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 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.
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.