Prickly Pear (Bunny Ears) Cactus
Prickly pears are instantly recognizable because of their flat pads, instead of the spherical or cylindrical shape of cacti that most people are used to.
You may have been drawn by the way its pads shoot out in every direction and from every angle, or you may have learned to avoid it because of its stickers.
Prickly pears are easy to care for with well-draining soil, however, and the right sized pot or the right location for planting and watering only when the soil is completely dry. You do not have to fertilize opuntia and some diseases can easily be remedied.
However, if you are one of those people who would like to propagate this desert cactus for its fruits or as part of your garden design, then here is how you can ensure success. Read on.
Choosing the right soil
I recommend this wonderful cacti soil mix by repotme. The quality is better than anything else I found on the market, and should help you grow a healthy cactus.
If you leave your prickly pear with too much water for too long, it can get root rot.
On the other hand, if the water drains too fast, your cactus will not have enough time to absorb the nutrients it needs to grow.
The good news is that you have a lot of leeways when it comes to choosing the right soil for your prickly pear because it’s hardy enough to grow in not-so-perfect soil.
Prickly pear, however, will grow better and easier in sandy, loamy, and well-draining soil.
Tips and Tricks
If you have heavy soil that retains water, you can add sand or peat moss to amend it.
This will make heavy soil like clay or compacted soil drain better.
Further, if you are growing prickly pears in containers, you can add a layer of gravel at the bottom to help with draining the water.
Making Your Own Soil Mix for Your Potted Prickly Pears
If you are going to grow cacti such as Opuntia in pots, getting the right soil mix will help your prickly pears thrive and grow.
There is a cactus soil that you can buy from several retailers, but you can just as easily mix your own.
So how do you do that? Mix one part organic matter and two parts sand, rinsed gravel, perlite, and other minerals.
Here’s the thing, while peat moss is recommended for heavy soil, you shouldn’t use it as organic matter in your cactus soil mix.
Using peat moss, the roots of your prickly pear will not get enough water because this material repels water.
Get something that is not as dense as peat moss and can hold water better, like coconut coir or potting soil.
As for the mineral material, you cannot go wrong with coarse sand, perlite, or washed gravel.
Testing the Finished Soil Mix
How do you know if you get the soil mix right?
Once you have completed mixing the organic matter and the mineral material together, soak it with water.
Scoop some of the wet soil mixes into your palm and give it a good squeeze.
- If it forms into a ball, add more mineral material.
- If it falls apart a bit, then it’s good to go.
Remember that the complete soil mix should be able to support the weight of your prickly pear so that it can stand upright.
Planting Straight Into the Ground
If you are planting directly to the ground, you might want to test the soil first to see if it drains well.
I recommend that you dig a hole that is between one to 1.5 feet (30.5 to 45.7 centimeters) deep and a foot (30.5 centimeters) wide.
Dump water into the hole until it’s filled and wait for it to drain completely.
Fill it again with water and measure how deep the water is.
Measure the water’s depth every hour for three hours. Well-draining soil will have the water level drop about an inch for every hour spent.
How Do You Correct Poorly Draining Soil?
If you live in an area with heavy soil, you can add organic matter into the ground.
The organic matter will make the heavy soil drain better while also attracting earthworms.
The earthworms will also help decompose the organic matter and make the nutrients easily absorbed by your prickly pear.
Another reason for poorly draining soil is having a high water table where you are.
If this is the case, you can add truckloads of soil. Or you can raise the soil bed by six to eight inches (15.24 to 20.32 centimeters).
You can check out this video if you want to correct drainage problems with your soil, whether you’re doing container gardening or planting directly to the ground.
Choosing the Right Pot
When choosing the right pot for your prickly pears, you will want one that has big drainage holes at the bottom.
The pot you choose should be big enough to accommodate the prickly pear cutting.
It should also be deep enough to accommodate the small rocks and gravel at the bottom as well as enough potting soil for your cuttings.
I recommend an allowance of 0.25 inches (0.635 centimeters) from the body of the cactus to the rim of the pot.
Your prickly pear will also need a deeper pot to accommodate its tall growth and somewhat deep roots.
When planted in the ground, prickly pears naturally spread their roots far away from the main plant.
But this will depend on the amount of water that the soil gets.
In the desert where there are only a few inches of rain, prickly pears tend to have more shallow roots that branch out very far from the plant.
In places where they can get plenty of water, they tend to send roots further down the ground.
You should avoid repotting your prickly pear cuttings for at least a year to make sure that the pads will have enough roots and start growing their own pads.
So you might want to make sure that the pot you select has room for your prickly pear pads to grow.
If you are starting your prickly pear from seeds, you can use a small clay pot for germinating the seeds.
You can put one seed in a small pot or two in a bigger one.
Tips and Tricks
When repotting, remember to always check your growing prickly pears to see if they are outgrowing their pots.
By outgrowing, you should look for signs that your prickly pear is getting wider than the pot’s width, or when the pot becomes heavier at the top, making it easier to topple over.
When this happens, transplant your prickly pears into a bigger pot.
Putting your Opuntia in a bigger pot or directly into the ground will ensure that its growth is not impeded.
Watering Your Prickly Pears
In general, mature prickly pears thrive in dry conditions and need very little watering to survive.
You should only water prickly pears if the soil is already completely dry. You can get away with watering the plant once in two to four weeks.
You should avoid watering pads that you have just propagated for a whole month.
During the first year, you can water your prickly pears following this schedule:
- Once every two to four weeks in the winter
- Once every two weeks in the summer
- Once every month in other months
Average rainfall can easily sustain your prickly pears, but if your area is experiencing a drought, you can water more often, like once or twice a month.
If your prickly pear is still growing, you will want to keep the soil slightly moist at all times. This condition will allow seedlings, cuttings, and young plants to grow.
Prickly pears easily thrive outside or in pots if they get a lot of sunlight.
The general rule is that your prickly pears should get at least six hours of full sun daily.
It’s best to keep them out of shaded areas that can block the full sun that they love.
How much light do your prickly pears need when you put them indoors? If you’re putting an opuntia inside the house, place them near a south- or west-facing window.
This will allow them to get direct sunlight that they like.
Alternatively, you can use a full spectrum light if you do not have enough light exposure.
We recommend this affordable indoor grow light that will work well for any cacti, if youdon’t have a lot of sun exposure in your indoor space.
How much light is too much?
The good news is that prickly pears cannot get enough of the sun.
Being one of the hardiest desert cacti, you can leave them under the heat of direct sunlight all day and not worry about it dying or getting sunburned.
What about too little light?
Your prickly pears, however, can suffer from not getting enough light. If they’re not getting at least six hours of full sun, prickly pears can get etiolated.
Etiolation, according to this site, happens when your plants get insufficient light.
In other plants, this can cause stems to grow longer, with paler green leaves.
In worse cases, the leaves are pale pink, pale yellow, or white.
In prickly pears, etiolation results in thinner pads.
Others develop tongue-shaped or tubular pads, rather than being round or flat oval.
The pads may be very thin and have a paler green color compared to non-etiolated pads. In some cases, the etiolated pads can become as thin as a toothpick.
How to fix etiolated prickly pears
Once etiolation occurs, there is not much you can do to fix it.
You can move your prickly pears somewhere where it gets more intense sunlight for a longer period.
The thinner pads will remain, but new growth will be thicker and rounder.
If you want your prickly pears to have a more or less uniform shape, you can cut off the etiolated pad and propagate them.
Your original plant will push out new pads that are healthier if you make sure that they get at least six hours of direct sun.
For the most part, prickly pears that are planted outdoors will not need fertilizers. But when grown indoors, you may need to fertilize it once in a while.
According to the University of California, you will need a balanced fertilizer that delivers equal amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium to growing prickly pears.
During spring and right through fall, you should ply them with a balanced fertilizer.
If you like to have more pads, give it fertilizer that has more nitrogen in it. However, if you want to see more flowers and fruits from your prickly pears, you should give your cactus a no-nitrogen fertilizer, such as a 0-15-0 formula.
For indoor cacti we recommend this fertilizer, designed specifically for cacti. Make sure to follow the instructions and not use too much fertilizer.
How to Encourage Blooms
Prickly pears ordinarily flower from May to June.
You get more blooms if your area has had significant winter and spring rainfall.
They start to bloom when temperatures get warmer.
Each prickly pear flower lasts only a few days, but the plant will be in bloom for around two weeks.
Aside from avoiding too much nitrogen in your fertilizer, there is not much information on how to get your prickly pear to bloom more.
However, enthusiasts observe that dry summers with little or no rain help to make the cactus bear more fruit.
Keeping the soil moist in the colder months also seems to help.
If you’re growing outdoors, it seems that you will need to switch to zero-nitrogen fertilizer and hope for dry summers and enough rain to keep the ground moist in the winter and early spring.
If you’re growing them in pots, it helps to mimic these conditions but putting them in the direct sun for longer and watering your prickly pears less during the summer and then keeping the soil moist in the winter.
Propagating Prickly Pears
Propagating from seeds
Propagating prickly pears from seeds can take a lot of work, and you will need to be patient.
For one, the seeds of some opuntias need at least 12 months to be ready for planting. Germination can take weeks or around two months.
Harvest the seeds
You will need to harvest seeds from the ripe tuna and then put them all on a paper towel to dry them off.
Be very careful when you handle the fruits of prickly pears as the spines can easily pierce through your exposed flesh.
It will take up to two weeks before the seeds are completely dry.
You can store the harvested seeds in a container where no air or water can get in to wait for them to mature.
As a general rule, seeds harvested from this season should be ready to plant during the next spring.
Some Tips When Harvesting Seeds
Some things that you should keep in mind when harvesting prickly pear seeds:
- You need to leave tunas or prickly pear fruits to ripen completely. It’s best to harvest seeds when the fruit is soft yet still quite firm.
- You can scoop out the flesh with the seeds and put them on a paper towel. Push down on the flesh to separate the seeds from the flesh. Make sure that you get rid of all the pulp, as this can cause fungi to grow on the seeds and the seedlings.
- You might also want to soak the seeds in water to help it germinate faster and also ensure that there is no pulp.
- Keep the harvested seeds on the paper towel that you used to separate them from the pulp. Make sure that the seeds and the paper towel are completely dry.
- You can gently rub the seeds to pry it off the paper towel and into a container.
Here is a YouTube video on how to harvest seeds from a ripe prickly pear fruit:
What to do next
After obtaining the seeds, you should:
- Prepare the cactus soil and break up the lumps that may have formed. Completely soak the soil and drain it.
- Scratch the seed by rubbing it against sandpaper. Scratching the seed to remove the seed coat helps it to germinate faster. It also increases the rate of successful germination.
- Sow the seeds in a seed tray, leaving one inch (25.4 millimeters) of space in between the seeds. If you’re using small pots, plant one seed in each.
- Press the seed into the soil and then cover the newly planted seeds with a thin layer of soil.
- Cover everything. Mist the newly planted seeds and then cover the pot or seed tray with a plastic lid or plastic bag. Be sure to punch a hole into the cover to allow air to come in and exit.
- Put the pots or seed tray near windows that get a lot of light.
- Monitor the temperature and moisture level. Keep temperatures at 70°F (21.1°C). You should also mist the soil to keep it moist but not wet.
- When seedlings appear, be sure to check it often. If it turns red or brown, then that means that it’s getting too much sun. Meanwhile, if it turns yellow, you may need to transfer your newly grown seedlings to somewhere sunnier.
Propagating from pads
If you think that all that waiting for the seed to mature and get ready to be planted and then waiting for it to germinate is not for you, you can skip it and just propagate prickly pears using the pads.
For some species of prickly pears, you can easily break off a pad from the main plant.
But if you’re having problems just pulling off a pad and getting a clean break, you might want to use a sharp and clean knife to cut it off at the joints.
Always use a sterile and sharp knife to make a clean cut to avoid having the cut area infected with bacteria.
After cutting, you should place the new pads in a shady area, heal and dry out before you plant it into the soil.
Choose a pot that is bigger than the pads you want to plant on it. You can insert the healed pods into the soil to make it stand upright. Check out this video for a demonstration.
However, if you have a larger pot that can accommodate these pads, you may consider laying the pad flat on the soil, as some enthusiasts advocate.
This way, you don’t have to worry about your prickly pear toppling over in its pot, and there are more places where it can form roots in more places.
The only problem is that when it’s laid flat like that, the pad will shrivel and curl up in the long term.
Before long, it will start to look like a banana at the base of your prickly pear.
Also, having the pad flat on the soil may affect the stability of your prickly pear when it starts to become bigger and have more pads.
To avoid these problems, you can bury the pad a bit into the soil.
Repotting or Transplanting Bunny Ears Cacti
When your prickly pears are outgrowing their pots, it’s time for you to move them to a bigger one.
To do this, you should:
- Refrain from watering your prickly pear to get the soil completely dry.
- Once you’re sure that the soil is dry, shake the prickly pear out of the soil while holding the base.
- Put fungicide on any wound that the prickly pear has and then put it in the new pot and then put in the cactus soil mix.
- Wait for a few days to get your newly repotted prickly pear accustomed to its new environment.
- Once it’s accustomed, you can safely water it.
I made this handy infographic that will explain how to do repot a cactus easily:
Tips When Repotting Prickly Pears
- Always use thick gloves when you’re repotting.
- Ask another person for help if the prickly pear is bigger than what you can handle on your own.
- There are times when you might need to prop the newly repotted Opuntia to keep it from falling over. Surround it with heavier rocks until it starts forming roots.
Transplanting Prickly Pears Growing From the Ground
There are times when you need to move prickly pears that are growing directly from the ground.
It might be that you’ve planted it, or it grew so close to your walkway. As it grows, you will have limited space, and if you have kids and pets, they may even get stuck.
There are services that will transfer your prickly pears to somewhere far away or move it to a more favorable spot. But you can certainly do it yourself.
Experts, however, caution that it might be easier to just cut off individual pads or an entire section of pads that are more manageable than to transfer an entire plant.
Similar to repotting, you will need to let the cut pieces dry for a few days to allow the area of the cut to heal completely to avoid rot.
Experts recommend not transplanting a plant that is bigger than two to three feet (609.6 to 914.4 millimeters) in height and diameter.
Something taller or wider than that can prove to be unwieldy.
You can also prick yourself easily when you have to move around something that big.
Tips When Transplanting Prickly Pears
Here are some things that can help make your life easier when you’re transplanting prickly pears:
- Be sure to clear the new area where you’re transferring the prickly pear.
- Consider how big these plants are going to get and space them properly.
- Keep them away from walkways.
While prickly pears are known to be hardy plants, some diseases and issues can affect it:
- Dry rot – Dry rot is caused when the spores of the phyllosticta fungus attach itself to the pads and other tissues of prickly pears. It causes lesions on the pad, but it doesn’t produce any liquid as root rot does. Remove the infected parts to remedy this and discard them.
- Anthracnose – Another kind of fungi can cause moist rot that is light brown. Like phyllosticta infestations, you will need to remove the affected parts and dispose of them.
- Scale – Prickly pears are almost immune to insect attacks. But it can be vulnerable to the cochineal scale. To remedy this, you can apply insecticidal soap or flush the pad with a strong jet of water.
- Scorch – Sunscald can be serious for your prickly pears. It’s characterized by smaller spots that grow bigger and bigger until it takes over the entire pad, eventually killing it. There is no good remedy for sunscald.
- Scab – Putting your prickly pears or overwatering it can cause it to develop scabs. These corky areas appear on the stems and are rust-brown. To fix this, you can move your prickly pear to a better-lit area and follow the best watering practices.
- Root Rot – Overwatering your prickly pears can cause root rot. This video shows you how to deal with root rot:
Frequently Asked Questions
Are Prickly Pears Good for You?
Prickly pears are currently getting attention because it’s being pushed as a treatment for a variety of conditions such as obesity, diabetes, hangovers, and high cholesterol. It’s also said to have both anti-inflammatory and antiviral effects.
According to the Mayo Clinic, there are only a few studies that support these claims. However, you shouldn’t discount them just yet. Prickly pears are rich in antioxidants, carotenoids, and fiber. These nutrients make it a great part of your diet.
How Do You Eat a Prickly Pear?
There are many ways to enjoy prickly pears. The pads can be mixed with salads, while the fruits can be eaten right off the plant.
When eating the fruit, you will need to get rid of the glochids, or the stickers, by putting it over an open flame and burning it off.
Peel the skin off the fruit, leaving only the innermost flesh of the fruit. Slice the fruit and it’s ready to eat or juice.
This video will explain in more detail how you can enjoy a prickly pear:
What does a prickly pear taste like? The fruit tastes sweet. Green tunas can taste sweet, but if you like the sweetness to be bursting in your mouth, choose the red ones.
Meanwhile, the pads can be tart and can taste like green beans, green pepper, or asparagus when you cook or grill it.
How Tall Can a Prickly Pear Get?
If you’re wondering just how big your prickly pear plants can get, then you should know that these plants can grow anywhere from a foot to 18 feet (30.5 to 548.6 centimeters) high.
More important, however, is knowing how far it can spread: some species usually grow low to the ground and can spread up to 18 inches (45.72 centimeters) wide.
If you have successfully propagated or grown cacti, then prickly pears should be easy for you. This hardy cactus enjoys long periods in full sun, minimal watering, and well-draining soil. It’s possible to just plant them directly into the ground or in appropriately-sized pots. They’re not demanding and can be pretty forgiving even if you don’t give them the ideal conditions for growing.
- Albuquerque Journal: Transplanting Cactus Can Be Sticky Situation
- Britannica: Polyploidy
- Gardening Knowhow: What Does Well Drained Soil Mean: How To Get A Well-Drained Garden Soil
- National Garden Association: Cactus and Succulents forum: What’s wrong with this Prickly Pear Pad/cutting?
- NC State University: Opuntia mesacantha
- Permies.com: prickly pear: persuading them to bear more fruit
- SF Gate: How to Grow Prickly Pear Cactus From Seeds
- SF Gate: How to Make a Cactus Growing Mix
- Study.com: Monophyletic Groups
- Texas A&M Agrilife: Texas Plant Disease Handbook: Cacti and Succulents
- The Garden Generalist: HOUSE PLANTS: HOW TO TREAT COMMON CACTUS & SUCCULENT AILMENTS
- This Is Tucson: Sunset-colored prickly pears are blooming in Tucson and we are in love
- University of California: Prickly Pear Cactus Production
- Wikipedia: Cactus
- Wikipedia: Caryophyllales
- Wikipedia: Opuntioideae
- YouTube: How to fix etiolated Bunny Ears Cactus and grow thick PADS?
- YouTube: How to repot & Prune an Opuntia Cactus Plant
- YouTube: Improve Drainage in the Garden and Containers
- YouTube: Propagating cactus – How to Harvest seeds from Opuntia ficus-indica fruit
- YouTube: Saving a Rotting Prickly Pear Cactus
- Mother Earth News: Cook With Prickly Pear Cactus Pads
- YouTube: How to Eat Cactus Fruit
- Mayo Clinic: I’ve seen prickly pear cactus promoted as a superfood. What’s behind the hype?