Opuntia is a succulent plant; it is a genus of cactus that contains more than 360 species of plants. The most commonly known plant in the optunia genus is the nopal opuntia, or prickly pear cactus.
Opuntia for Any Garden
Opuntias are found growing outside in Mexico as well as in the warmer climates of the Southwest, Western and Eastern United States. Amazingly, opuntias are quite cold tolerant and have been found growing as far north as Canada.
The various species of Opuntia range in size from miniatures (2 inches) up to extra large (100 feet). Opuntia thrives in all soil types, from dry and sandy desert to rich and moist soil. Different varieties are tolerant of a variety of temperatures and moisture levels, but to get the best growth out of an opuntia, it should be in a sunny location with well-drained, sandy loam.
Opuntias are excellent garden plants. To start them from seeds, simply scatter the seeds into a shady garden bed and water to keep moist until they sprout. Shady locations are best for seedlings, but mature plants will need to be relocated to an area that gets full sun.
Plants started from seed grow slowly, and it may be 3-4 years before flowers and fruit set on the plants.
It can be faster to propagate opuntia from the pads. Simply remove a pad from a growing cactus and allow the pad to grow a callous over the cut, which takes a few days. After the callous forms, plant the pad in a shallow soil and sand mixture. Don't water the cutting until the roots sprout, which will take about a month.
After the roots have sprouted, you only need to water it when it's dry. Opuntias are drought tolerant once they're established.
If you want your opuntia to grow more pads than flowers and fruit, feed it a high-nitrogen fertilizer. If you want more flowers and fruit, use a fertilizer without nitrogen. Fertilizer should be applied during the growing period from spring until fall.
Opuntia Indoors and Out
A popular outdoor variety is Opuntia streptacantha. This variety is a large tree. Most commonly, it is a woody perennial, but the variety Tuna cardona is an evergreen. It thrives in an average garden soil and requires sunny conditions. Opuntia streptacantha under good growing conditions will live between 5 and 20 years.
Opuntia grows best in a semi-sheltered location, as it needs protection from the cold winter winds. Outdoor plants should be fertilized with nitrogen rich fertilizer.
Opuntia can also be grown inside in pots. The most common household opuntia is the Prickly Pear.
When you are growing opuntias indoors, choose a sunny location for the plant. This is especially important during the winter months. If the plant doesn't receive the proper amount of light, its growth may be stunted. Water indoor plants thoroughly during the active growing periods of spring and summer, but let the soil dry out between waterings. During winter, keep the plant dry; water just enough to prevent shriveling. Be very careful not to over water during the colder months, as this encourages root rot.
Potted opuntia needs to be grown in a cactus soil mix. These soils are generally lighter and dry out faster. Thicker soil that is slow to dry could lead to root rot.
Choose a pot that is just big enough to support the root system. Opuntia does not like to be disturbed and should only be repotted when absolutely necessary.
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