The prickly pear cactus is a common name used for a variety of species of cacti within the genus Opuntia. Being a true cactus species, it is native to Mexico and the Americas. It is even featured on Mexico’s coat of arms. However, it has been introduced around the world, with one of the earliest records of introduction being in Australia in 1788. Some species of cacti introduced to Australia, and other areas, are considered invasive and care should be taken not to be propagated. For more information on invasive species, click here: https://www.permaculturenews.org/2013/12/20/using-invasive-species-kyrgyzstan/
One species within the genus Opuntia is Opuntia compressa, also called Opuntia humifusa, commonly known as the eastern prickly pear cactus. This particular cactus species is hearty, useful, and quite stunning. For reading on additional hearty plant species, click here: https://www.permaculturenews.org/2014/07/10/useful-plants-robert-nolds-high-dry/
Due to the heartiness of the eastern prickly pear, it can grow in various plant hardiness zones, from 10, all the way up to 2. However, in cooler climates the greenish-blue paddle shaped stem sections, called paddles or pads, will “deflate” and yellow in the winter, but plump and green up when spring comes back around. The heartiness of this plant is also due to the fact that it is drought tolerant. As long as it can grow in well-drained, sandy loamy soils, and is placed in full sun, this cactus will grow extremely well just about anywhere.
This hearty cactus is useful as an ornamental garden plant and a food source. Opuntia compressa, which reaches heights of approximately 1 – 2’, is much smaller than other species of prickly pear cactus, such as the Opuntia ficus-indica, which can grow up to 15’ tall. It tends to spread and grow close to the ground and is manageable garden addition. It is often used as a border plant, but can go anywhere in your flowerbed or garden and needs almost no maintenance. Be sure to thoroughly weed around it though and wear protective gloves when doing so, as they have thin narrow spines, approximately ¼” long.
The eastern prickly pear blooms in early summer for 3-4 weeks. The flowers will bloom bright yellow and last for a day. They are followed by reddish-purple fruits sometimes referred to as tunas. The fruits from Opuntia compressa are not as large and sweet as the prickly pears of Opuntia ficus-indica. However, they are still delicious and are good for making into jams and pickles. The paddles of the cactus can be eaten as well. It is best to pick small tender paddles in the spring and be sure to remove the spines.
If you choose to grow eastern prickly pear you can either start it from seed or as a cutting. If starting a from seed, begin with a ripe red fruit and cut it open to reveal the seeds. You can then sprinkle the seeds right into your garden. Water the seeds only when the soil is dry to the touch. If you choose to use a cutting you will need to cut off an individual paddle and then allow it to dry and heal over. This process takes about a week. When the paddle is ready, plant the cut end 2″ into the soil. Again, water only when the soil is dry to the touch. For either method, once a month has passed and the cactus has begun to grow, test for new roots by tugging very gently on the plant. If you feel resistance, then roots have established. If there is no resistance and your plant becomes loose, allow additional time. Beginning an eastern prickly pear takes patience, but will be worth your time and effort.
Once your cactus begins growing paddles and producing fruit you can begin harvest. However, this may not be within the first year and may be very minimal in cooler climates. As your plants grow and produce they will attract various animal life. Bees help pollinate prickly pears and different species will be attracted to your plants depending on geographical location. Rabbits, deer, turkey, and turtles will eat the prickly pear’s fruit. In fact, these animals help spread the seeds of the cactus. If you do not want to share the fruit with these animal diners, you will need to fence them out of your garden.
The cacti are not susceptible to a vast array of pests but can be infested by insects such as scale and aphids. To prevent and control their populations it is best invite in predatory insects. Cactus can also be plagued with leaf and root rot, but this is preventable by controlling the amount of water, allowing the soil to drain, and ensuring the plant receives plenty of sunshine.
The fruit and paddles of the cactus offer many nutritional benefits. One cup (149 grams) of prickly pear fruit is 61 calories, 1 gram of fat and protein, and 14 grams of carbohydrates (5 grams of which is dietary fiber). It is a good source of calcium and potassium, and an excellent source of vitamin C and magnesium. The cactus’ fruit also contains the flavonoids quercetin and kaempferol.
One cup (142 grams) of the paddles is 24 calories, 2 grams of protein, 1 gram of fat, and 5 grams of carbohydrates (3 grams of which is dietary fiber). It is a good source of vitamin C and an excellent source of calcium and magnesium. Due to the high vitamin C content of this plant and the flavonoids in the fruit, the eastern prickly pear is beneficial in improving immune function, reducing oxidative damage, decreasing inflammation, and lowering blood pressure. The flavonoids may also be useful in controlling blood sugar and improving the body’s response to stress.
To reap the benefits and enjoy this cactus, both fruit and paddles can be consumed raw or cooked. The paddles sauté and roast nicely and the fruit can be made into jams or sauces. A way to enjoy both the fruit and paddles is to create a salad using your favorite green salad recipe, add in raw or roasted paddles and then topping it with prickly pear fruit vinaigrette (recipe below).
Prickly Pear Fruit Vinaigrette Dressing:
Recipe adapted from Cooks.com
2 prickly pear cactus fruit
1 tbsp. rice wine vinegar
Juice from ½ of a lemon and a lime
Fresh ground black pepper
Peel skin from prickly pears and banana
Add fruit, vinegar, and juices to blender
Blend until smooth
Season to taste with salt and pepper
To make sweeter add more cactus fruit. To make less sweet add more vinegar. If you want the vinaigrette to be thicker add more banana. For a thin vinaigrette, strain through a fine sieve before serving, but this is not necessary.
For your garden, your health, and your culinary experience, the eastern prickly pear cactus is a prized plant. With minimal work, your garden can bloom with this beautiful perennial that will provide you with brilliant flowers, delicious produce, and numerous health benefits. So, whether you truly live in the desert, or happen to reside in the chiller regions of the world, the eastern prickly pear cactus is a worthwhile endeavor.
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