Ultimate Prickly Pear Cactus Guide

26 Mar 2022

The prickly pear cactus is a fantastic houseplant! It’s one of the most common types of cacti that is found in homes across the globe. If you’re interested in caring for your very own prickly pear cactus and watching it thrive in your home then you’ve come to the right place.

In this complete care guide, we’ll be exploring everything that you will need to know to grow a healthy and prosperous prickly pear cactus. We’ll also delve into how you can revive your houseplant should any issues crop up.

Main Features

The prickly pear cactus is scientifically known as the Opuntia genus and it belongs to one of the largest cacti families; the Cactaceae family. Just like the hens and chicks houseplant, the Opuntia is a succulent too.

It is one of the most widespread cactus genera which means that the precise care required from species to species may differ.

It may seem daunting to grow your very own prickly pear cactus, however, once you have nailed down its basic care needs and created the ideal conditions then it can actually withstand some neglect.

This genus of cactus is native to the warm and dry desert regions in South and North America. So, if you want your plant to bloom or produce fruits then you’ll need to replicate its natural environment.

Top tip: Many Opuntia species produce fruits, however, this will require the perfect environmental conditions. So read on to find out how you can create this.

Types of Prickly Pear Cactus

There are hundreds of Opuntia species and each has a slightly different appearance. A few varieties will grow large, round spines while others sprout tiny, hair-like barbs which are detached upon contact.

We’ve touched on the top five most popular varieties below:

  • Opuntia microdasys: It’s also known as the ‘bunny ears cactus’ and ‘angel’s wings cactus’. This variety originates in Mexico and it produces thick, green pads that are covered in fuzzy bristles that look like rabbit fur. The way that its pads grow in pairs also resembles that of bunny ears hence its nickname.
  • Opuntia humifusa: The ‘eastern prickly pear’ or ‘devil’s-tongue’ cactus forms clumps of green pads with reddish centers that are covered in miniature thorns.
  • Opuntia ficus-indica: This type is also called the ‘Indian fig’ and ‘sweet prickly pear’. It is a slightly larger cactus shrub that grows green pads atop thick, woody stems. It also blooms a bright yellow flower too.
  • Opuntia macrocentra: This variation grows purplish, round, and fleshy pads that emerge from long-spined stems.
  • Opuntia phaecantha: It is also well known as the ‘desert prickly pear’, and it sprouts green, oval-shaped pads that grow on top of short stems. Additionally, it produces red and yellow flowers too.

Fun fact: There are a whopping 200 species of Opuntia.

How Big Does It Get?

The typical Opuntia will grow to be 6 inches to 8 feet (15.2cm – 2.4m) tall, however, the spread of each cactus is entirely dependent on the species.

How Fast Does It Grow?

This cactus’ growth rate is fairly slow and it’ll only produce 2 to 4 inches (5 – 10cm) of new growth a year. It is estimated that the typical prickly pear cactus will grow 4 to 5 new pads a year and it can take up to 10 years or more to reach its mature size.

How Long Does It Live?

The lifespan differs greatly amongst the different species and it is also dependent on the care it receives. The average prickly pear cactus will survive for 20 to 80 years.

Is It Poisonous to Cats, Dogs, and Humans?

The Opuntia genus is non-toxic to both people and pets. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t handle the plant with care as its prickly bristles can cause skin irritation and some pain.

Prickly Pear Cactus Care

In this section, we’re going to delve into how you can care for your cactus so that it prospers for years to come.

How Often to Water It

This houseplant thrives in dry conditions as it’s native to the desert. As the cactus is a succulent it doesn’t require a lot of water. This is because it stores plenty of water in its leaves. So you will only need to water it lightly throughout the year.

Typically, it should be watered once every 2 to 3 weeks during the spring and summertime, just like the Monstera genus.

The plant should only be watered once the soil is completely dry and during the wintertime, it requires even less water. Usually, it only needs to be watered once a month during autumn and winter.


This genus prospers in dry conditions which means drainage is vital. You will have to plant it in a pot with 3 to 5 drainage holes, and the soil has to be fast-draining too.

The houseplant cannot tolerate soggy conditions as this will cause its roots to rot. To prevent this from occurring, you can add some perlite or gravel into the potting mixture.

Top tip: Once the water drains out of the pot, you must remember to empty the tray or saucer underneath the container.

When and How to Prune It

Heavy pruning isn’t necessary when it comes to this houseplant. You should only remove individual pads if they’re dead or if you’re trying to maintain your plant’s size and shape.

The best time to trim your houseplant is during the spring or summertime. Furthermore, always sterilize your pruners before you cut off the leaves.

Check out the steps below:

  1. Get out your pair of tongs and hold the pad in place.
  2. Use a sharp pair of pruners or shears and cut the pad off at the joint. This is where it connects to the next pad.
  3. You can even save a healthy pad to propagate in soil or water later on.


You will need to transplant the prickly pear cactus every 3 to 4 years and this should be done during the springtime. It’s necessary to repot it if the plant has become rootbound or when the soil is too compact.

When choosing a new container, it’s best to increase the size by 1 to 2 inches (2.5 – 5cm). When the pot is too deep or too wide then the plant may become waterlogged.

Find out how to transplant it below:

  1. Remove the plant out of its container and brush away the excess soil surrounding the rootball.
  2. Take out a new pot and fill it with a succulent potting mix.
  3. Now, you’ll need to plant the cactus at the same depth that it was in its previous pot.
  4. You can water it three days after it has been repotted.

Environmental Conditions

Sunlight Requirements

If you want the Opuntia to have lush and colorful foliage then it has to soak under bright sunlight. It prefers to be placed under full sunshine for at least 4 to 6 hours a day during the spring and summertime.

It is also more likely to bloom if it is placed in a warm and sunny location, so it’s best to place it by a bright windowsill.

Best Soil

Just like the Schefflera, it thrives in a sandy potting mixture. The soil has to be loamy and quick-draining too. It’s vital that the soil isn’t moisture-retentive, so you’ll need to pick a potting mixture that is airy and lightweight.

You can choose to use a cactus or succulent potting mixture. Additionally, it’s a good idea to throw in some coconut coir and perlite too.

Fertilizer Schedule

The houseplant doesn’t need to be fed unless you’ve noticed that its growth is stunted. Additionally, it should be fed when the pads color becomes dull.

If you feed it then it’s best to make use of a well-balanced fertilizer that is low in nitrogen. The fertilizer must also be diluted to one-quarter of its strength so that you don’t over-feed it. Typically, it shouldn’t be fed more than once a month during its active growing seasons.

You can make use of one of the following fertilizer ratios:

  • 10-10-10
  • 0-10-10
  • 5-10-10

Pot Size and Type

A terracotta or clay container is the ideal pot. It allows air and water to move through the walls of the pot easily which means that the roots will receive enough oxygen. Additionally, it also dries out the soil quickly as it absorbs the excess water.

The plant’s roots aren’t too long, so there’s no need for a very wide pot. It should be about 1 inch (2.5cm) wider than the rootball.

Temperature Tolerance

The houseplant will thrive in warm temperatures as it is native to desert regions. The optimal daytime temperature is around 75.2°F (24°C). The plant thrives at a temperature of 64.4°F (18°C) during the nighttime.

Humidity Level

The cactus is native to dry regions therefore it doesn’t do well in a humid environment. The optimal humidity level ranges between 40 to 50 percent.

The average household humidity level will do just fine too. This means that you don’t need to mist its leaves or try to increase the humidity levels surrounding the plant.

Outdoors vs. Indoors

The prickly pear cactus can be grown in your garden and in a pot kept indoors. The plant may require slightly different care if it is left outdoors as it’s not frost tolerant. It can be grown outdoors year-round in USDA hardiness zones 4 to 11.

It will thrive outdoors in rocky and dry regions, however, the plant will need to be relocated indoors during autumn and winter. If temperatures drop below 50°F (10°C) then it’s vital that you immediately bring the plant back into your warm home.

Additionally, it will still need to be positioned in a warm area under direct sunshine, and it must be watered sparingly throughout the year.


The Opuntia species blooms vibrant yellow, red, orange, and pink flowers. They typically reach between 2 to 3 inches (5 – 7.6cm) wide and draw in everyone’s attention. The cactus can also produce fruits too.

When and How Often Does It Bloom?

Just like the nerve plant, the prickly pear cactus will bloom during the summertime. Once the plant is mature and grown in ideal conditions then it should bloom once a year.

How Long Do the Blooms Last?

An individual flower will last for about 2 to 3 days, however, once it dies it will be replaced with new blooms. The houseplant will continue to bloom for 2 to 3 weeks.

How to Make It Bloom

The best way to encourage your cactus to flower is by creating the perfect environment for it. You will need to make sure that it receives plenty of sunshine and is grown in sandy soil too. The plant won’t require much feeding or watering.

Additionally, it should receive about 12 hours of darkness at night during the springtime. Another factor that comes into play is patience because it will only bloom once it’s mature.

How to Grow It

The Opuntia can be grown by either propagating it or planting its seeds. All of the options are simple and successful too. Check out the steps required to either propagate it or grow a new plant from seed.

How to Propagate It

You can propagate this cactus in both soil and water. Each method is straightforward and we’ll explain exactly what you need to do below.

Propagation in Soil

The prickly pear cactus can be propagated in soil by either using a cutting (pad) or dividing its rootball. The most important thing to remember is that the soil you use has to be well-draining and suitable for succulents.

How to Plant the Pads

A healthy-looking pad can be planted in a container of soil and after some time it’ll eventually form a completely new mature houseplant.

Follow the steps listed below:

  1. Slice a pad away from the mother plant and place it in a warm, dark room for three days. This is important so that the cut end can dry out slightly which will prevent the roots from becoming rot.
  2. Prepare a new container with dry soil and plant the cutting in the center of the pot.
  3. Deeply water the cutting once and then mist it lightly every couple of days later.
  4. The cutting will root in 2 to 4 weeks, and you can test this out by lightly tugging on it. If you feel some resistance then your cutting has successfully rooted itself.
  5. Once it has grown new roots, you can treat it as you did its mother plant.
Propagation by Division

You can separate the rootball and plant each division. These will then grow and form completely new cacti. It’s also a great alternative to repotting a larger cactus as you can multiply your collection with smaller houseplants.

We’ve provided a step-by-step guide below:

  1. Loosen the soil by knocking on the sides of the container, and then you can easily lift the cactus out of its pot.
  2. Dust the soil away from the rootball and check that the roots are still healthy. If there are one or two unhealthy roots then simply cut these off.
  3. Use a sterilized knife and slice the rootball in half. It’s important that each division has healthy roots, stems, and leaves attached to it.
  4. Fill some new containers with a succulent potting mixture.
  5. Plant these divisions in their own pots and water them deeply.
  6. In approximately two weeks, the divisions will produce new growth and you can care for them normally.

Propagating in Water

You can propagate a single leaf cutting or pad in a glass of distilled water before planting it in a dry potting mixture. This is a super simple method, however, you should replace the water once a week before it becomes murky.

Follow the guide below:

  1. Snip off a pad near the base of the mother plant and place it in a warm room for three days. This will allow the cut area to callus over which will prevent it from developing root rot.
  2. Fill a small glass jar with room temperature water and place the cutting inside so that the cut area is submerged.
  3. Place it under bright sunlight and make sure that it’s located in a warm area too.
  4. Now you will need to keep an eye out for any new root growth which should emerge after approximately 2 to 4 weeks.
  5. Once new growth occurs, you can plant it in fresh potting soil.

How to Plant the Seeds

Growing an entirely new cactus from seed isn’t too difficult either. Before you begin planting the seeds, you’ll need to collect them first. Once you’ve gathered the seeds you can plant them in some soil and watch for new growth to emerge.

Here’s a complete list of steps:

  1. Slice open a ripened fruit and pluck out the seeds. Rinse any pulp away from the seeds and allow them to dry out completely.
  2. Fill a few small pots or a seed tray with a well-draining succulent potting mixture.
  3. Lightly rub the seeds on some sandpaper. This will speed up germination and enhance your chances of success.
  4. Plant each seed in its own container or 1 inch (2.5cm) apart in a tray.
  5. Lightly press the seeds into the soil and cover them with a thin layer of soil.
  6. Now you can mist the seeds and cover the pots or tray with plastic wrap.
  7. Position the seeds in a sunny area and keep the soil moist until new growth sprouts.
  8. In about four weeks you should see tiny seedlings emerge from the soil and then you can remove the plastic bag.
  9. Finally, you can care for them as you would treat a mature plant and repot them when necessary.

How to Revive a Dying Plant

If your cactus isn’t grown in the right environment or if it receives improper care then it may become diseased. We’ll fill you in on what you should keep your eye out for and we’ll explain how you can revive your houseplant.

Yellow Foliage

The pads will lose their lush green appearance and turn into a yellow color when it is watered improperly.

If your plant is either over- or underwatered, then you will need to adjust your watering schedule accordingly. If the soil is completely dry then give your plant a good drink, however, if it is too moist then refrain from watering it until the potting mix has dried out slightly.

Root Rot

Root rot is a fungal disease that is caused by excessively overwatering the plant. There are a few signs that indicate that your plant is suffering from root rot such as limp stems. mushy pads, and squishy roots.

First, you must remove the plant from its current container and then cut off the unhealthy tissue. Next, it must be repotted in fresh, dry, and well-draining soil.

Shriveled Pads

Underwatering the plant will cause its pads to become shriveled and dry. The most effective way to remedy this issue is by deeply watering it for 2 to 3 days. Then you can resume your regular watering regime.

Brown and White Patches on the Foliage

The foliage may develop brown or white marks when it receives too much direct sunlight. You will need to find a new home for your plant where it receives partial shade at some point in the day. This is especially important during the summertime.

Final Remarks

The prickly pear cactus is a popular houseplant and there are plenty of great reasons for this. It makes for the ideal, colorful ornamental. We can’t forget to mention that it’s also fairly easy to care for too.

Once you have created the optimal environment and care for it well then you’ll watch it live in your home for decades to come.

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