Fat plants

Prickly Pear - Opuntia


Evergreen cacti originating from Mexico, widespread in most of the globe, especially in Astralia and the Mediterranean basin, the Opuntia have erect or slightly prostrate stems, divided into large, oval, flattened segments, with a diameter of 30-70 cm, fleshy , of a bright green color, generally called shovels; they have few sharp spines, gathered in groups of 2-3, 4-5 cm long; adult plants can reach 4-5 m in height.
From late spring to summer the plant produces numerous cup-shaped flowers, yellow or orange, arranged on the edges of the blades; the flowers are followed by fruits, oval, 10-15 cm long, fleshy, thorny, green, becoming purple red when ripe. The whole plant is edible, the blades are generally cooked, while the fruits are eaten raw, after having deprived them of the thick spiny rind.

Prickly Pear

Prickly pear (Opuntia ficus-indica) is a shrub that can reach up to 3.5 meters in height and width. It has a very particular and recognizable shape: the stems are in fact flat and broad and are commonly called shovels, even if their true scientific name is cladodes.
Their surface is mostly smooth, of a glaucous green color, but dotted with bearings (the areolas) from where some waxed spines start. Next to it there are other smaller ones, at most a few millimeters long, which have the purpose of retaining environmental humidity. Special care must be taken because they come off very easily, sticking deep into the skin. They are also a means of defense.
The opuntie constitute one of the most consistent groups in the field of Cactaceae: up to 300 species have been classified. They come mostly from areas characterized by strong aridity. This does not mean however that they cannot be resistant to low temperatures. In the American continent (where they originate) in the spontaneous state can even be found in the mountainous areas, in particular in the Andes they have adapted to survival even above 5,000 meters of altitude. We also keep in mind that even in the desert environment the cold resistance is a very important feature. In fact, there are environments in which the temperature range between night and day is of considerable importance.

Cultivate the prickly pear cactus

Cultivating prickly pear is not at all difficult and can be done by everyone.


Place these opuntie in full sun; they can withstand temperatures close to -10 ° C, in places with harsh winters it is good to plant the plants in a sheltered place, near a wall or under a roof; in the coldest months of the year they may need to be repaired with tnt. The opuntie can also be cultivated in a container, so as to be able to take them away from the cold in autumn, in this case they remain small and difficult to bear fruit.
The prickly pear is very sensitive to cold. It can be grown in the ground only where winter temperatures do not fall below - 10C. Elsewhere it will be good to place it in a large vase. The exposure must be as sunny as possible.
If we live in a particularly cold area we can possibly try to include varieties such as the opuntia fragilis or the humifosa which have proven to be quite resistant to low temperatures. In this case it is very important to place them in an illuminated area for most of the day, especially during the winter). It will also be essential to provide an adequate substrate in order to avoid problems related to stagnant humidity at the level of the roots and the collar.

Flowers and fruits of the prickly pear cactus

The prickly pear cactus flowering takes place in summer or throughout the year (in areas where temperatures remain mostly constant or at least mild) and is rather short, but of great beauty. The petals are very thin and pearly and can be declined in shades of yellow, orange and red, depending on the variety. In the center we find a large amount of stamens, just as decorative.
Then, from these, the fruits develop, also extremely colored: they can be found in yellow, orange, red, violet and even white. They line up on the edge of the blades.
Harvesting generally takes place between July and September. In areas with a more favorable climate, fruiting can also take place in three successive waves.
The pulp ranges from yellow to red-pink fuchsia, surrounded by large black seeds.
However, it is not the only edible part. Wishing also the so-called blades can be consumed. In Central America they are also used for making liqueurs.
As we have said, the most widespread cultivars in Italy originate from Mexico. In our country (and throughout the North of Africa), however, it has become a very frequent crop. The prickly pears are by now identifying many landscapes, especially from Sicily, from the coasts of Campania, Puglia and Sardinia. They can also be found in the North, in particular on the Riviera Ligure di Ponente.


The young plants should be watered sporadically at least once a month from March to October; plants that have been in residence for some time now generally settle for rain, although they may need watering in the event of a very prolonged drought.
To get good results in pots it is important to wait for the soil to dry completely before returning to water. Generally speaking, from spring to autumn it is advisable to distribute plenty of water twice or at most (depending on the temperature) per week.
The plants sheltered inside during the winter months will have to receive water on average every 30 days.
On the other hand, individuals in the open ground do not need water interventions, especially if they have been inserted for some time and are completely free.


Height at maturity

Up to 5 m
Width at maturity Up to 3 m
Culture simple
Maintenance low
Growth rapid
Propagation Talea, seed
Rusticitа Medium (generally up to -6 ° C)
Exposure Full sun
Soil Any, but well drained
In pot 1/3 garden soil, 1/3 sand, 1/3 compost
It needs water low



Spring Summer
repotting spring
Propagation by cuttings From spring to summer, in days without rain
Flowering in the Center-North June July
Flowering in the South From spring to autumn
Collection in the Center-North From July to September
Collected in the South From late spring to the end of autumn


It adapts without problems to any soil, provided it is well drained and sandy; does not like excessively rich and moist soils.
In the middle of the earth, prickly pear adapts well to many different conditions. We only need to avoid soils that are too clayey and asphyxiated. Water stagnation could in fact cause root rots.
Apart from this it will adapt very well to any other condition, even if the area is very poor and dry
The ideal substrate for the containers must instead be rather drained. The soil for sale specific for succulents are suitable. But we can create the compost ourselves by mixing 1/3 of garden soil, 1/3 of river sand and 1/3 of compost. If it is still heavy you can possibly add a few handfuls of perlite or agricultural vermiculite. On the bottom it is extremely important to create a thick draining layer with gravel or other suitable material.

Multiplication and propagation

It generally occurs by cuttings, it is sufficient to put an entire segment of trunk in the ground, after having dried it for 12-15 hours, these plants root very easily.
The fastest method to propagate the prickly pear is undoubtedly the cutting. Proceed in spring or summer by taking a shovel of at least two years. The cut will be left to dry for at least a week (dusting it with a proto duct against rottenness and cryptogams. We can then place it in a pot buried by ѕ, with substrate as described above. We keep everything dry, with an average temperature of about 13 ° The rooting will take about three weeks.

Pests and diseases

Opuntia is very prone to attacks from the cochineal, in fact it has long been used to produce the food coloring extracted from scale insects.
If the infestation is mild, you can intervene by removing the parasites using alcohol and a cotton swab. Otherwise specific products can be used (generally white oil activated by a systemic insecticide).

History of prickly pear

The prickly pear is native to Mexico, but its cultivation immediately became very popular in the Mediterranean basin due to the vitamin content present in its fruits.
His name refers to the famous error of Christopher Columbus who, arriving on the New Continent, believed he had instead arrived in Asia.
He immediately understood that the plant (in particular the shovels) could be of great interest as food during the long oceanic crossings. The high content of vitamin C and its shelf life could in fact save many sailors from the onset of scurvy.
In this way some parts arrived in Europe and quickly the plant spread through all the Mediterranean ports.
The cultivation of the opuntiae was, and still is today, linked to its very frequent parasite: the cochineal.
In some areas (for example in the Canary Islands) they are cultivated precisely for the purpose of colonizing these insects, which are then useful to produce an access red-colored pigment, used in many foods (for example in alchermes), in cosmetics, in the textile industry.

Prickly pear cactus in winter

Potted plants, almost all over the North, need to be withdrawn. Generally it is good to proceed when the minimum temperatures are around 10 ° C. The room suitable for wintering must be bright, but not excessively hot. The ideal temperature ranges from 10 to maximum 15 ° C. Internal staircases, poorly used and heated rooms or a well exposed cold greenhouse are therefore ideal.
When the warm weather returns, the plants will have to be placed outside again, exposing them gradually to intense heat and light.

Repotting of prickly pear

Plants should be repotted rather frequently, even every year. Growth, especially of the root system, is in fact very fast and a container that is too small could be the cause of the onset of rot.
We proceed whenever we realize that the plant is slowing down in its growth.
The best time is spring. We also take the opportunity to check the state of the roots, possibly eliminating damaged or exhausted parts.

Fruit collection and preservation

The fruits can be harvested from when they take on a nice full color. Preservation takes place in the vegetable compartment, in the refrigerator. However, it is good to consume them within four days.

Prickly Pear - Opuntia: Variety of prickly pear

Here are the most common species and some suggested for those who live in areas with cold winters.

Watch the video
  • Opuntia

    Opuntia ficus-indica, or more familiarly prickly pear, is part of the Cactaceae family and is a genus of pia

    visit: opuntia
  • Prickly pear plant

    It often appears in the background of films and documentaries dedicated to Sicily. Indeed we could say that it constitutes the symbol

    visit: prickly pear plant
  • Figs of india plant

    Prickly pear is the common name of the fruits that grow on the tops of the leaves of the Nopales cactus. They spread throughout

    visit: figs of india plant

Types of opuntia

Species and varieties


Flowers and fruits


Prickly Pear

Opuntia ficus-indica

It grows up to 3.5 meters in height and width.
The blades are oval, about 40 cm long

The flowers are large, yellow or orange, like the fruits

-6 ° C
Opuntia ficus-indica var. rubra
Similar to the previous one

Yellow flowers and red fruits

-6 ° C

Opuntie more rustic
Opuntia engelmanii var lindheimeri
Up to 1 meter in height

Orange flowers and red fruits

-15 ° C
Opuntia humifosa
Medium in size with round blades

Yellow flowers in late spring, yellowish fruits

-25 ° C