Prickly pear cactus

Prickly pear cactus


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What it is and features


The name prickly pear commonly refers to the species Opuntia ficus-indica, the best known and most widespread variety belonging to the Cactaceae family. The plants related to this family, which includes about a thousand species, are more commonly known as succulents, thus underlining the particular characteristics of this vast group of plants. Even the prickly pear, in order to survive, had to adapt to very unfavorable conditions of climate and soil, being mainly distributed in very hot and dry regions. Consequently this plant does not need irrigation, as it is able to cover its own water needs independently in any situation. On the contrary, we must pay close attention to the water stagnation that can cause the root system to rot.

How to cultivate



The prickly pear is a succulent plant that is characterized by the fleshy stem covered by a thick epidermal tissue almost devoid of stomata, in this way the transpiration and evaporation of water is reduced to a minimum. Internal fabrics, on the other hand, are spongy and rich in liquids. The stem generally has a columnar shape, while the fleshy leaves covered with thorns are flattened in the shape of a spatula. The prickly pear has a radically developed apparatus to favor the search for liquids in the soil. This succulent plant is among all species the best known in Italy, having been successfully naturalized in southern Italy, Liguria and Sicily. It has an infesting character as it easily reproduces and tends to replace local varieties: consequently it is good to be careful when cultivating it in the garden.

The soil and fertilization



Prickly pear, despite its name, is a plant originating from Mexico: it can be of various sizes. For example the prostrate specimens are small, while the arborescent and woody ones are characterized by the great development of compressed, thorny and fleshy branches. Each segment is green and therefore capable of photosynthesis: it is punctuated by small areolas that represent the areas on which the flowers sprout. These, large and generally showy because they are brightly crowned, open on the upper and marginal part of each single segment. They have a yellow-orange corolla with numerous petals, which enclose numerous stamens in the center. The prickly pear fruit is a large oval, juicy boat containing many small seeds with the characteristic color of apricot. In addition to being a spontaneous plant, prickly pear is grown for fruits and as an ornamental species. It needs very little care and develops well especially in light, well-drained, acidic or neutral soils. It must not be fertilized.

Prickly pear cactus: How to cultivate



The prickly pear is much appreciated because in certain situations it performs a valid windbreak and tillage action on soils that are too hard and compact. In fact it is characterized by an extremely developed root system, which penetrates to considerable depths in the substrate. It is a plant that can be sensitive to fungus and parasitic diseases: the species of cochineal Dactylopius, for example, introduce a phytotoxic active principle into the prickly pear through saliva. Instead the larvae of the cactus butterfly dig mines in the fleshy leaves , causing it to turn yellow. Another dangerous parasite is the Mediterranean fruit fly, which mainly affects the fruits of the plant during the autumn, causing them to rot. Even the wasps are insects that can seriously damage the fruits of the prickly pear. Finally it is necessary to pay a lot of attention to water stagnations, because they cause the proliferation of fungi and rot. Finally, the Botryosphaeria ribis causes gum cancer and wet lesions on the stem: so the specimen gradually deteriorates.


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