Habitat: South american desert areas, but also grows spontaneously along the coasts of southern Italy, where it is possible to admire it of sometimes quite impressive dimensions.
Cultivation: Not very difficult, as Opuntias are very tough plants.
Curiosity: Opuntia was named after “Opunte”, the capital of Locride region in ancient Greece.
Opuntia is a genus of cacti which includesmore than 300 species: the most famous one is undoubtely the prickly-pear or “Indian fig Opuntia”, known for its fleshy, orange, edible fruits (however covered in hairy, tiny spines called glochids).
Opuntias are native of America, where they can be found from Patagonia to the United States. It is extremely tough and tend to form large colonies: that’s why, when introduced in exotic habitats, it can become a weed species: this has happened in Australia, where they try to control their spreadint through a local parasite: Cactoblastis cactorum.
Opuntias thrive in arid regions with mild Winters and occasional rainfalls ( mean annual rainfall of 350–500 mm). Its seeds are mainly widespread by birds, which are the only animals which manage to feed on their spiny fruits, alltogheter with iguanas and a few species of snails.
Opuntia is an heterogenous genus, including plants with rather different forms and dimensions, going from the few centimeters in height of Opuntia microdasys, to the huge Opuntia leucoticha, which becomes around 5 meters tall in its natural habitat!
Another interesting fact about these plant is that they all have the so-called Crassulacean Acid Metabolism, “CAM”. This is a biochemical behavior which make these plants even more resistant to the arid conditions of their habitat, and it allow them to photosyntetize during the day, but to open their stomatas only at night to “breath”, and collecting carbon dioxide. The stomatas are microscopic holes upon the leaves of every plant, which have the function to make the plant “breath” by, as already said, collecting carbon dioxide, and by releasing water. In CAM plants the stomatas are shut down during the day to reduce the water loss, so that they can survive to really arid conditions.
Opuntias are really branched bushes. Their stems and branches are not normal branches, but have a peculiar development, as they are made of multiple, flattened or spherical units called cladods which follow one another, forming the stems.
Opuntia is divided in 2 subgenuses according to the form of the cladods: Tephrocactus and Platyopuntia.
The subgenus Tephrocactus includes cacti with globose, spherical cladodes. In some classification it is actually considered a genus of its own and, on the market, plants named as “Tephrocactus” are often found.
The subgenus Platyopuntia includes instead the most common and well-known Opuntias, with flat cladodes called “shovels” or “ears”, equipped with spines and glochids.
The “Glochids” are microscopic toothed spines, which easily remain attached to anything they touch.
The classification of the Opuntia species can be complicated also due to their inclination to form hybrids.
All Opuntias have fleshy, tough roots, which develop mainly in width and remain shallow, not so deep. This feature allows Opuntia to fit in rocky, arid, tough soils: we can find them in shallow, loose soils, and on mountain slopes.
Opuntias have beautiful, colorful, showy flowers, similar to wheels, that can be yellow, red, orange, red, also purple, according to the species.
They also have large fruits, often edible (the famous prickly pear, Indian-fig Opuntia is the most common example), which can be reddish, orange, yellow or even white in some species.
The pulp of the stams produces an extract which has remarkable slimming and lipo-absorbing properties. You have never seen such a multifunctional and, at the same time, ornamental plant before!
The fleshy stems of these plants are also often use to feed farm animals.
VARIETY AND TYPES
Here below are a few species of Opuntia: check our online store to find them!
- Opuntia atropes
- Opuntia bakeri
- Opuntia bonplandii
- Opuntia caracassana
- Opuntia cognata
- Opuntia crassa
- Opuntia cubensis
- Opuntia delaetiana
- Opuntia engelmannii
- Opuntia ficus-indica
- Opuntia fuliginosa
- Opuntia fulvicoma
- Opuntia guilanchi
- Opuntia hitchcockii
- Opuntia humifusa
- Opuntia jaliscana
- Opuntia littoralis
- Opuntia macrocentra
- Opuntia megacantha
- Opuntia megasperma
- Opuntia mistiensis
- Opuntia nuda
- Opuntia pachypus
- Opuntia pailana
- Opuntia plumbea
- Opuntia pyriformis
- Opuntia quimilo
- Opuntia quitensis
- Opuntia rastrera
- Opuntia rileyi
- Opuntia ritteri
- Opuntia robinsonis
TIPS FOR GROWING
Opuntias are tough plants and require little care: that makes them perfect for beginners! Anyway, here are our tips:
- Put your Opuntia in a bright spot, exposed to direct sunlight.
- The minimum tolerated temperature depends on the species. Anyway, the safest choice is to keep them indoors during the Winter. If you place them outdoors, remember that the temperature should be low, around 6ºC. That’s because, at higher temperatures, the plant doesn’t go into dormancy and continues to grow, producing too weak and fragile branches;
- Choose a well-drained substrate: a standard soil for cacti is the best option;
- Waterings should be scarce: about once a week during the Summer and never during the Winter;
- The repotting necessities depend on the species.
- Propagation can be easily carried out through seed or stem cuttings. These should be taken off from the top of the plant, dried up and then put into a sandy substrate. Once rooted, it should be planted in a well-draining, sandy substrate.
The Agave Multiplication is usually by suckers, or shoots. The suckers born near the base of the mother plant can be allowed to grow until they reach a size of about 10 cm. At that point they can be cut; it is important to dry the wound for a few days and then you repot in a soil which has to be the same of the one used for the adult plant.