A Gardening Journal

Thornless Prickly-Pear Cactus

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The cactus for cowards.  Look, Ma: No thorns!  Just these soft little spurs, which ripen and fall off with the slightest touch, to leave pads that are entirely smooth. 

 

This is the unique prick-free (no jokes, please) prickly pear, Opuntia cacanapa c.v. 'Ellisiana'.  I had hoped that the second word was pronounced "caw-caw-NAP-uh," which is much more fun than "caw-CAN-uh-puh."  But the pronunciational convention for longer Latin names is to accent the third-from-the-last syllable, so "caw-CAN-uh-puh" it is.  Anywhere you say it, though, it's a hoot.

 

Cacti in Rhode Island?  But of course: Some prickly pears are hardy to Quebec.  'Ellisiana', though, isn't yet confirmed hardy north of, say, Washington, DC, so will be a triumph to grow in-ground in New England.  I've kept mine in a pot for years, slowly building up my nerve to plant it in the garden. 

 

For the best possible chances of overwintering dicey plants in-ground, good drainage in the Winter has long been the mantra here at "Geek."  For no plants is this more important than cacti and succulents. 

 

Next Spring, I'll get some some three-foot sections of very large galvanized drainage conduit—the spiral-sided metal pipe that sluices drainage ditches under driveways.  If I sink the section vertically into the ground, say, 18 inches, then the top 18 inches will still be above-grade.  I'll have a weather-proof raised bed.  I'll fill the entire section with really sandy soil; I'll also drill some holes into the sides just above ground level. 

 

Water will drain out in a New York minute, and so, saying a prayer to the prickly-pear gods, I'll plant my 'Ellisiana' with all possible confidence that its chances of survival are the best.  "Best" doesn't mean good enough for actual survival, though.  This will be an experiment, and failure is always one outcome of any experiment.  Please show mercy, ye gods of the prickly pears.

 

The plant's charms include flowers.  As usual for cacti, which are often growing in sparsely-horticultured terrain, the flowers need to be large enough to attract a pollinator that might be many yards away.  Which makes cactic flowers particularly showy.

 

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'Ellisiana' flowers open pure yellow at dawn, and mature to soft apricot by dusk.   They're one-day wonders, closing by dark and, if pollinated, maturing to showy red fruits. 

 

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This Summer I'll water and fertilize my 'Ellisiana' generously, so it will be as pumped as can be when I plant it in the "conduit bed" next Spring.  Meanwhile, I'll practice crossing my fingers and toes; the plant will need all possible assistance to thrive in the garden year-round.

 

 

Here's how to grow this finger-friendly cactus:

 

Latin Name

Opuntia cacanapa 'Ellisiana'

Common Name

Thornless Prickly-Pear Cactus

Family

Cactaceae, the Cactus family.

What kind of plant is it?

Evergreen succent shrub.

Hardiness

Zones 7 - 10; possibly into Zone 6 with perfect Winter drainage.

Habit

Spreading, dense, and full to the ground.

Rate of Growth

Fast when in congenial surroundings.

Size in ten years

A clump three feet tall and six feet wide; much smaller in less than ideal conditions.

Texture

Dramatic, sculptural.

Grown for

the large, bluish prickly-pear pads, held vertically on spreading mostly horizontal stems, and looking, overall, as if a very large, round, blue-papered book had gotten wet and come apart at the spine.

 

the lack of either the long thorns or the shorter tufts of prickles that make other Opuntia so painful to unprotected skin.

 

showy flowers, favorites of hummingbirds, that open yellow and by dusk mature to apricot.

 

showy red fruit.

Flowering season

Summer.  When growing in a container, July.  When growing in-ground, August.

Culture

Full sun and lean fast-draining soil.  Fantastic Winter drainage is essential for survival at the colder end of hardiness.

How to handle it

Opuntia 'Ellisiana' has a singular lack of prickles, making this "prick-free" pear uniquely easy to handle, literally.  It's foolproof in a container as long as it gets plenty of sun and isn't overwatered during its Winter dormancy.  Without prickles, the containered plant is so much easier to move out into the garden for the Summer and back under cover for the Winter. 

 

In Zone 7 and up, prickly pears are easy as long as they get full sun and excellent Winter drainage.  At the cold end of the hardiness range, Winter drainage is more and more important for survival:  Plant only on a slope, and even there, in sandy, gravelly soil.  Use gravel for a mulch, too, so the ground-level stems don't become damp. 

 

You can encourage faster growth—but only after the plant itself has already become active for the warm months—by watering and fertilizing.  Don't water or fertilize if the plant isn't in active growth. 

Downsides

Prickly pears are native only to the New World, but are now distributed world-wide, sometimes to the great detriment of the local ecology.  Australia was, famously, over-run with them until introduction of a wasp from Spain that laid its eggs in the pads; the larvae devour the pads, and without the wasp's usual predators around to control their numbers, the prickly pears were eaten to death.  Hmm:  What those wasps are eating now?  Check first with your local authorities before planting prickly pears that could be hardy in your area and, hence, escape into the wild.

Variants

Like so many families of garden-worthy plants—orchids, roses, alpines, peonies, and more—the range of cacti and succulents far exceeds the capacity of even the largest garden or the most ambitious gardener.

 

Although the majority of cacti and succulents aren't hardy below Zone 7, and often require a challenging combination of low humidity and a specific cycle of limited seasonal precipitation for in-ground success outside their native dry-climate haunts, there are, nonetheless, dozens of possibilities for gardens everywhere.  Prickly Pears are particularly cosmopolitan, with some thriving in North Dakota and others in the Florida Keys.  All succulents thrive in containers, too. 

Availability

On-line.

Propagation

Pads root easily when broken off the mother plant (intentionally or by accident).  Let dry in the sun for a few days so the broken end calluses; then stick into sandy soil.  Pads also root on their sides, so don't let fallen pads hang around if you don't want a new plant there.

Native habitat

All prickly pears are native to the New World; 'Ellisiana' is a USA hybrid.

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