Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Gardening: Opuntia humifusa, the Prickly Pear Cactus

I have learned the difference between a cactus and a caucus. On a cactus, the pricks are on the outside. – Morris K. Udall 

Prickly Pear Cactus. Photo: vikisusan, Flickr ccl
Today my blog turns one year old. Since a blog can’t eat cake I thought I would give it some flowers – some exotic flowers, and a plant you might not expect to be able to be grown outdoors in Nova Scotia.

Photo: wackybadger, Flickr ccl
Two years ago we made a trip to The Village Nursery just outside Bridgewater. It’s a bit of a drive from Bridgewater on the coastal road to Liverpool. It’s well worth the trip though. They have some interesting stuff that others often don’t have. Their web site is here.

One of these was a winter hardy cactus. By winter hardy I mean that it is hardy to Zone 6. For parts of Nova Scotia that means “hardy with winter protection.” Luckily we are just on the edge, and since they were on sale three of them found their way into the car with us.

So what is this miraculous cactus? It’s prickly pear, the self same cactus whose fruit we purchase in the grocery store.

Opuntia humifusa, also known as Eastern Prickly Pear or Indian Fig, is a cactus found in most of eastern North America. Research stated that it grew as far north as Massachusetts but according to zones it is hardy to Zone 6. That means southern Ontario, parts of Québec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. And British Columbia of course.

The fruit. Spines grow from the beige spots. Photo: Wiki CC
The plant is composed of flat paddles that are covered with “spines”. I have the word in brackets because I discovered, much to my chagrin, that these spines are composed of very fine hair-like stickers that can go into your skin quite easily. And they’re quite irritating. New paddles grow out from the same spots as the spines on the edge, if conditions are right.

I’m looking forward to the flowers. They’re bright yellow and bloom from the edge of the paddles in late Spring. Sometimes they have red centres. The individual blooms can be 2” wide. Small, yes – but it’s a cactus blooming in your yard!

If you’re really lucky (or have a longer growing season), the blooms will ripen into prickly pear fruit, which are edible. They start off green but turn a dark purple-red, with deep magenta coloured flesh. They’re also full of very tough seeds. Watch your teeth.

Plant this cactus in well drained, humus rich soil in as sunny a location as you can find. Remember to cover with some sort of winter protection in our climate. If conditions are right you’ll be blessed with sunny yellow flowers year after year. We have yet to experience that joy, but plants do take a little while to settle into a new home.

And remember to watch out for those spines!

This is a plant located in Florida. It would take some doing to grow it
like this in Nova Scotia, but you never know... Photo: msscacti, Flickr ccl

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