In the introduction to this series about drought tolerant plants, I defended water efficient gardens by claiming they don’t have to be the “cacti-centric” gardens that many visualize upon hearing terms like “xeriscape,” “water-wise,” and “drought tolerant.” And this is absolutely true. However, that won’t stop me from suggesting that such landscapes include a cactus or two. Despite their menacing and potentially dangerous spines, they are actually quite beautiful, and a cactus in bloom is really a sight to behold. Together with a variety of grasses, herbaceous flowering plants, and shrubs, cactus can add unique forms, textures, and focal points that will enhance the look and function of a water-wise garden. This is why I recommend considering cactus, particularly (as far as this post is concerned) one of the many varieties of prickly pears.
The cactus family (Cactaceae) has a native range that is limited to the Americas. Within that range it is expansive, and cactus species can be found in diverse regions from Canada down to Patagonia. The genus Opuntia (the prickly pears) is the most widespread of any genus in the cactus family consisting of at least 300 species found throughout the Americas. Even a brief investigation into Opuntia will reveal that there is considerable controversy as to how many species there actually are and what to call them. This is partly due to the large ranges that species in this genus can have and the diverse habitats they can be found in within those ranges, resulting in a single species having many forms, varieties, and/or subspecies. Hybridization is also common in this genus where ranges overlap, augmenting the challenge of identification.
Generally, prickly pears have flattened stems with spines and glochids emerging from small bumps called areoles. Their flowers are large, showy and a shade of either yellow, orange, or pink and sometimes white. They form fruits that are either fleshy and juicy with a red or purple hue or hard, dry and a shade of brown or tan. The flattened stems are called pads or cladodes and can be quite large in some species, while diminutive and sometimes rounded in others. Some species are without spines, but all have glochids – tiny, barbed, hair-like structures found in clusters on the stems and fruits. While the spines can be painful when they penetrate skin, the glochids are far more irritating as they easily detach themselves from the plant and work their way into the skin of their victims. The fleshy fruits, called tunas, can be eaten after first taking care to remove the glochid-infested outer layer. The young stems of many species can also be eaten – they are referred to as nopales and are common in Mexican cuisine.
Again speaking generally, prickly pears are very easy to propagate and cultivate. Their two main preferences are full sun and well-drained soil. If you are worried that the soil you are planting them in is going to stay too wet for too long, amend it with some gravel. This is especially important if you live in a climate that receives lots of precipitation or that has cold, wet winters. Once established, prickly pears will move around the garden. If that becomes a problem, expanding plants are easily pruned and traveling plants are easily removed.
I live in a climate that requires the selection of cold hardy prickly pears, so I am taking my specific recommendations from two books: Cacti and Succulents for Cold Climates by Leo J. Chance and Hardy Succulents by Gwen Moore Kelaidis. If you live in a warmer climate, your options will be greater. Still, the options for cold regions are pretty numerous, so for the sake of space I am narrowing my list down to a handful that stand out to me at this particular moment.
Three eastern United States species of prickly pears (O. compressa, O. macrorhiza, and O. humifusa) are, according to Chance, “more capable of dealing with wet and cold conditions than almost any other members of the cactus family.” They still require well-drained soil though. An appealing trait is their large, juicy, red fruits that can add garden interest in late summer and fall. Opuntia engelmannii is another species with the potential to tolerate cold, wet conditions. Its size is appealing to me, with pads that reach a foot wide and plants that grow several feet tall. Chance advises finding “a clone that is known to be cold tolerant” and making some space for it, “as it becomes huge in time.” The most cold tolerant prickly pear may be Opuntia fragilis. It is a diminutive plant with a large native range and a variety of forms, some with rounded pads “shaped like marbles.”
Opuntia polyacantha is a prickly pear native to my home state, Idaho. It is found at high elevations throughout the Intermountain West and is also found on the Great Plains. It has many forms and varieties, and its flowers are various shades of pink or yellow. It is a fast growing species and spreads around easily. Other cold hardy species include Opuntia macrocentra (which has a very attractive yellow flower with a red-orange center), Opuntia erinacea (commonly known as hedgehog prickly pear for its abundant, long spines that can obscure the pads), and Opuntia microdisca (a tiny Argentinian prickly pear with pads that barely reach an inch across but, as Chance says, “works very well in a dry rock garden with other miniatures”).
A post about Opuntia could go on indefinitely due to the sheer number of species and their diverse forms and attributes. This is meant merely to pique your interest. The flowers, if nothing else, should certainly interest you. In her book, Kelaidis calls them “improbably beautiful,” and goes on to say that they are “often papery, always glistening and showy.” Chance likens them to “any fancy rose” because they are “extraordinarily large, brightly colored, [and] eye catching.” Next week, as part of Awkward Botany’s Year of Pollination, I will present another reason to be fascinated with the flowers of Opuntia. For now, I will leave you to ponder this word, “thigmonasty.”
Want to learn more about prickly pears? Check out Opuntia Web.