Thornless Prickly Pear-The Perfect Plant?

Thornless prickly pears and maximillian sunflowers at Wildseed Farms in Fredericksberg.

My botanical brother Morgan McBride swears that thornless prickly pear (Opuntia ficus-indica) is the perfect plant. You don’t have to water it, it flowers, you can eat the pads and the buds, and it’s evergreen. Plus, if a piece of it falls off onto the ground, it will grow you another plant. I am not sure if I agree with him completely, but you have to admit, he makes a good point.

While I am not as enamored with thornless prickly pear as Morgan is, I do really like the plant. One of my favorite plant combinations of all time was at the weekend place of Dr. Bill Welch. He paired the sculptural, medium green cactus with a dark burgundy castor bean that he got from my plant mentor, Cynthia Mueller. The dark burgundy was a perfect back drop and the combination was stunning. I also felt it was, for lack of a better word, appropriate. Texas is a big place. Some think of it as a southwestern state while others consider it definitely southern. The pairing of the quintessential southwestern plant (the cactus) with the very southern castor bean made me conclude that this was the perfect plant combination to express the dichotomy of Texas.

Thornless prickly pear fruits ready for harvest

Thornless prickly pear does appear in the wild. However, the plant that most of us grow is a hybrid developed by a California breeder named Luther Burbank. Mr. Burbank was busy developing plants around the turn of the century. His two biggest successes were the Russet potato and the thornless prickly pear. Mr. Burbank was a shameless promoter and rather sloppy plant breeder. Because of his poor record keeping, we have no idea what plants he actually used to create the plant we now call thornless prickly pear. Regardless, he was very proud of his creation and he sought to market it as dry land forage for cattle. While the cactus did not catch on as a forage crop (turns out it will grow all of its thorns back if it is subjected to extreme drought), no one can argue with its success as an ornamental.

The cactus blooms in the spring (and sometimes fall). The flowers are typically yellow but can be found in white and red. The fruits of the cactus are very sweet and some say they taste like a very sweet watermelon. Native Americans loved the fruits of this plant so much that they are often called Indian Fig.

Thornless prickly pear and fall asters

Like any cactus, the thornless variety is incredibly easy to grow. Just stick a pad (or nopal) half way in the ground. Water every once and a while and in no time flat you will have a very large mass of cactus. In fact, this stuff is so hardy that it is difficult to control if it is planted in a well drained site with plenty of water.

I don’t know if thornless prickly pear is the perfect plant or not. However, you have to admit, it does have a lot going for it. It is attractive, durable and makes quite a statement in the landscape. Very few plants evoke as strong a sense of place as do cactus. So, if you are looking for something that is guaranteed to grow, thornless prickly pear may be the plant for you.

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18 Responses to Thornless Prickly Pear-The Perfect Plant?

  1. Sally says:

    Love the cacti! Great post!

  2. whitney says:

    I still have a love hate relationship with this cacti, but you know me, anything in mass will look fabulous!!!!!

    • Jay White says:

      I agree Whitney. Almost anything in mass looks good. Keep reading! BTW, the flowers you did for that last wedding were FABULOUS!!!

  3. Kelly Harding says:

    I love them, I love the yellow flowers, I find them to be perfect plant! Love the article also!

  4. Linda says:

    Is it okay to eat the unopened buds of any prickly pear plant?

  5. Mr Bil Miller says:

    you must eat only the very ripe fruit, which is blood red, and you MOST DEFINATEY REMOVE THE SEEDS … I repeat do not eat the seeds ever !!!! I have eaten nopolitos, but i have never eaten prickly pear pads… I am not sure but i think there is a difference..?? as far as the fruit there is a bar / restuarant in San Antonio that serves prikly pear fruit margaritas. oh and by the way i am an old, old, old friend of Morgan McBride

    • Jay White says:

      Thanks for the tips. to my knowledge all nopalitos are made from prickly pear pads. If you have been a friend of Morgan’s for that long, you are a rarity. Most people can’t take him for that long! You I am kidding. Morgan is awesome. We have been friends since Jr. High and his wife and I have been friends since first grade!

      • bil miller says:

        thanks, i probably know you.but don’t realize it, Janice’sbrother Clif and i have been friends since teens and believe it ,,, i was janice’s sunday school teacher in chalk bluff. small world,
        BUY THE WAY YOU CAN GET PRICKLY PEAR JELLY IN FREDRICKSBURG ON THE MAIN DRAG.

        • Jay White says:

          There is no way we can be from Chalk Bluff and not know each other. My dad was Joe White and he used to drink coffee at Sauls. We lived on a gravel road that led to White Rock Creek off of the end of Audrey St. Audrey was the middle road of the five that were right by Mueggee’s Store.

    • Russ says:

      You say you have eaten nopalitos but have never eaten the prickly pear pads but nopalitos ARE prickly pear pads. The seedy fruits are “tunas”. Because of the numerous seeds, the tunas are generally just used for the juice.

  6. Tommie D says:

    I have a question . The pads on my prickly pear are turning yellow and mushy and then falling off. Is there anything I can do to correct this problem? I can’t find any help. Thanks

    • Jay White says:

      Did you get a freeze this year? Mushy pads are usually a sign that your pads were damaged by frost.

    • Russ says:

      Mushy pads sound to me like a result of too much water. They should be in VERY well draining soil or sand and they should rarely be watered or if you live in an area that it actually rains on a regular basis, you should probably never water them artificially. In my area, rainfall is very scarce and the prickly pears normally never suffer.

  7. Russ says:

    I’m surprised no one mentioned that even though there are no thorns, the glochids remain. I’ve always found those the worst part of prickly pear. At least you can see the thorns, but if you get grab a pad without gloves, you’ve got problems. And even worse, if you ate a pad without burning the glochids off, imagine them stuck in your throat. When burning the glochids off, you have to be very thorough and careful not to miss even one bunch of the numerous bunches that are on each pad.
    As far as edibility with any prickly pear, thornless or otherwise, the best pads are the new tender pads that appear in spring before any thorns or glochids are formed. They can be cut in strips and stir fried and eaten similarly to green beans. They get a bit slimy, but are very edible and the perfect survival food. The nopalitos I see in grocery stores usually appear to be older pads, but if you grow your own, you’ll have a choice of the tender new pads in season or the older pads at other times of the year.
    Here in central Texas, we just had the coldest winter I can remember. The native, thorny prickly pears were mostly destroyed by temps that dipped as low as 12 degrees but of course, will recover from the ground roots. The thornless prickly pears were much less freeze damaged and some not damaged at all. I really don’t know if the thornless ones that are common around here are from Burbank or not but they are all introduced, not native and I don’t recall them making fruit (tunas).

  8. Russ says:

    Not really a cactus lover, I’ve just been around them all my life. We kinda have a love-hate relationship with them around here, mostly hate but the thornless ones do make a nice addition to a desert landscape or the thorny ones make a good peeping tom deterrant in front of a window. I’d rather get stuck by a cactus thorn anytime than get even one of those tiny, almost invisible hairs in my hand.

    • Jay White says:

      Well thanks for the comments. I am afraid that water is going to become more expensive and harder to find in the next few years. There is a lot of interest in growing cactus and succulents. Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

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