Thursday, February 23, 2012

Return of the Cacti

(He is like a man which built an house and digged deep and laid the foundation on a rock and when the flood arose the stream beat vehemently upon that house and could not shake it for it was founded upon a rock. Luke ch 6 v 48)

Cactus has been planted and cultivated both as a house plant and a landscape specimen in every continent and every country all over the world. This popularity evidently arose from their unique qualities and to the fact perhaps that they are only found in the western hemisphere. Prickly Pears are the genus Opuntia which represent a very large genus of over 80 species which range from Argentina to the Artic circle.

Nearly 40 years ago my brother Steve Campbell, my cousin Dennis Bridges and friend Jeff Reavis brought sacks of cactus they had collected not in the wild west but in neighboring Alexander county. This was a strange sight to add into a nursery of Azaleas, Rhododendron, Hemlock and White Pine. They mainly served as curious rock garden additions that my brother used in many of his famous rock garden projects. I grew the offsprings of his cactus for years until my then two little girls started running around through the plants bumping in to them! At that point they along with some Yucca and awful barberry had to go. I rediscoverd the Prickly Pears this year noticing one in the Lone Hickory community my brother had planted years ago. You have to admit a mature Prickly Pear gives you an architecturally visual appearance that you cannot get with anythimg else. They do stand out.

North Carolina has two documented native species of Prickly Pear, Opuntia humifusa or compressa called eastern prickly pear and Opuntia pusilla which lives in a few locations in the coast. Both are small creeping types with yellow blooms sometimes with orange colored centers and small red fruit. The one we cultivated at the nursery and that my brother used in many of his landscaping jobs was neither. It has much larger stems or pads as they are known in Prickly Pear language and makes much more of a statement in the landscape. We are researching what this cactus is and if he really found a native population. The problem is the only species it resembles is not found until you get to Texas, Opuntia englemannii to be exact which is the state plant of Texas. I will post more on this as we research with our local extension services to see exactly where those plants came from.

Prickly Pears are sticky in every sense, each species have characteristics of blooms and spines and fruit. The fruit on most species is edible and quiet tasty, many candies, jellies and drink recipes are made from the fruit called Tunas. The stems or pads are cleaned and can be eaten raw in salads when new growth appears or later skinned and cooked or stir fried and are called Nopales. In a world trying to feed 7 billion people with limited fresh water this is a crop worth considering. I dont think drought tolerant and xeriscaping can apply to any member of the plant kingdom better than Cactus. They define the meaning of the terms, everything else can only hope to live up to them but cant as the southwestern United States has seen in the past couple years. Prickly pear are fire resistant as well!  Low nitrogen users they need full sun and excellent drainage. Oh and several species of Prickly Pear will tolerate temps to at least zero some species much much lower. Drainage to winter moisture is the key. They make good guard dogs as well. A well placed Prickly Pear will deter many things. So plant, enjoy and cherish this rough, and most resilant and beautiful plant.


  1. excellent article Kevin. loved the family history associated with the cactus. keep the info coming

  2. Enjoyed reading this! I look forward to hearing what your research reveals.

  3. Love the snow covered cacti. There is a native Opuntia on LI too..but I haven't the drainage to grow it..