There is a plant, that no matter where I was this winter, it seemed as though I could not escape it. Whether it was snowplowing, traveling to Mexico or watching a play at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey, there it was. A plant that has never really been a “front runner” in terms of nursery sales, however it has proven to be quite beautiful and “tough as nails.”
In the United States, there are some 40 recognized species of “Prickly Pear,” Opuntia. The largest genus in the cactus family, Opuntia seldom appears in New Jersey gardens, however their near care-free habit should make them far more popular in garden settings. Ample light and well-drained soil are really the only requirements needed for this genus to add a desert-like flare to your landscape. Found across North and South America, the Caribbean and even Canada, this plant type “freely hybridize” leading to new and exciting varieties. “Most Opuntia species do not have classic spines but an arrangement called glochids. These are fine, detachable and fuzzy to wooly” (gardeningknowhow.com). The flowers of this plant type are cup-shaped and can be pink, white, red or yellow. Additionally, some varieties have edible fruits called “tunas” routinely made into jams or candy while their flat pads, cladodes, can help make a delicious salad. Really the only detriment to growing Prickly Pear well is soggy soil.
Every winter snow plowing, for as long as I can remember, has me in my skid-steer loader addressing all the driveways and roadways of a condominium complex we are responsible for. The first set of units has a front foundation engulfed with a groundcover type of Opuntia. Every year this Prickly Pear crawls over the Belgian block, onto the roadway, and every year I come by and selectively prune it back with the blade of my machine. I always marvel at its ability to thrive in a shallow landscape bed, take to the aggressive pruning of my machine and stand up to the rock salt that is thrown its way.
Going forward, this past February, my family took a quick vacation down to Riviera Maya, Mexico where again I saw Prickly Pear, but this time not in a landscape. Rather it was on my plate. “Ensalada de Nopal” is a Prickly Pear salad that I found delicious. Eaten throughout Mexico, it is typically served as a side dish or eaten with tacos as a light meal. The taste has been likened to that of “sour green beans”, however I found it to be sort of your typical vegetable taste taking on the flavors of cilantro and onion. Bright green and plump, the cactus pads were full of flavor and had a wonderful textural property in my mouth… for the true foodies here!
As with most plants there are cultivars to be on the lookout for. Opuntia cacanapa ‘Ellisiana’ is a spineless Prickly Pear that has large, bright yellow blossoms in the summer. Complete with three different edible sections, the pad of the cactus (nopal), the petals of the flowers and the pear or fruit (tuna), ‘Ellisiana’ grows 3 feet tall and 4-6 feet wide and is hardy in zone 6. Opuntia x basilaris ‘Baby Rita’ is an exceptional, heat-loving, dwarf hybrid with brilliant carmine colored flowers. A small padded, purple-skinned Prickly Pear that has loads of spring blooms. ‘Baby Rita’ is a clumping form that only grows 8 inches tall and 24 inches wide, I love this one for containers.
Opuntia is one of the most “cold hardy”, adaptable and easy to grow types of cactus. Depending on the variety, Opuntia has been touted to withstand Zone 4 temperatures and clearly withstands the heat in Zone 10. Gritty, sandy and rocky soil types support this plant where few plants survive, let alone thrive. Virtually no irrigation is needed and despite nearly 150 days of rain last year in New Jersey, the Prickly Pear I snowplow were doing just fine. Lastly, a surprise reference to Prickly Pear came to me during a recent performance at the Paper Mill Playhouse. My Very Own British Invasion, a play based on the experiences of Peter Noone, Herman’s Hermits, and the lengths he went to for the girl he loved so much. In it Peter references having a garden someday with his love interest Pamela where they will grow Foxglove and Prickly Pear. This awesome experience was a gift from my friend and wingman, Tony Maiello, who seems to know “all things musically and historically.” It seemed no matter where I went this winter, Opuntia plant kept calling to me saying, “please write an article about me.”