Time for something a little prickly. I first encountered an Opuntia, a prickly pear cactus, sometime as a child behind my aunt’s house. In a little doorstep garden, she grew a phenomenal colony of Opuntia humifusa, the eastern prickly pear cactus. Eager to ‘thin them out’ (an eloquent expression of distaste in and disapproval of their disheveled appearance), I soon found myself in possession of several pads and on my way home to grow my first hardy cactus.
That was just the beginning, and in many ways my obsession with these rough and tough “roses” of the shortgrass prairies is still in its infancy. But of those I’ve grown and love, Opuntia polyacantha tops the list of must-have favorites. A visit to The Flower Factory near Madison, WI several summers ago further opened my eyes to the loveliness of the prickly pears, their sundry color forms, and hybrids. The photo below, taken at that famed nursery, shows a blousy pink specimen (similar in tone to the one I grow in my rock garden) that easily has the cactophiles among us salivating for just a tiny piece to plant. Like a chocoholic craving a fix, I yearn for those tightly clasped pink flowers to unfurl in early June. Talk about counting the days!
If you’re so inclined, growing them is relatively straightforward–go with a sunny exposure and sharp drainage. I’m always amazed, that despite their ease of cultivation, that so few people have tried these. In many ways, they thrive on abuse, hailing from native environments that look better suited to blatant geological work than the cultivation of plants. But that’s what makes them such inspiring plants; thriving and obstinate jewels of the plains (to quote South Dakota plantsman Claude Barr). Visitors to my garden always marvel at how much work it must be to move all these cactus indoors each winter. They’re even more amazed when I grab a pair of hot dog tongs, break off a pad, toss it into a brown paper bag, and offer them one. Yes, they’re that easy.