each flower lasts only one day, but a cluster of buds will bloom over many days. A group of plants may bloom for several weeks.
Self-fruitful: Yes. Opuntia also easily hybridizes with any neighboring Opuntia species.
Years before fruiting: From sprouted pads, 1-2 years in the ground. From seed, 3-4 years in the ground.
Fruit: Oblong in shape with ripe skin colors ranging from green, yellow-orange, red, to purple. Tufts of glochids (tiny hair-like barbed spikes) are scattered over its skin. The edible flesh is watery, sometimes slightly sweet, with varied flavors. Its color is often the same as its skin. The flesh contains many edible seeds, both normal and smaller aborted ones, with the ratio of normal to aborted varying greatly among cultivars. Fruit with higher ratios of aborted seeds are more popular.
Months for fruit to ripen: 3.6. Ripeness can be identified by a slight loss of fruit firmness, which varies by cultivar. When harvesting, twist, do not pull, the fruit to remove it from the pad.
Storage after harvest: The fruit do not ripen further after harvest. They can be refrigerated in a plastic bag, unwashed and unpeeled, for 5 days. Many cultivar fruits handle and ship well, a few do not.
Leaves: Tiny cylindrical leaves appear with growing new pads, but are dropped within a week as the green, photosynthesizing pads become succulent.
Stems: The green stems consist of succulent, flattened, oval or spatula-shaped segments (cladodes) called pads, that are joined together. The stem is attached to a central woody trunk. The photosynthesizing pads take the place of leaves on this desert-adapted plant. Spines range from few to many depending on the cultivar.
Typical of all cactus, bumps called areoles are scattered over the surface and are locations from which new flowers, pads, spines, glochids and roots grow. A few cultivars have few to no glochids – tiny barbed hair-like spines that penetrate skin and cause discomfort. Once the glochids are peeled off, the pads are edible and have a string bean-like taste.
Roots: Shallow, with a horizontal spread up to 8' from the stem in all directions. The total root mass accounts for only 7% of the weight of the plant.
Cultivars of Note in Mexico:
'Burrona' - large fruit with pale green skin, juicy pale green flesh. It ripens August to September and handles and ships well. Medium sized spatula-shaped pads are spiny, highly productive. The second most popular Opuntia in commercial planting acreage.
'Cardona' - small fruit with red skin, somewhat dry red flesh and a sweet-bitter flavor almost like a Maraschino cherry. It ripens September to October. Spiny oval-shaped pads.
'Cristalina' / 'Zarca' - very large fruit with green skin, very juicy pale green flesh, and sweet white peach flavor. Fruit ripens August to September and handles and ships well. Oval-shaped, large, wide pads with a few short spines, highly productive. The third most popular in commercial planting acreage.
'Pico Chulo' - large fruit with orange skin, juicy orange flesh. Fruit ripens June to July and handles and ships well. Short, spatula-shaped pads with few spines, average productivity. The fifth most popular in commercial planting acreage.
'Reyna' - large fruit with thin green skin, very juicy pale green to white flesh, fewer and tiny seeds, Fruit ripens July to early August and does not handle or ship well. Spatula-shaped, spiny pads, highly productive. The most popular in commercial planting acreage.
Wildlife: The flowers attract bees and other pollinating insects. The fruit attracts mammals and birds. The pads are eaten by a variety of mammals.
Toxic / Danger: Spines and glochids are very common.
Origin: The center of genetic diversity for Opuntia ficus-indica occurs in central Mexico. Opuntia cultivation began at least 9000 years ago.

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Cultivation and Uses

USDA hardiness zones: 8, 9 or 10 to 12 depending on cultivar. Most cultivars are hardy to 20°F, some to only 30°F, and a few to 10°F.
Chill hours: None.
Heat tolerant: Yes.
Drought tolerant: Yes, once established.
Sun: Full sun. Opuntia is shade intolerant.
Planting: Locate this plant in full all day sun in dry, well draining soil. Its survivability increases to 61% from 45% when planted on a mound or ridge rather than flat ground, especially if the irrigation water contains any salinity. Planting above ground level, however, will increase root sprouting time by a week. This cactus is well adapted to a variety of climates but should receive some shelter from cold winter winds.
Soil: This plant is tolerant of soil types as long as the soil is well drained. Newly planted Opuntia pads are sensitive to salt but become somewhat salt tolerant once established.
Fertilize: For maximum flower and fruit production, use a 0-10-0 fertilizer without nitrogen in late winter, or organic fertilizer at the start of every month during spring, summer, and fall. To maximize stem growth, use composted manure in late winter, late spring, and late summer, which will also inhibit flowering and fruiting. A standard 10-10-10 fertilizer will improve newly planted Opuntia's response to water containing minor levels of salt.
Water after becoming established: Normally once or twice a month. Some farms practice drip irrigation every 3 linear feet to maximize pad or fruit production, but only every two weeks when rain is lacking. Pads starting to shrivel indicate a need for water. Do not water unless the soil is completely dry.
Mulch: Never. The soil over the roots should dry quickly.
Prune: The harvest time for fruit is primarily summer, Remove them from the pads by twisting rather than pulling.
The pads can be harvested up to six times a year, year-round, in warm climates. Remove pads at the joint between them. The best harvest time is mid-morning to mid-afternoon.
Ornamental pruning is not needed unless the plant is growing out of bounds.
Litter: None.
Propagation: Pads, more than six months old, cut from the plant. Once the cut has formed a callous (10-14 days), the pad is placed edgewise into dry soil, no more than 1-2" deep to avoid root rot, with its broad sides facing east and west. Anchor the pad in place with rocks. Do not water until roots have formed, to prevent rot. Once roots have formed, in 2-3 months, the rocks can be removed, and the pad can be watered for the first time since it went into the ground. Only water when the soil is entirely dry.
A small percentage of seed may breed true to its parent, most will be variable.
Pests: Root rot can occur in poorly draining soil.
Cochineal scale insects may form cottony white patches on pads. New patches can be washed off in the summer with a stream of water.
Uses: Culinary, animal fodder, food preservative, ornamental, erosion control, fire barrier, cochineal insect harvesting for red dye.
The fruit, which is watery and slightly sweet, is peeled and eaten raw or cooked into jam. The juice can be made into jelly. The fruit from selected cultivars is a favorite snack in Mexico.
Tender young pads are peeled to remove glochids, and sliced into strips, or diced, and eaten raw in salads. They also can be boiled, fried, pickled, or cooked in meat and vegetable stews.
Sap extracted from the pads or fruit peels can be made into a gel by adding an equal amount of distilled water, and pasteurizing the sap solution at 158°F for 45 minutes. Freshly peeled Cactus Pear fruit can then be dipped into the gel and stored 12 to 15 days at 42°F. The gel can also be used to treat wounds in the same way as aloe vera gel. Because the gel is sticky, one traditional use has been to add it to whitewash and mortar which increases their durability.
The extensive roots of this plant provide erosion control. It is a succulent, and mostly water or gel, so it can also be grown as a fire suppression barrier.
This cactus has been used to raise and harvest cochineal scale insects, which extrude a red liquid used in dyes, paints and food coloring.

Comments

Just three cultivars of Opuntia ficus-indica account for a majority of cactus fruit consumed in Mexico: 'Reyna', 'Burrona', and 'Cristalina', in order of popularity.
In Mexican Spanish, nopale means Opuntia cactus, nopales - young whole pads, nopalitos - diced pads, penca - mature pads used for propagation and cattle fodder, and tuna - Opuntia fruit.
Opuntia ficus-indica 'Atlixco' is one of the cultivars grown for its nopales (pads) rather than its fruit.
Ornamental plants with few spines include Opuntia cacanapa 'Ellisiana': Spineless Prickly Pear, and O. phaeacantha: Smooth Prickly Pear.



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Latest update: October, 2021