O. polyacantha is native to Alberta, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Mexico Northeast, Mexico Northwest, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Saskatchewan, South Dakota, Texas, Utah and Wyoming where the plant grows on sandy soils in grasslands and pine-juniper forests and can spread up to 2400 m of altitude. The plant was introduced also in Czechoslovakia.
O. polyacantha is a common perennial succulent belonging to the Cactaceae botanical family. The plant develops a trunk from which form several branches and the shrub can reach up to 40 cm tall. The plant has an erect habit and the roots are shallow and fibrous. The stem segments are flat, oblong to oval, light green or blue-green and armed with many spines. The areoles are many, small, round covered with numerous reddish-yellow bristles-like glochids. The glochids are short spines, barbered at the tip, extremely hurtful and a characteristic, only of the subfamily, Opuntioideae, of the family Cactaceae. The numerous spines are long, straight, pointed white to brownish. Blooming occurs in late spring to early summer and blossom are borne at the joint tips. The flowers are small, cup-shaped, with yellow petals and red sepals to magenta with yellow anthers. The plant produces oblong, fleshy, dark red to brown, cylindrical fruits armed with barbed spines. Fruits ripen 9 weeks after flowering. The seeds are white, flat and oblong.
The plant has a slow growth rate but it easy to cultivate. The best sun-exposure is in bright place but is recommended to avoid direct sun-light in the hottest periods. The minimum temperatures that the plant can withstand are 3° C, below this temperature it begins to suffer so it needs to be placed indoors in the coldest periods. The perfect soil is a well-drained soil that let the water to drain away and avoid root rot. To achieve this feature, you can mix the pumice soil, clay and soil. Remember to use a perforating pot to drain excess water. Watering can be done regularly in Spring and Summer: during the vegetative period you can water the plant (every 7 days), checking that the soil is completely dry before watering again; in winter you should stop the watering to allow the plant to enter dormancy. If you want a faster and lush growth you can fertilize the plant once a month during the growing season with the specific fertilizers for succulents; stop fertilizing throughout the winter. If the pot starts to be too small for the plant you can repot the plant in a pot 2 cm wider. Repotting should be done early in the growing season with fresh new potting soil. Be careful to red spiders and mealy bugs.
Propagation can be done by cutting or by seed. By cutting you can make the cut during the spring and then let the cutting dry; after a few days the cut surface will dry and a callus will form, then place the cutting in a mixture of sand, soil and pumice. To increase the success of propagation you can make two or more cuttings at the same time. For cuttings it is recommended temperatures around 20 °C. By seed it is very simple to propagate the plant, it is enough to sow the seed in a sandy loam soil and keep it with a high level of humidity and at temperature of 14 C°.
Opuntia was named after “Opunte”, the capital of Locride region in ancient Greece. The plant is also known as the “prickly pear of the plains”. In its habitat O. polyacatha lives in fire-prone habitats where tha plant after a fire can sprout from the unburned root crown.
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