For a low-maintenance plant that can take the sun and survive with little water, try prickly pear. This evergreen cactus makes an attractive backdrop in mixed borders, and even adds some color of its own. It provides food and shelter for animals, making it a great Florida-friendly choice for any yard.
Gardeners love the colorful flowers that appear in spring and summer, and then give way to bright red, egg-shaped fruits. Just be sure to peel or singe them before eating, since they do have spines. Or try growing one of the spineless types for all the fun without the hassle.
Native to the U.S., Mexico, and South America, prickly pear grows well in many parts of the world. This plant is a member of the genus Opuntia which includes a number of species, many of which have edible pads and fruits.
Pads are rapidly-growing flattened stems that are elliptical or oblong shaped and range in size (generally between 4 and 18 inches long) depending on the species. They have smooth skin that can be bright green to blue-gray in color and some species have spines. Opuntia spp. flowers come in a range of warm-hued colors like orange, yellow, red, and pink, depending on the species and variety.
Once established, prickly pear is drought and salt tolerant, has few pest or disease problems, and grows in the sandiest soils. It thrives in full sun and well-drained soil.
These plants are a food source; both the pads (cladode, nopales) and the fruits (sometimes called tunas) are edible. Parts of cactus can be used for everything from main dishes, vegetable sides, breads and desserts, beverages, cocktails, candies, and more.
Pads are best eaten when they are young and tender and are said to taste a bit like green beans. The fruit flavor depends on the particular variety; it's been compared to strawberries, watermelons, honeydew melons, figs, bananas, or citrus. Prickly pear fruits can be eaten raw or prepared and are delicious at room temperature or chilled. They can be used for jams or preserves, jellies, and candies.
Planting and Care
Growing prickly pear from seed is slow going, and can take up to a few years before fruits and flowers start regularly appearing. Propagation from pads is simpler and quicker; this is done by cutting a pad that is at least six months old. Allow the pad to sit upright and for the cut to form a callus — this should take a week or two. Plant the pad in a sunny spot by placing it upright in a mixture of soil and sand only about an inch deep. Leave the pad unwatered for about a month after planting. Water it once the soil dries out; generally you will need to water it once a week.
Opuntia spp. are well adapted to poor, sandy soils. In fact, when grown in moist, rich soils, plant growth is rapid and soft which can lead to pest and disease issues. Root and stem rot, scale, mealy bug, and cochineal insects that disfigure the plant and likely reduce its edible qualities can occur when these plants are overwatered. Additionally, the pest cactus moth, introduced from the Caribbean, has spread into the southeastern U.S. where it has been known to attack native and nonnative Opuntias.
Fruits should be harvested when they are ripe, as they won’t continue to ripen once picked. Keep in mind, these plants don’t give up to being eaten easily, so take care to avoid their defenses. Collecting should be done with thick gloves and tongs. Pads may or may not have spines, but both fruits and pads do have tiny, hair-like barbed spines called glochids that easily can stick you. You should remove all spines before you rinse your fruits or pads off.
There are different techniques for preparing fruit and pads once they have been picked. Put the fruits in a bag or container to prevent the glochids from becoming a problem. One way to prepare the fruits is to burn them VERY CAREFULLY with an open flame. Fruits can be peeled without burning first but it can be best to err on the side of caution. Be warned that fruits can become slippery once they are heated so be sure to have a firm grip with your tongs.