Opuntia quitensis


Platyopuntia quitensis


Opuntia quitensis is native to Colombia, Peru (specifically in the Apurimac department), and various provinces in Ecuador, including El Oro, Pichincha, Chimborazo, Azuay, and Loja. It thrives at altitudes ranging from sea level up to 3,000 meters. Remarkably, this cactus is found in both the Andean regions and along the coast, making it a versatile and abundant species. In its natural habitat, Opuntia quitensis is typically located in shrub vegetation within dry coastal and Andean areas. In Ecuador, it can be observed in dry scrublands, dry mountain forests, and dry inter-Andean forests. Locally, it serves as a natural fence. Importantly, this species is not currently facing any significant threats to its existence.


Opuntia quitensis is a succulent bush that sprawls or stands somewhat erect, often forming thickets. It typically ranges from 0.4 to 2 meters in height, but in dense vegetation, it can grow even taller, reaching up to 3 meters. The plant’s appearance varies widely – when grown openly, it is low and bushy with small joints, but in thickets, it becomes tall with large joints, or pads. This species is often spineless, and if spines are present, they are usually few and weak. Occasionally, stout subulate spines may appear on the joints. The plant is functionally unisexual, meaning it has separate male and female blossoms on different plants. Opuntia quitensis may produce unique “terminal flowers,” embedded in flattened joints, which replace the usual pericarpel. The raw fruit of this cactus is edible. The stem segments, or joints, are flattened and range from narrowly obovate to nearly round, measuring 6 to 40 cm in length and 5 to 13 cm in width. The areoles, small areas from which spines grow, are spaced apart, bearing some white tomentum. Glochids, small hair-like structures, are inconspicuous and brown, measuring 2-4 mm in length. Spines, if present, are spreading, unequal, and straight, with slightly barbed tips. They can be yellowish-brown, white with darker tips, or nearly white when young, and are acicular or awl-like, ranging from 0.5 to 8 cm in length. The leaves are minute and green. The flowers of Opuntia quitensis are red or orange, ranging from 23-70 mm in length and 12-50 mm in width. They can sometimes be “terminal,” embedded in flattened joints, replacing the pericarpel. The tepals, petal-like structures, are erect and obtuse. Staminate flowers may have a few ovules but lack stigmas. The fruits are obovoid to barrel-shaped, deeply umbilicate, brownish-green to red, nearly spineless, and about 2-4 cm long and in diameter. They may have glochids or, in some cases, spines or bristles. The pulp inside is greenish, and the seeds are approximately 3 cm broad.


 Opuntia quitensis is a low-maintenance plant that can withstand neglect and easily adapt to outdoor cultivation in warm, dry climates. It naturalizes well and is quite resilient. With a relatively fast growth rate, it can form large clumps within a few years. This cactus thrives in sandy or gravelly, well-drained soils and is versatile in different pH levels, ranging from acidic to neutral and basic (alkaline). For pot cultivation, use cactus soil with minimal organic matter. Repotting every other year or when the plant outgrows its container is recommended, ensuring proper drainage. Watering should be moderate, with a dry period in winter. While it tolerates dry conditions, overwatering and prolonged drought should be avoided. Placing it in a well-draining position, such as at the base of a south-facing wall, is beneficial. Careful watering is essential to prevent swelling and untidy growth habits. During the growing season, fertilize with a potassium and phosphorus-rich fertilizer, avoiding nitrogen excess. Full sun exposure is preferable for optimal flowering, while semi-shaded positions may reduce flower production. Opuntia quitensis is reputedly sensitive to frost, so protection and dry conditions in cold weather are advised. Outdoors, it adapts well, provided there’s good drainage and reduced humidity in winter. This cactus is excellent for landscape or patio use, particularly in “desert” or “Mediterranean” gardens with other xerophytes. In climates where outdoor cultivation is challenging, pot cultivation is recommended for winter shelter. While generally pest-free when well-maintained with good exposure and ventilation, Opuntia quitensis should be handled with care due to its spines and glochids, which can irritate the skin.


Opuntia quitensis is primarily propagated through cuttings of leaf pads, a method that can be employed throughout the growing season. Alternatively, propagation can be done using seeds. When using seeds, they typically germinate within 7-14 days at temperatures ranging from 21-27° C in the spring. During this germination period, gradually remove the glass cover as the plants develop, ensuring proper ventilation. It’s important to avoid exposing young plants to full sun. Once the seedlings are well-rooted, they should not be disturbed. At this point, they can be transplanted into separate small pots, allowing them to establish and grow further.


Frequently, you come across this particular Opuntia known as Opuntia johnsonii, a designation derived from Harry Johnson, the proprietor of a substantial garden in Fallbrook, California, USA.

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