Consider the much-maligned prickly pear

By   Alice Liles

Alice’s note: This story first appeared in my blog, Cactus are Cool, an extension of my other blog The Bright Lights of Muleshoe, on June 17, 2016. I have edited this story for length because the original had many more pictures. But you can still see those images if you go to the website listed at the end of the story. And give the devil its due; prickly pear really does produce some beautiful flowers. Just don’t try to pick them!

To many people, if you say cactus, they immediately frown, wince, envision prickly pear, and want no part of any cactus. Which is a shame, because the opuntia family gives us beautiful flowers, and with conscientious pruning can be kept from taking over your garden like you see in pastures in the Hill Country and South Texas.
Prickly pear is in the opuntia family and is probably the best known, most easily recognized, and most widespread variety of cacti. I have about nine different varieties, most of which are finishing their blooming season now.
In the original blog story you will find several images of yellow prickly pear blooms, all shades of yellow with varying centers.
I chose not to use all those pictures in this article because the newspaper can’t run them all, and even if they did, all the images wouldn’t all be in color, and without the color you can’t tell the difference in the shades of yellow, so there you go! If you wish to see the real beauty of the blooms, please go to the Cactus are Cool blog on my website, type in the title of the article, and enjoy.
People tend to miss the beauty of the flowers because they are turned off by the spines.
Understandable. Hence the reason for this article and all the pictures.
The bad news is prickly pear have pesky spines; the good news is they have lovely flowers.
After the flower fades, what is left is the fruit underneath, called a tuna, which is eaten in many countries, including ours,
being made into jellies and juices. The tunas turn purple and make their own beauty statement in the early fall. But that’s another story.
Opuntias, like all true cacti, are native only to the Americas but you will see them all over the world now.
(Remember-all cactus are succulents, but not all succulents are cactus, and some form of succulents can be found just about everywhere.) Prickly pear is one of the most cold-hardy of the low-land cactus. They are also known for their two different kinds of spines, the larger smooth ones that are fixed on the plant, and the smaller hair-like ones called glochids that easily detach and are the devil to extricate from your skin, the very thing that gives the plant a bad name! In South Texas, ranchers will use a tool called a pear burner that shoots a butane flame and singes the spines and glochids on the prickly pear pads so the cattle can eat it. Humans also eat the pads, which can be found in larger grocery store produce departments.
I routinely prune and shape my clumps of pear to keep them from getting out of hand, which also keeps them contained in a shape that makes it easier to keep them weeded. Nothing worse than an overlooked elm tree coming up in the middle of a huge patch of prickly pear. I use tree loppers with long handles and sharp blades to do that, cutting at the base of the pad where it is connected to the pad beneath it. I then use the loppers sort of like tongs to pick up the cut pieces to dispose of them. Thick sections of newspaper can also be used to pick up and carry the pads, but be aware that some of the spines will still poke through. And gloves-I don’t care what the label on the gloves promises-the spines will go through them no matter what the gloves are made of. Just be prepared and have your tweezers handy for removal of the spines.
I have not read this anywhere or been told this, but it has been my experience that the blooms are like azaleas; the flowers will be on the new growth, so trim your plant after it blooms so new pads have time to grow for next year’s flowers.
If you have shied away from prickly pear in the past, you might want to reconsider and add at least one to your collection. You won’t be disappointed.

To see all the pictures of the flowers, go to www.aliceliles.com and type the title of the article in the Search line.

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