Mark A. Miller
Plant Common Name
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This genus is the most widely recognized in the Cactaceae due to the distinctive paddle shape of its stems. There are many species, subspecies and natural varieties of Opuntia. References differ greatly in the number of species, because the taxonomists that study them tend to be in disagreement, but the numbers range from 150 to 200. Many naturally hybridize in the wild, which makes the Opuntia hybridizer's job easy. Natural distribution stretches from the sunny sites of Argentina up into areas of Canada.
Known as pricklypear, these plants bear flat jointed stems that may be perfectly round, oval or oblong. They are produced at the edges of the previous stem, often growing like links in a chain that branching numerous times to create large or rambling plants. At maturity some species can reach enormous proportions and in Mexico the woody pads of large, old specimens is valued for carving. Several species figure largely into Mexican cuisine. In Mexico they are known as nopales. The young stems, technically called cladodes, are scraped, cooked and eaten. The fruits of many are also juicy and edible with incredibly sweet, melon-like flesh.
Like most cacti, these lack foliage. Their green, blue-green or reddish green, pad-like stems are usually heavily spined. The areoles bear both large primary spines and nearly microscopic hair-like spines called glochids. Glochids are unique to this species and cluster around the base of the large spines, often resembling benign fuzz. But glochids penetrate cloth and skin easily and can very painful and nearly impossible to remove. They are also brittle and break off under the skin, so care should be taken when placing or handling Opuntia.
Pricklypears are fabulous bloomers with large, waxy flowers produced in abundance in the spring. It is recommended to buy them in bloom to be sure to get a desirable flower color which may be yellow, orange or red. Following pollination they produce fruits that vary in size and fleshiness. Most are edible, red, fleshy and resemble an oval baseball or elongated club but a few species have small, dry fruits. The fruits are dotted with areoles that bear glochids, spines or both, so before eating they must be peeled, or the spines burned off. The inner flesh may be bright red, orange or burgundy. Black, BB sized round seeds are held within.
The fig cactus, Opuntia ficus-indica is the most widely known and grown for its large edible fruit. Selection by indigenous cultures has resulted in nearly spineless cultivars, though they still have glochids. These plants can reach tree-like sizes and create impenetrable living fences. Another popular potted variety is the spineless Opuntia microdasys, also called the teddy bear cactus due to its abundance of fuzzy looking but fierce glochids. The most colorful species of the genus is Opuntia santa-rita, which has fabulous blue paddles that take on vivid purple color in extreme heat, cold or drought.
Full sun and well-drained, infertile soil is favored by the majority of Opuntia species, but there are a few exceptions. They have long been cultivated for utility as well as food. Pricklypear fences were planted by inserting paddles directly into the soil where they’d root and grow. This illustrates how easy they are to propagate from cuttings. To handle these cacti safely, use barbecue tongs with the gripping part wrapped thickly with duct tape to reduce potential for injury. Double thick rose gloves may also work (if pads are handled gently).