How to Plant and Grow Prickly Pear Cactus

A beauty and a beast, the prickly pear is beloved for its blossoms and feared for its vicious spines.

A beauty and a beast, the prickly pear is beloved for its blossoms and feared for its vicious spines. Some varieties produce yellow, red, and orange cup-shape flowers that last just one day, while others retain their large clump of blooms for several weeks, providing delicate beauty among the thorns. The fleshy green pads are covered in long spines (sometimes as long as 3 inches) as well as clusters of small, barbed hairs known as glochids, but don't let the spines deter you from planting prickly pear. It is also a good plant for erosion control and is deer-resistant thanks to its natural defense system.  

Prickly Pear Cactus Overview

Genus Name Opuntia
Common Name Prickly Pear Cactus
Plant Type Perennial
Light Sun
Height 1 to 15 feet
Width 1 to 15 feet
Flower Color Pink, Yellow
Season Features Summer Bloom, Winter Interest
Special Features Attracts Birds
Zones 10, 11, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9
Propagation Leaf Cuttings, Seed
Problem Solvers Deer Resistant, Drought Tolerant, Slope/Erosion Control

Where to Plant Prickly Pear Cactus

In places where rain is rare, prickly pear cactus is an exceptional plant, perfect for xeriscaping among other low-maintenance, water-thrifty plants. Native to Mexico and the U.S. Southwest, it’s an excellent choice for foundation plantings, landscape beds, property borders, and curbside plantings. It is also—surprisingly enough—hardy to zone 4, so you can grow it almost anywhere you can find full sunlight and well-drained, gravelly soil. 

If you are concerned about the unwelcoming spines of the prickly pear cactus, position it near the middle or back of a garden where it won't be disturbed. Or plant it along a property line where it will act as a living fence, preventing passersby from entering. Some varieties grow only 6 to 12 inches tall and 12 to 18 inches wide while others can climb to a towering 15 feet in height. So, be sure to meet your prickly pear cactus plant’s requirements and provide enough space for the cactus to grow and thrive.

It's also worth noting that prickly pear cacti can self-spread via detached pads that are dislodged and transplanted by rain, wind, or passing wildlife. This growth habit is what causes the plant to be considered invasive in some regions.

Although the prickly pear cactus is not listed on any state noxious weed list, according to the USDA, it is listed in the Federal noxious weed list and may require management in woodlands and rangelands of the southwestern United States and the grasslands in northeastern New Mexico, western Oklahoma, and the Texas panhandle.

How and When to Plant Prickly Pear Cactus

It’s best to plant prickly pear cacti in the spring or early summer when temperatures are on the rise and moisture levels drop. If you are planting a nursery-grown or established plant, wait until the soil temperatures are 60 degrees Fahrenheit and dig a hole as deep and twice as wide as the pot. Place your cactus in the hole so that it sits at the same height it sat in the pot. Backfill with soil and water lightly to settle soil around the roots. Check your variety for optimal spacing, but most types should be planted two or three feet apart.

If you want to grow prickly pear cactus from seed, you can, but you will need a lot of patience. The seeds will need to be cold-stratified indoors for 4 or 5 weeks before they can be planted. After that, they will need time to germinate and grow into viable seedlings before they can be planted outdoors.

Prickly Pear Cactus Care

Prickly pear is an easy-to-care-for plant that grows best in full sun and well-drained soil. Both drought- and heat-tolerant, this long-lived succulent plant tolerates sandy, rocky soil, and seaside planting places.


The prickly pear cactus thrives in full sun and will likely enjoy your yard's driest, sunniest spots. Indoor-grown prickly pear cacti will do best in a sunny south or west-facing window where they can get several hours of bright, direct sunlight and consistently warm temperatures.

Soil and Water

Prickly pear cacti enjoy neutral to slightly acidic well-draining soil that is somewhat sandy or gravelly (whether planted outside or in a container), but they can grow in other types of soil if there is ample drainage. That said, clay or slow-draining soil can be problematic in cool regions where prickly pear will sit in moist soil during winter.

Prickly pear cacti need very little water (which makes them excellent for xeriscaping). In fact, in many areas, they can survive on rainwater alone. Water them only when the soil is completely dry and, when you do, be careful to just moisten and not saturate the soil.

Temperature and Humidity

Since prickly pear cacti are used to thriving in the desert, they do best in hot climates with low levels of humidity. The fleshy pads of the cactus may shrivel or droop in the winter but don’t fret. Cacti go through cellular changes to protect themselves from frigid temperatures and the pads should plump up again as the temperature rises.

Indoor temperatures are often well-suited for container-grown prickly pear cacti if they get plenty of sunlight and are protected from drafts and temperature fluctuations.


Fertilizer is not required, but you can fertilize young prickly pear cacti with a balanced 10-10-10 fertilizer. Older, more established plants can do with a 0-10-10 fertilizer if you want to encourage flowers and fruit. To improve pad production, opt for a high-nitrogen fertilizer and follow product manufacturer's directions.


You do not need to prune prickly pear cacti, but if you want to tame them, you can cut them back by removing some of the fleshy paddles. Using heavy-duty gloves and tongs, grab the pad you want to remove and slice it (carefully) with a sharp knife or machete at the base where it meets the next pad or trunk.

Older pads will be more difficult to remove as they tend to become woody over time and will eventually fuse with the trunk of the cactus. If this happens, you may need more powerful pruning tools (or some expert hands) to accomplish the job.

Potting and Repotting Prickly Pear Cactus

Prickly Pear Cacti are popular container plants. To grow one in a pot, choose a container with good drainage, add a layer of gravel to the bottom of the pot, and fill it with succulent potting soil. Choose an area with bright, direct light, and consistently warm temperatures—preferably a south or west-facing window. Water the plant with lukewarm or room temperature water to avoid shocking the plant and only water when the top inch of the soil is dry. Be sure to discard any excess water that drains from the plant.

If the cactus becomes rootbound, you can repot it in late spring or early summer. Just let the soil dry out, put on some work gloves, and wiggle the plant out of its old container. Knock some of the old soil away from the base of the plant and place it in a larger container while filling the pot with fresh succulent potting mix. Do not tamp the soil down and do not water it right away. Allow the roots to reestablish themselves for about a week in the new pot before giving it a drink.  

Pests and Problems

Prickly pear cacti are most prone to root and stem rot from overwatering or excess humidity, but they can also suffer from issues with scale and mealybugs. Also, despite being sun-loving plants, prickly pear cacti can develop sunburn in the harshest landscapes. If this happens, the plant or its
fruits may turn yellow and develop scars.

Prickly pear cacti, like all other species in the Opuntia genus, can get dark scabs on their pads from the spores of the phyllosticta fungus. If this happens, it can’t be treated, so remove any infected pads immediately to avoid affecting the rest of the cactus or nearby plants.

How to Propagate Prickly Pear Cactus

You can successfully propagate prickly pear cactus through cuttings or by growing from seed. Here's how to do it.

How to Propagate Prickly Pear Cactus from Cuttings

Prickly pear cacti can self-spread via detached pads, which makes them a great candidate for propagating via cuttings. To propagate your own plants via cuttings, harvest pads in summer evenings when temperatures are still 60 degrees Fahrenheit or warmer.  Sever a few pads (preferably at least 6 months old) and let the wounds callus over for approximately a week.

Place the cut end of the pad about one-third of the way into a pot filled with a dry succulent or cactus potting mix and water thm thoroughly. Place the pot in a warm spot with indirect sunlight and allow the cutting to take root before watering again.

How to Propagate Prickly Pear Cactus from Seed

Propagating through seed is a bit fussier and more difficult, but it can be done. To do so, harvest the fruit of a parent plant and allow it to dry out for several days before cutting it open to extract the pale seeds. Rinse the seeds, remove as much pulp as possible, and let the seeds dry for 2 to 3 weeks.

Next, you will want to rough up the exterior of the seeds with sandpaper and then put them through cold stratification by exposing the seeds to cold temperatures to encourage them into dormancy.

After 4 to 5 weeks of cold stratification, bring the seeds back to room temperature and then plant them shallowly in a tray of moist succulent potting mix. Keep the soil moist and warm for several days to allow the seeds to germinate and then put them under bright, warm light until they grow into seedlings.

Types of Prickly Pear Cactus

Prickly Pear

Prickly pear cactus flower
Marty Baldwin

Opuntia compressa, also called O. humifisa, is a North American species that offers golden-yellow flowers in summer. The red fruits are edible. It grows 12 inches tall and 18 inches wide. Zones 4-9

'Pink' Prickly Pear

Pink prickly pear
Marty Baldwin

This selection of Opuntia compressa is a hardy, easy-growing selection that offers bold pink flowers in summer. It grows 12 inches tall and 18 inches wide. Zones 4-9

Bunny Ears Cactus

Bunny ears cactus
Amy Haskell

Opuntia microdasys is native to the North American Southwest and shows off red new growth that matures to dark green pads. Cheery yellow flowers appear in early summer. It grows 3 feet tall and 5 feet wide. Zones 9-10

Spineless Prickly Pear

Opuntia ellisiana is a North American native that bears yellow (rarely pink, orange, or red) flowers and tiny, hidden spines. It grows 3 feet tall and 6 feet wide. Zones 7-10

Spineless prickly pear
Denny Schrock

Prickly Pear Cactus Companion Plants

The prickly pear cactus makes a good companion for a lot of plants because, despite its potential size, it doesn’t cast a lot of shade and doesn’t starve neighboring plants of water or nutrients from the soil. It is particularly suited for sunny rock gardens, prairie gardens, and xeriscape spaces when paired with other drought-tolerant plants.

Xeriscape-friendly companions for prickly pear cacti include Agastache, Agave, big bluestem, gaillardia, and purple coneflower. Check with your local cooperative extension service or gardening center to learn more about low-water plants for your region.


Damianita Chrysactinia mexicana

Damianita is a Texas native with a low, rounded shape that contrasts nicely with the prickly pear cactus. It features sunny, yellow flowers that resemble small daisies and needle-like, evergreen foliage.

Feathery Cassia

Feathery Cassia Senna artemisioides

Feathery cassia blooms from late winter through early spring bringing hundreds of tiny, fragrant, bright yellow blossoms to the landscape. It is also heat-resistant and drought-tolerant making it a great companion for prickly pear cacti.

Pine Muhly

pine muhly
Denny Schrock

Most muhly grasses are high on drama, offering their beautiful floral display to dryland gardens. They have a soft, airy appearance that is welcome among agaves and other rough-texture plants that permeate low-water gardens. Pine muhly, in particular, grows best in fast-draining soil that is low in nutrients—a sandy soil is perfect. Avoid heavy clay and wet locations.


Texas sotol Dasylirion texanum sotol plant
Denny Schrock

A magnificently sculptural plant for the desert garden, sotol has striking straplike blue-green leaves that make it look a bit like yucca or agave. The evergreen foliage is thin like an ornamental grass and has a pleasing fine texture year-round. Plant it where the sun can shine through the leaves in early morning or late evening, highlighting the plant's pretty silhouette. Sotol grows best in full sun and gravelly, sandy soil. Once established, it has good cold tolerance, but be sure to give it extra protection during the first winter after planting.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long do prickly pear cacti live?

    Prickly pear cacti have long life spans and can thrive for up to 20 years in the right conditions.

  • Is a prickly pear cactus a succulent?

    The prickly pear cactus is part of the Cactaceae family, which is just one of many families in the genus Opuntia. So, while they have many differences, they are also very closely related. All succulents store water in their fleshy leaves, roots, and stems—a trait that allows them to be so drought-tolerant. Cacti, however, typically have few if any leaves. They also feature hairy coverings or prickly spines that erupt from areoles (dark-colored bumps or indentations) along the fleshy parts of the plant. Put simply, all cacti (including the prickly pear cactus) are considered succulents, but not all succulents are considered cacti.

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  1. Field Guide for Managing Prickly Pear in the Southwest. United States Department of Agriculture. September, 2014.

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