Plants in the genus Opuntia are often referred to as prickly-pears because of their large juicy fruits, which can be eaten (after removing the spines) or made into juice. Though many kinds are tasty, one species in particular is widely cultivated for fruit production, and this is Opuntia ficus-indica. The name of the species translates as “Indian fig”, and this is a reference to the consumption of the fruit by native American peoples in the areas where they grow. Though not often seen in fruit stands in the United States, prickly-pears are common in Mexican markets, where they are called tunas. The culinary usefulness of this plant does not stop with its fruit, since the tender young pads are cut up and used as a vegetable, referred to as nopales in Spanish. A mature plant may grow to a height of as much as 20 feet (6 m), but more commonly it is more in the 8- to 10-foot range (2.4 to 3 m). The base of an old plant becomes woody and brown and trunk-like, but it grows out in all directions and branches low-down, so the overall appearance is of a shrubby mass of green pads, each of which has an oval shape like a tennis racket. These pads are often mistaken for leaves because they are green and flattened, but actually they are stem-segments.
Opuntia ficus-indica is spring-flowering, but it may put out a few flowers here and there later in the year as well. The flowers are 2 to 2¾ inches in diameter (5 to 7 cm) and are normally orange or yellow-orange in color, though they may be red as well. The flower base is like a little green barrel punctuated with slightly raised areoles, and these have glochids (and sometimes longer spines) just like the ones on the pads. After the flower has dried up, the base enlarges over the ensuing months until it matures in autumn, and at this point it colors up. Spiny plants in the wild come in a wide range of fruit colors (red, pink, orange, yellow and green), but the less-spiny cultivated forms are usually either yellow, pinkish-red or orange. While spiny plants have fruits up to 3 inches long (7.5 cm), cultivated plants have undergone selection for large fruit size, and may be up to 4 inches long (10 cm). It probably originated in Mexico. This species will survive brief winter lows of 20° F or even a little colder, but it will not withstand extended hard freezes.
- Scarify the seeds by nicking or sanding the seed coat.
- Soak the seed in water for several hours.
- The seeds like moist, well-drained soil. Prepare a mixture of half potting soil and half sand, perlite or vermiculite. Put the soil in a pot. Water the mixture so that it is moist but not wet.
- Put the seeds on the soil.
- Cover the seeds with a thin layer of soil.
- Water the seeds.
- Place the pots in an area with warm temperatures in full sun or part shade.
- When the seedlings are a few inches tall, they can be transplanted.