Prickly Pear Cactus

by Kyle Sweet, The Sanctuary Golf Club, Florida Master Naturalist

Recently, while out on our annual Spring Bird Count at the club, I was reminded of a native that isn’t seen as often, but is a favorite throughout the high and dry native landscapes of our barrier islands, the Prickly Pear Cactus.

The Prickly Pear is native to the U.S., Mexico and South America, but also grows well beyond those borders in many parts of the world. Both the pads, which are the thick large leaves, and the fruits of the cactus are edible. This cactus flowers in a variety of colors including orange, yellow, red and pink, depending on the species and variety. Regardless the color, the large flowers produce large amounts of pollen, making it a great food source for bees and other important pollinators.

Once established, prickly pear is both drought and salt tolerant and has few pests or disease issues. It thrives in the well-drained, sandy soils of our islands and enjoys as much sun as it can get. To establish this cactus, propagate from pads by cutting a pad that is at least six months old and allow the pad to sit upright. Once the cut forms a callus, find a sunny spot and plant the pad with the callus in the ground to a depth of only one to two inches. Water the planted pad only when the soil, which is best to be a high sand content, when it dries out. Watering too much can cause the cactus to rot out and not plant successfully.

This evergreen cactus makes an attractive backdrop as well as a useful border planting. The colorful spring flowers are a great accent to any landscape and seeing that they provide food and shelter for animals, it is considered a Florida – friendly plant choice for any yard.

As mentioned previously, both the pads and fruits are edible and enjoyed by animals and humans alike. Deer, squirrels, birds, tortoises and even cattle enjoy the cactus. Humans use the fruit to make jelly, jam syrup and drinks and also cook and serve the pads, also called nopales, popularly in Mexican and Central American cuisine.

For that different, interesting, ultra low maintenance accent to any garden, the Prickly Pear Cactus might be a great choice. With a little research and a good cactus recipe, this could be a fun garden to table choice too! Enjoy this native!

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