Prickly Pear Cactus and Nopales

Prickly pear Opuntia humifusa winter hearty prickly pear cactus.png

Opuntia humifusa is a cactus native to the U.S. It has a clump-forming
growth pattern. The flowers are a beautiful yellow with slightly
reddish center and flat, green pads that have clusters of barbed

I’ve been thinking of growing it ever since I spotted it at the Rick Bayless urban/edible garden. I don’t really have the space for it though, and I’m not sure how it does in a container, although it seems to be growing just fine in Rick Bayless’ raised bed. Like Opuntia ficus-indica, the species often found in Mexican cooking and grocery stores, Opuntia humifusa’s fruits and pads are edible when young and can be grown in Chicago. Yes, you can grow this cactus in Chicago either as an ornamental plant or as an edible garden plant.

Prickly pear in the garden they require little water, quick draining soil and a lot of sun. You can take a single pad that you remove from the plant and stick it in the ground and it will eventually root and spread. It looks like Rick Bayless collected his prickly pear from a beach in Zion, IL.

Prickly pear Opuntia humifusa winter hearty prickly pear cactus Salsa de Nopales.png

Today, I scored some prickly pear pads from the garden of a friend-of-a-friend and I had Salsa de Nopales on the side with dinner. To prepare nopales to eat you have to cut off all the thorns and the eyes, where the thorns grow out of, and cut off any discolored parts. Slice the pad into 1/4 inch long slices and add it to a pot of boiling water that has been salted with a tsp of salt. Boil the nopales for about 15 minutes then remove the pot from the fire, drain and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking process. Next, chop a small white onion and medium-sized tomato and a 1/4 cup of cilantro (from my garden) and mix in the nopales. If you’d like to add heat to your Salsa de Nopales dice 2-3 Jalapeno or Serrano peppers, I didn’t feel like adding any even though I had some in the garden. Add salt, pepper and splash of lime juice to taste.

You can avoid getting pricked by buying prepared prickly pear pads in a Mexican grocery store or buying them canned. Although, I don’t recommend them canned– especially if you are eating prickly pear pads for the first time. I find them to be slimy out of the can and prefer them to be a little bit crunchy. If you don’t like salsa you can add them in other dishes, like omelets, where bell peppers would be appropriate. 


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  • Oh, hell yes! Erm, what I meant to say is two-fold: 1) Prickly pear grows as far north as Saskatoon, Canada, and I love it. It's a bit of a slow grower. I started mine from one pad maybe four years ago. It took three years to bloom and now has 13 pads. Mine isn't in full sun, and it's in clay-ish soil, not sand, so that may be slowing it. I'd say a container would be fine, so long as you bring it in (or bury it) in winter. It gets all shriveled up looking and kind of turns gray in winter, but that's normal. 2) Napoles are excellent as is cooked cactus. YUM! I think I have to go visit La Fiesta Mexicana in Ypsilanti again soon...

  • In reply to gardenfaerie:

    Hi GardenFaerie,

    Thanks for the report on the prickly pears growing as far north as where you live.

    Hi Pieway53, Thank you too for the report of others growing it in our area. Glad you found the blog and it was of help. Appreciate you creating an account to comment.

  • So that is what they are?!?! About 3 yrs ago, my son brought me some small cactus leaves from a construction site around the Michigan Dunes. I plopped them in a sunny spot & they slowly spread out to about 1/2 dozen leaves. All I knew is that their teeny spines reach out & attach to you very easily & they are a pain (minor tho). Well, this year I was surprised to see the yellow buds and today what do I see in the online Trib but your column & photo!! I was always wondering what exactly it was called but as usual never remembered to ck online. Thanks for the article!!
    I will say, this is a very undemanding plant, I never water it, it is in full sun, has spread out to maybe a 12" round area. If you can keep your hands away, it is no trouble & actually quite unusual & pretty to see a cactus living year-round here in our weather zone.

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    Even people with brown thumbs can grow prickly pears (Opuntias). There are dozens of varieties to choose from. Short. Tall. Wide. Narrow. I put my plants outdoors on the porch in summer and they are happy as can be. In the fall I bring them in and mostly don't water them. They sit dormant in my living room window.
    Thanks for the article. It makes me appreciate my plants all over again.

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