Opuntia is a large genus of cacti distributed throughout the Americas. The species are best known as Prickly Pears. They are cacti known for their spines: many have large, rounded spines while others have tiny, hairlike barbs that detach upon contact from the plant.
These cacti are prized for their edibility, as they grow fruit commonly eaten in Mexico and the American Southwest. However, be sure that any fruit has been carefully cleaned if you plan on eating it, as the tiny glochids on the fruit can lodge in the skin and are very painful to remove. The distinctive red-purple juice of the Opuntia fruit can also be used in drinks, candy, and jellies.
Light: As desert cacti, Opuntias require maximum sunlight to thrive and should be kept in direct sunlight whenever possible.
Water: Very little water is required. These drought-resistant plants grow best in hot, dry areas, and excessive water could cause them to rot.
Temperature: Hot temperatures are best, but these cacti will tolerate a very wide range of temperatures.
Soil: The most important soil requirement for Opuntia is that it drains well. Other than that, basic potting soil is fine. These cacti will grow in rock gardens, as well.
Opuntias can propagate either by cuttings or by seed. To propagate by cuttings, sever pads from a plant and let them dry so that the wounds heal, place the plants in dry soil, and refrain from watering them until they begin to grow to avoid rotting.
To propagate by seed, rinse away pulp from the seeds, make sure they are thoroughly dry, and plant, ideally in the spring. But, again, the crucial factor in keeping the seeds alive and growing is keeping their soil well-drained and dry.
Though Opuntias will grow just fine in a garden, they can be grown in pots as well. To repot, ensure the soil is dry, remove the pot and knock away the old soil. After treating any cuts with fungicide, place the Opuntia in a new pot and backfill it with potting soil. As with a new cutting, ensure not to water a newly repotting cactus for a brief period to avoid rotting its roots.
All Opuntias are desert cacti and need lots of sun, lots of light, and very little water. If you live in a hot, arid area, these plants can generally be planted outside, left alone, and enjoyed.
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