Purple, Prickly and Beautiful: Santa-rita Prickly Pear

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prickly cactus
prickly cactus

Do you like prickly cactus?  

I have a few favorites, one being santa-rita prickly pear (Opuntia violaceae var. santa rita). The color contrast of their blue-grey pads and the shades of purple are so striking in the landscape.  

This cactus makes a beautiful accent plant for the landscape. Both the pads and fruit are edible, (but you might want to remove the spines first ;-). Cold temperature and drought intensify the purple color.

Santa-rita prickly pear is native to the Southwest regions of North America. They can grow as large as 6 ft. X 6 ft., but can be pruned to maintain a smaller size.  Pruning is done carefully, by making pruning cuts at the junction where the pads connect.

prickly cactus

Lovely yellow flowers appear in spring followed by red fruit in the summer months.  Javelina, rabbits and pack rats will sometimes eat the pads. Pack rats use the pads to make their homes.

The pads of the prickly pear are covered with clusters of 2″ spines as well as tiny spines known as glochids. Glochids are incredibly irritating to the skin and detach from the pad very easily. Their tips have a small barb, which makes them difficult to remove from your skin.  If you need to handle them, use a few layers of newspaper or a piece of carpet. Do not make the mistake of touching the pads with gloves because the glochids will attach to your gloves and render them useless, (I ruined a perfectly good pair this way). 

 **There are different ways to remove these small spines, including applying Elmer’s glue (letting it dry and then pulling them off), but many people have reported greater success using duct tape. 

prickly cactus

USES: In addition to serving as an accent plant in the landscape, this prickly pear species can also be used as a screen. Some may be surprised to learn that they also make excellent container plants, just make sure they are not near any foot traffic areas. They do well in full sun or light shade in well-drained soil.

MAINTENANCE: Prickly pear is very low-maintenance plants. I always use tongs to pick up the pads that I have pruned, or you can use newspaper.  

Although they are incredibly drought-tolerant, watering once a month during the hot summer months, in the absence of rain, will be appreciated and will improve the appearance of your prickly pear. Shriveled pads indicate acute drought-stress.

prickly cactus

Many people believe that the appearance of white, cotton-like areas on the pads is a sign of a fungal infection. However, it is caused by a small insect that secretes the white cottony mass, called cochineal scale.  Control is straightforward – simply spray off it with a strong jet of water from the hose – that’s it!

prickly cactus

PROPAGATION: Prickly pear can be planted from seed, but there is a much easier way. Just cut off a pad that is at least 6 inches tall. Put the pad upright, in a shady, dry place for at least about two weeks. This allows a callus to form at the bottom.  

Plant with the cut end down, do not water for the first month because the bottom is susceptible to fungal infections. After the first month, water every 2 – 3 weeks until established.  If planted in the summer, provide shade until established (about three months). *I generally do not recommend planting in the winter but encourage waiting until spring when the soil warms up. 

If you have a large prickly pear, you can prune it, or you can start over by taking it out and cutting off some of the pads and plant them in the same place. Many of my clients have done this and been happy with the results.

INTERESTING HISTORICAL FACT: The Aztecs would cultivate prickly pear cactus infected with cochineal scale because the insects secrete a dark red dye with crushed. This was used to dye cloth. The Spanish exported this dye from Mexico back to Europe where it was used to dye royal garments and British military uniforms. The dye was highly valued by the Spanish, next to gold and silver. It takes 70,000 insects to produce 1 pound of dye.

*This is but one of many beautiful prickly pear species available to the home gardener.   Do you have a favorite species of prickly pear cactus?

Noelle Johnson, aka, 'AZ Plant Lady' is a author, horticulturist, and landscape consultant who helps people learn how to create, grow, and maintain beautiful desert gardens that thrive in a hot, dry climate. She does this through her consulting services, her online class Desert Gardening 101, and her monthly membership club, Through the Garden Gate. As she likes to tell desert-dwellers, "Gardening in the desert isn't hard, but it is different."
22 replies
  1. Jeff
    Jeff says:

    As a matter of fact, when using the hose to remove the Cochineal Scale, one can see the red coloring in the water if they look carefully. It is easy to get rid of and stay on top of. I wish all garden pests were this easy to control!

    I am not sure it makes a difference with cactus, but I try to do this in the early morning before the sun gets too hot and which also provides plenty of time for the plant to dry.

  2. Mary Delle
    Mary Delle says:

    I never knew their was a purple prickly pear. It is an unusual, but beautiful shade for a cactus. And to think it is native and not hybrid. Thanks for all the information on it.

  3. Yan
    Yan says:

    Aha, I've been wondering how to leave a comment. Marvellous plants, love that subtle blue grey colour. I have tablets sitting in my kitchen cupboard which contain extract of prickly pear and are great for preventing jet-lag and avoiding hangovers! Something to do with heat shock proteins.

  4. arizonaplantlady@gmail.com
    arizonaplantlady@gmail.com says:

    Thank you all for your comments. Jeff, I agree…it is so easy to get rid of Cochineal Scale, if only other insect infestations were so simple.

    Yan, I have heard of so many different things that Prickly Pear extract is good for. I will need to use it next time I travel.

  5. Amy
    Amy says:

    I just propagated a prickly pear. It's really growing fast. I love the purple one. I've never seen one before. I love your photo of the cactus blooming. I live in Austin and I think we have a lot of the same plants in common. 🙂

  6. Helen
    Helen says:

    These are stunning, and so sculptural. The yellow flowers are an extra bonus. We have a native opuntia in Ontario, which is kind of cool, but ours is much more unassuming.

  7. Kathleen
    Kathleen says:

    You have a great blog ~ I've just spent a little time reading some of your posts and it's really interesting. So sad about the little cactus wrens. The purple prickly pear is gorgeous. There will be many days in the upcoming months when I will wish I lived where you do! (I'm not a snow lover). I'll have to come by and read your blog then.

  8. cherry
    cherry says:

    Purple prickly pear, Purple prickly pear, Purple prickly pear, Purple prickly pear, Purple prickly pear,

    let's all say that real fast ..lol
    love the purple ~ hugs, Cherry

  9. Julianne Hall
    Julianne Hall says:

    My beautiful Santa Rita is getting a dark patch near the bottom and is starting to collapse. I just bought this one and transplanted it to a large pot. I have not been watering it. Is it because it's getting top heavy? I have another thats doing fine and it has quite a few "branches"? It's a beauty and I dont want to lose it! Any suggestions?

  10. arizonaplantlady@gmail.com
    arizonaplantlady@gmail.com says:

    Hi Julianne,

    I'm sorry to hear about your Santa Rita prickly pear. The black spot sounds like you may have rot, which would lead to its collapse. Sadly, if that is the case, there is not much you can do at this point. However, you could cut off some of the pads and plant them instead. They will grow into a new prickly pear. Best of luck!

    Noelle 'az plant lady'

  11. Shaun Riedinger
    Shaun Riedinger says:

    Great- info. We planted one of these in early spring and have probably been giving it way too much water- 3 times a week on a drip system, would this be what is causing the ears to actually shrink dramatically in thickness ? We turned off all water to the plant a week ago and are crossing fingers.. Thx

  12. arizonaplantlady@gmail.com
    arizonaplantlady@gmail.com says:

    Hi Shaun,

    You are correct that they have been overwatered. For a typical prickly pear, watering monthly May through August will keep them healthy and looking their best. Other than that, they generally don’t need supplemental water for the rest of the year.

  13. Shaun
    Shaun says:

    Thank you so much for the response- Our pear is located in St George, UT at about 2600 feet- We do get a number of mornings below freezing and snow once in a awhile, any wintering tips ?

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