Prickly pear cacti (Opuntia) are sought after house plants in the UK. They have a distinctive look – segmented stems that are flat and oval and dotted on both sides with spines. The stems often grow in pairs and resemble a pair of rabbits' ears, hence their common name, bunny ears. In summer, flowers appear along the ridge of the stems.
Their name may sound cuddly, but they are anything but – some have large, rounded spines while others have tiny hairs that detach, stick in the skin and can be difficult to remove. So they need handling with care.
There are more than 200 species of Opuntia. The most common variety is Opuntia microdasys, also known as the polka dot cactus, which has clusters of bristle-like spines (called glocids). It produces pretty yellow flowers in summer.
Opuntia ficus-indica is the edible prickly pear, or Indian fig. The yellow or orange flowers are produced from spring until summer, followed by purple, orange or red fruits if the growing conditions are right. These can be used to make syrups, jams or jellies.
Opuntias are native to deserts, so they’re used to hot, dry, sunny conditions. Their fleshy stems are designed to store water, so they’re able to cope with long periods of drought. This makes them an excellent, low maintenance house plant.
How to grow prickly pear cactus
Grow cacti in free-draining compost in a warm, bright spot that doesn't go below 10°C. From spring to autumn, water when the compost has dried out, allowing any excess to drain away. Stop watering completely for the rest of the year. Move to a cool spot in winter. Wear a pair of thick, thorn-proof gloves or use tongs when handling.
More on growing prickly pear cactus:
Prickly pear cactus: jump links
- Planting prickly pear cactus
- Caring for prickly pear cactus
- Propagating prickly pear cactus
- Growing prickly pear cactus: problem-solving
- Buying prickly pear cactus
Where to grow prickly pear cactus
Grow your prickly pear cactus in a warm, bright spot that doesn't go below 10°C in winter. Shield it from strong, direct sun in summer and move to a cooler spot in winter to encourage flowering.
Looking for a decorative pot cover for your prickly pear? Take a look at our 10 best indoor plant pots.
How to plant prickly pear cactus
Wearing gloves, plant your prickly pear into a pot that is the same size or slightly larger than the rootball. Ensure that the pot has a drainage hole. Use a cactus or succulent compost, or a 3:2 mix of soil-based compost and perlite.
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Caring for prickly pear cactus
Water whenever the compost has dried out, allowing any excess to drain away. Feed with a cactus fertiliser once every two months from spring to early autumn. In winter, move to a cooler spot to encourage flowers. Repot young plants every spring, and mature plants every couple of years.
How to propagate prickly pear cactus
You can grow prickly pear cacti from seed, but the easiest way to propagate them is by taking cuttings. Be sure to use tweezers or tongs. Here's our step-by-step guide to taking pricky pear cuttings:
- Choose a healthy piece of stem at least 10cm long and cut it off cleanly with a knife. Sit the cuttings on a window sill and leave them until the cut surfaces have healed over.
- Fill a 7cm or 9cm pot with cactus compost, then insert the base of each cutting to a depth of about 2cm, or deep enough that it stands upwards.
- Water liberally, then place the pot on a warm windowsill, preferably not in direct sunlight. Do not place cactus or succulent cuttings in a propagator or cover them with a plastic bag.
- Keep an eye on the cutting and water when the compost feels dry. Most cactus and succulent cuttings will root within a month, but it may take longer for new growth to appear.
Growing prickly pear cactus: problem solving
Shrivelled leaves are a sign of underwatering. Cacti are drought tolerant but that doesn't mean they don't need watering at all. Water the compost gradually over a few days, letting any excess drain away.
If parts of the plant have gone mushy, they have rotted. This is due to overwatering and this may also have been combined with low temperatures. Depending on how widespread the problem is, you could cut away any rotted areas and repot the plant into fresh compost.
If your cactus has patches of brown or white, this is sunburn. Move the plant out of direct sunshine in the hottest months.
If your prickly pear is splitting, this is due to overwatering. Reduce watering and the scar should heal over. Check that your plant pot has drainage holes and allow the compost to dry out before watering again.
Scale insects can be a problem on pricky pear cacti. Look out for brown lumps on the foliage. Carefully wipe them away if possible with a brush or cloth soaked in organic insecticide.
Mealybugs can also affect opuntia. Look out for white, fluffy spots on the plant. Carefully wipe them away if possible with a brush or cloth soaked in organic insecticide.
Advice on buying prickly pear cactus
- Prickly pear cacti can be tricky to track down, so if you have a friend with one, ask for a cutting
- The soft spines of Opuntia microdasys can be hard to remove from skin, so keep clear of children and pets
- You can find prickly pears at garden centres, but for the best selection buy at a specialist house plant retailer or online