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The Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia) is a fun-looking plant from the Cactaceae family, which contains a wide range of different cacti. They can be recognized by their wide, branching pads that form in flat roundish segments and they also produce eye-catching red flowers.
These plants are widely found across the southwestern US in desert regions.
The name ‘Opuntia’ derives from ancient Greek, denoting a cactus-like plant that grew in and around the city of Opus. British botanist Philip Miller was the first to describe Opuntia back in the 1700s!
As a desert cactus, Prickly Pears like to get plenty of full, direct sunshine if possible. Ideally, they should get a minimum of 6 hours per day. Placing them on or near a sunny windowsill should help them to thrive, although you can also supplement them with grow lights if necessary.
Make sure to always use gloves while handling this plant since the spines can be tricky to get rid of. If needed, use tweezers and take your time removing them.
These plants are adapted to dry, arid conditions, and as such they won’t like high humidity or excessive watering. In fact, very little water is actually needed in order to keep your Prickly Pear happy. Only water again once the soil is completely dry – be sure to check it before watering, as too much water can easily kill your cactus. For this reason, it’s also important that you plant yours in a well-draining soil mix: a cactus-specific mix is best.
Finally, try to keep your Prickly Pear warm. In their native environment, they’re accustomed to extreme heat. It’s not necessary to replicate excessively hot conditions, but you should try to protect your cactus from frost as this can damage it.
Prickly Pears are prized for their edibility and have been used as a part of Mexican cuisine for many years. They’re also used to create beverages such as juice and cocktails, as a snack food, as an ingredient in various dishes (such as tacos and soups) and to make candy and preserves.
It’s also thought to have multiple nutritional and health benefits, plus it has historically been used for medicinal purposes too.
They’re a good source of antioxidants and dietary fiber, as well as containing various vitamins and minerals such as calcium, potassium and vitamin C.
Note that, although it is safe to eat parts of the Prickly Pear plant when it is prepared correctly, we wouldn’t recommend you try eating yours! Better to keep it as a beautiful houseplant, and if you want to try eating Prickly Pear then buy it from a market instead :)