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A Piece of the Desert

By: Sandra Nelson

prickly pearI fell in love with prickly pear cactus six years ago on a trip to the desert Southwest —. not as a plant to grow, but as a food to eat!  It was delicious in salads  and made lemonade taste so much better. I ordered it at every restaurant we ate at. When we got home, I found some pads for sale  pear padsand immediately snatched them up with the intent of recreating those culinary delights I’d had. After a couple of days of intently studying the increasingly limp cactus pieces, I realized that I had absolutely no clue what to do with them, so they wound up in the composting bin and I moved on. 

A few months later, on my first trip of the spring season to Missouri Wildflowers Nursery outside of Jefferson City (an incredible place well worth a visit), I happened upon a huge prickly pear cactus growing in the ground next to a lone tree. It was obvious that the plant not only had been there for years, but also hadn’t been pampered at all. It looked as if it had been stuck in the ground and left to survive – or not – on its own. It had chosen to not just   survive, pr pear plantbut to thrive. Standing there staring at the cactus, I realized that prickly pear   was more than good food; it was also a strikingly beautiful plant that could give   unique structure and texture as well as a touch of the Southwest to my Midwestern   garden.

That day I brought home one small cactus and put it in a clay pot far away pear in potfrom where the little ones played. After admiring it from a distance all summer, I realized I couldn’t bring it in (grandkids in mind), so I just left it where it was.  I figured since it was above ground in a pot, it would die over the winter. Sure enough, as soon as the cold weather hit, it shriveled up and looked dead as a doornail. 

The next spring though, I was astonished when it sprung back to life, bigger and better than before. My first trip back to Missouri Wildflowers, I bought 3 more small cacti, brought them home, planted all four of them in the bottom half of an abandoned Weber kettle grill and put them in the very back of my succulent garden. (The black metal seemed to suit the harsh look of the leaves.) With no more care than a splash of water every few days, the cacti thrived, growing fuller each year. This year I was in for a real surprise!

desert in bloom

When in bloom, cacti in the desert Southwest put on an unforgettable show. They sport delicate blossoms of brilliant reds, yellows, pinks and oranges that are even more beautiful because they sit on top of a bed of menacing thorns. The first time I witnessed the desert in bloom, the sight took my breath away.   It never occurred to me that my cactus could bloom too. After all, mid-Missouri certainly isn’t the desert.  

Last week my gardener granddaughter was helping me do some weeding  (well, I weed, she chases bugs), when she wanted to know if she could pick the  “new flower in the big pot….the one in the rocks.” Thinking she wanted coreopsis, I picked up the scissors and followed her to my pot of cactus which was covered in buds and bright yellow blooms – just like I had seen in the desert years ago. 

prickly pear gardenIt really shouldn’t have surprised me to find my cacti in bloom here. Prickly pear cacti, Opuntia humifusa, are native to the eastern and central regions, even stretching into Montana, Colorado and New  Mexico. They can be grown in zones 4 - 11 as long as they have full sun and extremely well-drained soil. Although they will tolerate well-drained clay soil, dry, sandy or gravelly soils are much preferred. pear colony Prickly pear plants have fibrous, shallow roots. In the right conditions, plants will form colonies; new plants form as pads break off and take root. Individual plants within the colony may live 20 years or more. 

In warmer climates, prickly pear will remain green throughout the year. In colder climates, the cactus will deflate and shrivel as it sheds some water from its cells to help withstand colder temperatures. The remaining fluid contains an anti-freeze-like substance that protects the architecture of the cells.

Prickly pear cacti are extremely drought tolerant plants, needing to be watered only every two to four weeks. In a rainy period, they won’t need any additional water at all, since over-watering leads to root rot, which will kill the plants.

 Here in Missouri, our prickly pear cacti usually grow to a height of about 18 inches, but in other parts of the country,6 ft prickly they can stand well over 6 feet tall. Sometimes thought of as their leaves, the elongated green shapes of the prickly pear are pads, which are actually water storing stem segments. True green leaves may appear at the top of the pads, but they quickly dry and fall off. The pads have glochids, which hide barbed spines that are tough enough to pierce through skin and cause a painful allergic reaction. Depending on the specific variety, bright red, yellow or purple flowers appear in June and will often continue into July. Pulpy, red fruits ripen later in the summer through early fall. prickly fruit

 Many of the 150+ species of prickly pear are edible. The fruits, often called tuna fruit, have a taste similar to a sweet melon and can be eaten raw or used in jams, jellies and sauces. The prickly jampads, called nopal, are also edible, with a slightly lemony taste. They too can be eaten raw or cooked, but have a miry texture when cooked. They are best eaten when young. Peeling the nopales before eating can be tricky since the barbs are painful to the touch and the meat is exceptionally slippery.  The sap of the plant can be used as an ointment for burns and minor scratches. It’s also an effective, though sticky, mosquito repellant. 


prickly pearFor me, adding cactus has given a new dimension to my garden, a touch of the unexpected and a link to fond memories of exploring the desert southwest.  Perhaps it can add a new look and feel to a corner of yours