Opuntia ficus-indica

Accession Count: 10
Common Name: cactus pear, prickly pear, nopale
Family Name: Cactaceae
Botanical Name: Opuntia ficus-indica
Sub Species:

The species name Opuntia ficus-indica designates all domesticated Opuntia hybrids created by cultivation as food crops. O. ficus-indica are succulent, spiny cactus shrubs which become tree-like over time. They have a rapid growth rate, may become 10-15' high and as wide, and have a lifespan over 80 years. The flowers have many overlapping, yellow, orange or red petals that open into a large cup shape. A green stigma in the center is surrounded by many pollen-tipped stamens. The plant blooms spring or summer, depending on the cultivar, with each flower lasting only one day, a cluster of buds blooming over many days, and a group of plants blooming for several weeks. The fruit are oblong in shape, with ripe skin colors ranging from green, yellow-orange, red, to purple, and have tufts of glochids (tiny hair-like barbed spikes) scattered over their skin. They have edible, watery flesh, sometimes slightly sweet, of varied flavors, containing many edible seeds, both normal and smaller aborted ones, with the ratio of normal to aborted varying greatly among cultivars. 

The evergreen stems consist of succulent, flattened, oval or spatula-shaped cladodes, called pads, joined together. The stem is attached to a central woody trunk. Tiny cylindrical leaves appear with growing new pads, but are dropped within a week as the pads become succulent. The green, photosynthesizing pads take the place of leaves on this desert-adapted plant. Spines range from few to many depending on the cultivar. Typical of all cactus, bumps called areoles are scattered over its surface and are locations from which new flowers, pads, spines, glochids and roots grow. Some cultivars have few to no glochids. The roots are shallow, with a horizontal spread up to 8' from the stem in all directions. The total root mass accounts for only 7% of the weight of the plant. 

Compound: Opu fic
Geographic Origin: Mexico
Ecozone Origin: Nearctic
Biome Origin:
Natural History:
The center of genetic diversity for Opuntia hybrids occurs in central Mexico. Opuntias have adapted to many climates throughout the Americas and are now naturalized in hot, dry desert regions throughout much of the world. The flowers attract bees and other pollinating insects. The fruit attracts mammals and birds. The pads are eaten by a variety of mammals. 
Cultivation Notes:

Most Opuntia ficus-indica thrive in USDA hardiness zones 9-12. Typically these hybrids are hardy to 20°F, some to only 30°F, and a few to 10°F. They are drought tolerant once established. Locate this shade-intolerant plant in all day full sun in dry, well draining soil. This cactus is well adapted to a variety of climates but should receive some shelter from cold winter winds. Its survivability increases to 61% from 45% when pads are planted on a mound or ridge rather than flat ground, especially if the irrigation water contains any salinity. Planting above ground level, however, will increase root sprouting time by a week. Grown from sprouted pads, it will take 1-2 years in the ground before it begins to fruit, whereas from seed, fruiting begins after 3-4 years. This plant is tolerant of soil types as long as the soil is well drained. Newly planted Opuntia pads are sensitive to salt but become somewhat salt tolerant once established. 

For maximum flower and fruit production, use a 0-10-0 fertilizer without nitrogen in late winter, or organic fertilizer at the start of every month during spring, summer, and fall. To maximize pad growth, use composted manure in late winter, late spring, and late summer, which will also inhibit flowering and fruiting. A standard 10-10-10 fertilizer will improve newly planted Opuntia's response to water containing minor levels of salt. After becoming established water once or twice a month. Pads starting to shrivel indicate a need for water. Do not water unless the soil is completely dry. Root rot occurs in poorly draining soil.

This plant is self-fruitful and easily hybridizes with any neighboring Opuntia species. It takes 3-6 months for fruit to ripen, and ripeness can be identified by a slight loss of fruit firmness, which varies by cultivar. Remove fruit from the pads by twisting rather than pulling. The harvest time for fruit is primarily summer. Pads can be harvested up to six times a year, year-round, in warm climates. Remove pads at the joint between them. The best harvest time is mid-morning to mid-afternoon.

Ornamental pruning is not needed unless the plant is growing out of bounds. To propagate O. ficus-indica,  choose pads more than six months old, and cut at the junction between pads. Once the cut has formed a callous (10-14 days), the pad is placed edgewise into dry soil, no more than 1-2" deep, with its broad sides facing east and west. Anchor the pad in place with rocks. Do not water until roots have formed, to prevent rot. Once a significant number of roots have formed, in 2-3 months, the rocks can be removed, and the pad can be watered for the first time since it went into the ground. Only water when the soil is entirely dry. For seed propagation, only a small percentage of seed will breed true to the parent.

Opuntia cultivation began in Mexico at least 9000 years ago, resulting in hundreds of domesticated hybrids now designated as O. ficus-indica. These plants are used for food, animal fodder, food preservative, ornamental appearance, erosion control, fire barrier, and harvesting cochineal insects to produce red dye.
In Mexican Spanish, nopale means Opuntia cactus, nopales - young whole pads, nopalitos - diced pads, penca - mature pads used for propagation and cattle fodder, and tuna - Opuntia fruit.
The fruit, which is watery and slightly sweet, is peeled and eaten raw or cooked into jam. The juice can be made into jelly. The fruit from selected cultivars is a favorite snack in Mexico. Fruit with higher ratios of aborted seeds are more popular. Tender young pads are peeled to remove glochids, and sliced into strips, or diced, and eaten raw in salads. They also can be boiled, fried, pickled, or cooked in meat and vegetable stews. Once the glochids are peeled off, the pads are edible and have a string bean-like taste. 
Sap extracted from the pads or fruit peels can be made into a gel and used to store freshly peeled cactus pear fruit 12 to 15 days. The gel can also be used to treat wounds in the same way as Aloe vera gel. Because the gel is sticky, one traditional use has been to add it to whitewash and mortar which increases their durability.
Pads that are older than six months, on certain spineless hybrids, are used to feed cattle.
The extensive roots of this plant provide erosion control. Because it is a succulent with a high water content, it can be grown as a fire suppression barrier.
Cochineal scale insects form cottony white patches on Opuntia pads. The cactus has been used to raise and harvest those insects, which extrude a red liquid used in dyes, paints and food coloring.

Height: 11 - 15 feet
Width: 11 - 15 feet
Growth Rate: Fast Growing
Grow Season:
Flower Season:
Spread: Spreading
Allergen: Non-allergenic
Invasive: Invasive
Toxicity: Benign
Hardy: Hardy
Water Use: Low water Use


  1. SEINet Arizona - New Mexico Chapter 
  2. public.asu.edu 
  3. Nieddu, G., Chessa, I., Satta, D., De Pau, L. and Pala, M. (2002). DESCRIPTION OF SIX CACTUS PEAR (OPUNTIA FICUS-INDICA MILL.) FRUIT CULTIVARS FROM ITALY. Acta Hortic. 581, 125-129 DOI: 10.17660/ActaHortic.2002.581.10 
  4. Griffith MP. The origins of an important cactus crop, Opuntia ficus-indica (Cactaceae): new molecular evidence. Am J Bot. 2004 Nov;91(11):1915-21. doi: 10.3732/ajb.91.11.1915. PMID: 21652337.


Opuntia ficus-indica