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Friday - March 05, 2010

From: Austin, TX
Region: Southwest
Topic: Seasonal Tasks, Cacti and Succulents
Title: What to do about cold damage to spineless prickly pear?
Answered by: Jimmy Mills


In Austin, Texas our 'spineless' prickly pear cactus is about 6' wide by 4' tall. In the last severe freeze, the top half flattened out and has remained that way. Should I cut the flattened pads off, and if so, should I paint the cuts so they won't get waterlogged when it rains or otherwise decay? Or what should I do with the cactus? Thank you.


The spineless prickly pear in our area is Opuntia ellisiana (tigertongue) , and is generally considered to be rather cold hardy, however this winter has done a number on them all over the area. A 4' by 6' plant makes a handsome specimen, and is worth the effort it takes to save it.

The plant may slough off the more severely damaged pads on its own, but Mr. Smarty Plants recommends being more pro-active and removing the flattened pads now. Cut the pads at the point of attachment, and the plant will produce callus tissue at the site that will protect against invasion by microbes, so wound painting is not necessary and is actually counterproductive. You may wish to remove up to one third of the height of the plant, but keep in mind the overall shape you want to achieve. The plant will produce new pads in the spring growing season.

Just because the cactus is "spineless", don't be lulled into thinking that the plant is harmless. Its "second line of defense" is perhaps more insidious that the spines, since they are not as obvious. These are the small hair-like spines called glochids that occur on the aereoles. They are characteristic of the genus Opuntia, and O. ellisiana certainly has its share.

The glochids have small barbs so that when they enter the skin, they are difficult to remove. The best defense is prevention; when handling the cactus pads, wear thick gloves. Be aware that the glochids do attach to gloves and clothing, so be careful handling them after the pruning. 

If you want more prickly pear plants, use the pads that you cut off to propagate more.


From the Image Gallery

Spineless prickly pear
Opuntia ellisiana

Spineless prickly pear
Opuntia ellisiana

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