Recently my niece, who works for a catering company, texted me asking where she could get a prickly pear plant.
This surprised me.
Primarily because my niece, God love her, has never expressed interest in growing so much as a petunia.
After some back and forth texting, I finally determined that it wasn't my niece who was interested in growing a prickly pear, but the chef she worked with. Not only did that make more sense, but it also kinda narrowed down exactly what we were talking about...
You see, there are a whole bunch of plants that go by the name of prickly pear... almost all of them in the genus Opuntia. If I know its a chef asking, I know that it's the common napales that we're talking about. Opuntia ficus-indica. There are several variations withing the species, and the variation most often seen in Mexican markets is known by a four digit number that escapes me at the moment. While almost all Opuntia species can be eaten... this variety is the one you see in markets because its growth is fairly rapid and easy, it's practically spineless, and it has a pleasant flavor.
So, I knew what to answer.
I don't know of any nurseries that will sell you that particular variety of Opuntia.
There are a couple of reasons for this. Primarily, it doesn't survive our winters here. One hard frost and the thing dies. There are certainly many many species of Opuntia that do survive our winters, but this variety of this species does not. But secondly, I'm pretty sure that the particular variety we're talking about is patented, and is only really marketed to farmers who are growing commercially. I don't currently know of any nursery that is producing the plants for the retail market, but I might be wrong.
If I'm correct, a wholesale nursery would require a permit to produce the things for the retail market.
So... while it would technically be illegal to propogate the plants to sell, there's certainly nothing stopping you from starting a few at home for your personal use, and luckily it's fairly easily done.
You start by going to the local market and getting a pound or so of Prickly Pear Pads, aka Nopales.
Now, I live in Central Texas. A pound of those things are not hard to find. Fairly cheaply too. This is the case throughout most of the Southwest, and certainly California, and I'm under the general impression that you can find ANYTHING in New York City if you look hard enough, but I must acknowledge that there are large parts of this country that finding the things will be challenging. Might I suggest this: Look through your address book. You have to know somebody in the right part of the world. Friends, relatives, the Christmas card lists... there's gotta be somebody out there who can be conjoled, persuaded, coerced, paid, threatened or blackmailed into putting some in a box and sending them to you.
After you get your nopales, place them somewhere warm and dry for a week or two. This is basically hardenning off... It's neccessary because when you plant the things in the next step, you want the cut where it was detatched from the plant to have a callous or sealed skin to prevent rot or bacterial infection from the soil. And now I'm going to tell you its also probably not absolutely neccesary. There's a very good chance that the nopales you got from the store was cut from the parent plant in Mexico or South Texas or wherever well over a week ago and it's already hardened off. But if you had to threaten to call your aunt and tell her all about what her son was up to in California to get them, you've gone to a lot of trouble and lets play it safe and set them on a shelf for a week. Of course, you could stand them up in a wicker basket and set them on a table as a centerpiece. Whatever, just wait a week... unless they start looking like they're shrivelling. In that case, go on to the next step.
And the next step is... pot them up. Pretty simple.
Get a six inch plastic pot... recycle one that you bought something else in actually, and put a paper coffee filter in the bottom. It will hold the dirt in and allow drainage. Put in an inch or so of any decent potting soil. Stand 2 or 3 pads up in the soil, then fill the rest in. Any part of the pad that is touching moist soil will grow roots. If it's on a warm bright windowsill... this will happen very quickly, so place your pots on a warm bright windowsill, water them, and then water them about once a week. Within 3 to 4 weeks, you should have roots and, if it's warm and bright enough, maybe even the beginning of new growth, and we're ready for the next step, which is planting them outside.
Now, here in Central Texas, if I'm growing these for eating, I would do this towards the end of January or anytime in February, so that I could plant them outside at the end of March or in April, after all our danger of frost is past.
When planting them outside you have some options.
If they're going in the vegetable garden... plant in a row about 3 feet apart. Maybe more. You can be economical with your space by planting beds of bush beans between the plants. By the time the green beans have stopped producing, the prickly pears will be ready to start harvesting. This variety grows fairly rapidly, so having that extra space between them will make it easier to work around.
The second option is to plant them in a flower bed. They are interesting and handsome plants. One on each side of the front door surrounded with marigolds, petunias, purslane or any other colorful annual would be pretty striking.
The third option is to put them in large pots or tubs. Again, with annuals. I'm thinking geraniums would be nice.
Just make sure they get plenty of sunlight, and remember that this variety isn't neccesarily a desert cactus. They can certainly survive drought situations, but watering those annuals around it will ensure it has plenty of water for quick growth.
About 6 to 8 weeks later, you can start harvesting the tender new pads for eating. Don't take more than you need, leave some there to continue growing even more pads. Or you could not harvest any and just have some very handsome plants until the fall when you can do a big harvest and can up some nopalitos.
Now, as I mentioned earlier, they won't survive a hard frost. If you have them growing in large pots or tubs, hopefully you had the foresight to put them on those wheel rollers. Rolling into a greenhouse is the best if available. Pushing it into a garage or outbuilding that doesn't get that cold would work too. If you wish to try it... make sure you stop watering and let it dry out. All cactus are a little hardier in the winter if they're dry. Or, if you have the room, you could bring them into the house as a rather huge houseplant.
Plants in the ground, the simplest solution is to cut enough pads to grow for next year, store in a cool dry place, and start them again next spring.
The prickly pear fruits that you see in the store, aka tuna, also come from this plant. However, you're highly unlikely to see the blooms or resulting fruits when you're growing the plants in this manner. The blooms tend to happen on last years growth. A plant greenhoused over the winter is the most likely, garaged less likely, and a new cutting almost impossible. But the plants are quite capable of surprising you on occasion.
Personally, I prefer the fruits of the native hardy pears anyway, finding them more flavorful and colorful.
Two clumps of these plants should be more than enough to feed a family of four the occasional srambled eggs. If you're feeding a larger family or hoping to rustle up something for a church social... you may have to grow more of course.
And there we are.
Should be back in a couple of days with the artwork that my friend drew for me .