Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Plant profile: Opuntia

Opuntia, also known as "nopales," Prickly Pear or Paddle Cactus from the resemblance to the ball-and-paddle toy, is a genus in the cactus family containing about 200 species.

We have at least ten species (and about a dozen specimens) at Pennsylvania Garden, ranging from 6" tall to 8' tall, and I do not know the specific names of all of them except:
O.  ficus-indica (Indian Fig - top photo)
O.  subulata (Cane Cholla - 2nd photo)
O.  discata (3rd photo)
O.  microdasys albata "Angel Wings" (4th photo)  
O.  microdasys var. rufida (5th photo)
O. Opuntia macrocentra (Black-Spine Prickly Pear - 6thphoto)
O. acaulis (7th photo, rose flowers
O. aciculata (Chenille Prickly Pear - 8th photo, orange flowers)
Opuntia sp. ? (10th photo)
Some species have big, obvious spines. And some, like several of ours, have tiny, hairlike spines that you might think would be soft. Until you get one in your skin. I have had to cut a few out of my hands using cuticle scissors and tweezers and have learned to use two pairs of gloves when dealing with them, no matter how innocent they look!

Latin name: Opuntia spp. ("oh-POON-tee-uh")
Common name: Prickly Pear.
Originally from: The deserts of the Americas; West and Southwest of the US and throughout much of Mexico.
Blooms: Big, showy white, yellow, orange, red or pink flowers.
Light: Full sun.
Water: Rain is enough, but the occasional summer drink is nice if they start to look wrinkly.
Where to find in P. Garden: Along the cactus wall and in the far back up against the chain link fence, hopefully deterring hooligans from jumping over the fence.

The fruit of prickly pears, commonly called cactus figs, Indian fig or tuna, is edible, although it has to be peeled carefully to remove the small spines on the outer skin before eating them. You can buy them down in the Mission area of SF, though I've never tried 'em.

You can also eat the young pads, called "nopales" in Spanish, before the spines harden. Supposedly they taste like green beans and are a breakfast treat.

1 comment:

  1. Even people with brown thumbs can grow prickly pears (Opuntias). There are dozens of varieties to choose from. Short. Tall. Wide. Narrow. I put my plants outdoors on the porch in summer and they are happy as can be. In the fall I bring them in and mostly don't water them. They sit dormant in my living room window.
    Thanks for the article. It makes me appreciate my plants all over again.


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