Opuntia fruit (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Of the dozen or so types of cacti in my garden, I have more opuntias than any other. Also known as paddle cactus or prickly pear, Opuntia species have stems shaped like ping-pong paddles. New pads grow from older ones after rains drench the roots and help fuel new growth. Typically these new pads, and flowers that turn into fruit, form along the edge of the pads and orient themselves for maximum sun exposure. For garden plants, I prefer spineless or near-spineless varieties, like Opuntia cacanapa ‘Ellisiana’, O. ‘Burbank’s Spineless’ and O. ficus-indica. These grow from 3 to 7 feet tall.

I also have dwarf varieties in my miniature landscape, which I designed to suggest a Latin American mountain town. Photos of it and the specimen below are in my book, Designing with Succulents, 2nd ed.

Flowers of opuntias are spectacular, and open in succession. So although the blooms last only a day or so, the show lasts a week or more.

As with all cactus, opuntia spines are modified leaves. There’s a good reason to grow prickly varieties—whether Opuntia species or others, they’re breathtakingly beautiful when late afternoon or early morning sun backlights translucent spines.

Certain varieties, such as O. Santa-rita, have purple pads. It’s been my observation that these tend to attain their best color in desert gardens; here in Southern CA, the pads stay green with a purple tinge.

I grow an intriguing variety that has beard-like white filaments, but I recently had to trash much of the plant because scale insects snuck under the threads and colonized the pads unnoticed. I did manage to keep a few unblemished ones, which I treated with Safer soap and replanted.

Opuntias are easy to start from pads; simply slice or break one off and stick it in the ground. Knock one off, and where it falls it’ll form roots.

The egg-shaped fruit of opuntias is edible and a colorful garden enhancement.

Opuntias are unique among cacti in that they have two types of spines—needles and glochids. The latter often is nearly invisible, barbed, and will go home with you if you touch it. Glochids create fuzzy polka-dots on the paddles of Opuntia microdaysis. Beautiful…but beware.

Because cactus pads are moisture-storage organs filled with a mucilaginous gel and protected by a tough, waxy skin, they’re slow to catch fire. Opuntias not only make great firebreak plants in wildfire-prone areas, they’re efficient at conserving water and need no irrigation other than rainfall.

Tender new opuntia pads (nopalitos) are sold in Mexican markets. They’re good in salads and can be cooked as a vegetable dish that tastes like green beans.

New growth on paddle cactus

New growth on paddle cactus (photo from a subscriber)

Above: A common form of paddle cactus, probably Opuntia ficus-indica. The little pads are new growth, fueled by greater hydraulic pressure inside the plant from the rain, and the time of year. They’ll grow as large as the main pad over time. You can keep the little pads if you like, or remove and root them, give them away, or discard them. They’re even edible (the plant is commonly sold as “turtle food.”) Eventually they may break off on their own, which is the main way the plant reproduces itself. Where they fall, they root.

Let me know what you think. I always enjoy hearing from you! ~ Debra 

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12 Comments

  1. john on December 30, 2019 at 6:59 am

    They will attract Havalinas.

    • Debra Lee Baldwin on December 30, 2019 at 9:25 am

      I hadn’t thought of that! Yes, big wild pigs of the desert Southwest might find these a delicacy.

  2. Beatrice L. Williams on April 21, 2020 at 4:39 pm

    I was given a 40 year old paddle cactus. It’s trying to die, I think. 2 of the paddles are down and the others are growing 12 inch long ribbon like appendages. Help! I would like to transplant it. How! Help! PLEASE…Any help would be appreciated. Thank you, Bea.

    • Debra Lee Baldwin on April 21, 2020 at 4:53 pm

      My goodness Bea, you must live where the plants are rarities…they grow almost like weeds here in the Southwest. Which is not to say I don’t feel your pain, but knowing where you live is important, because it speaks to growing conditions. From what you said, I suspect that the plant has keeled over from overwatering…not necessarily rot…possibly wet soil that can make a top-heavy, shallow-rooted plant topple. You also say that it’s growing ribbon-like appendages, which may mean it’s not getting enough light (the horticultural term for stretching like that is “etiolation.”) What to do? More sun! Drier, coarser soil! It’s a desert plant. I’d cut it apart at the joints and root them as cuttings.

  3. Dave C on November 7, 2020 at 7:07 am

    I have a paddle cactus I plated in April and now I am seeing white, brown and black spots on the cactus. Also the one paddle with black has started to fall or bend down. What is happening?

  4. Dave C on November 7, 2020 at 7:40 am

    I have a paddle cactus that I planted in April and now it is over 4 feet tall but it is turning white brown and black in certain spots why?

    • Debra Lee Baldwin on November 7, 2020 at 7:46 am

      Hi Dave — Hard to say. There are so many factors that might influence a plant’s health, including sun, time of year, region…but it doesn’t sound good. I’d trim back the affected areas, dispose of them, wash it with horticultural soap, and isolate the plant from all others.

  5. Gina on January 24, 2021 at 5:48 am

    Hello
    I replanted some cactus that were damaged in a storm and they seemed to be doing well . All of a sudden the one I replanted seen here is growing little babies ? Can you tell me what this is and what I should do
    Thank you 🙏

  6. Gina on January 24, 2021 at 5:49 am

    Can I upload a photo ?

    • Debra Lee Baldwin on January 24, 2021 at 8:11 am

      My newsletter subscribers are welcome to send me photos—just “reply” to a newsletter email.

  7. Sharon C on March 28, 2021 at 6:00 pm

    Hi Debra, I am counting close to 30 new buds starting on my paddle cactus. Would you recommend thinning out that number? When I first got the cactus 2 years old it had 3 paddles and now has 14. I am glad that it is so happy but not sure I want that much growth that fast.

    • Debra Lee Baldwin on March 28, 2021 at 6:22 pm

      Hi Sharon — I assume you mean baby paddles and not flower buds? Why not wait and see what happens? You can always snip them off. It’s unlikely they’ll hurt the plant, although especially if it’s a thin variety, their ever-increasing weight may make it topple over. That’s one way the plants reproduce. Wherever paddles land, they root. Even cacti with thick pads (an inch or so) can get top-heavy and break. I think it’s kinda interesting, the way broken pads still cling to the plant and turn up toward sun. But then my garden is probably more of a laboratory than yours, ha. Btw, such rapid growth happens only in spring, fueled by winter rains.

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