There’s a house on my street whose front yard is a thicket of Opuntia cacti. The upright, round, deep green pads stack up, one above the next, forming an impenetrable living fence.
In late spring or summer, this beautiful stand of cactus (also known as a prickly pear) erupts in bright yellow, orange, or pink flowers. By late summer or fall, the flowers morph into rich, red cactus pears. That’s when cars appear and people wearing thick gloves fill boxes with the spine-covered fruits—with permission from the owners, of course.
Opuntia is a staple of Mexican cuisine, both the sweet, seedy fruits—tuna in Spanish—and the green pads, or nopales.
While my neighbor’s tunas ripen deep red, some cactus pears ripen bright gold. Tuna fruit is delicious eaten fresh or made into a syrup to use in sorbet, cocktails, baking, and other sweet treats.
Nopales, the cactus pads, can be harvested any time of year. Recipes often prefer smaller, younger pads for their tender texture. I’ve seen recommendations for harvesting pads in the morning, since cacti have a different way of photosynthesizing, and by afternoon the pads can taste bitter. That bitterness disappears overnight.
Wear gloves to harvest nopales, and begin by cutting the blades at the base. After burning or cutting off the spines, the pad is often grilled or boiled and diced before adding to omelets, casseroles, salsas, and other traditional Mexican dishes.
Growing Opuntia Cactus
Growing an Opuntia cactus is simple, especially if you know someone who already has a plant. With a very sharp knife, cut a pad off at a joint, which is basically located at the base of a pad. Look to make the cut where it connects to the next pad down.
Let the cut end dry for a few days, then place the cut end of the pad a few inches deep in a pot of coarse sand. The pad will root very quickly, in just a few weeks, at which point it will be ready to transplant to the sunniest, hottest area of the garden.
Alternatively, bury the cut end in a few inches of well-draining soil in a sunny, hot spot of the garden. Once you see new pads developing, that’s the sign that you’re about to have your own fresh supply of tuna and nopales.
Caring for an Opuntia Cactus
Opuntia is one tough plant! Once it roots in your garden, it requires almost no care at all.
Even in the hottest desert areas, it needs very little water after its first few months in the ground. I set a pad onto a sandy spot in my garden about eight years ago and never watered it. It is now a mass of pads over eight feet wide and six feet tall that blooms from late spring into early summer.
The only significant Opuntia pest is a scale insect commonly called cochineal. These bugs are the source of the valuable red cochineal dye traditionally used to color textiles, foods, cosmetics, and other materials.
It’s hard to miss a cochineal scale infestation; you’ll see white waxy bugs covering the pads. Smash some between your fingers and the rich, red dye will squish onto your skin. A very serious infestation can kill the plant, though I’ve seen massive stands of Opuntia covered in cochineal growing perfectly well.
That said, a sharp spray of water will knock the scale off the pads. If that doesn’t work, spray with an insecticidal soap early in the morning or late at night. Be sure to check all surfaces of the plants including the leaf joints. The soap only kills the cochineal it covers, so repeat the treatment until there is no visible evidence of the cochineal.
Fun fact: In Hebrew, Opuntia cactus fruits are called sabra, a term that is also a nickname for native Israelis because, like the fruits, they are tough on the outside but sweet on the inside.
Word of Warning
Be cautioned to always wear thick gloves and use tongs when handling Opuntia pads and fruits. Their surfaces are covered in fine, spiny glochids (sharp bristles) that you do not want to get in your skin.
If you are so unfortunate, use duct tape to cover the spines stuck in your skin. When you rip off the tape, the glochids will come with it—but you might need to repeat the process several times.