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Prickly Pear are the perfect permaculture plant for parched places  RSS feed

 
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Location: Chihuahua Desert
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The first time I cooked it when I was a kid I expected to have to strain it
through an old cloth but I discovered that apparently the glochids dissolve
when the juice is simmered because they had completely disappeared.



This has been my experience as well. They are not an issue if you cook them.
 
Abe Connally
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Grafting sounds very interesting, never thought about that. Get a good, drought resistant local variety for the trunk, fast growing spineless for the top to avoid animal damage and provide some shade.

I definitely need to try that out. O. robusta is a big species, the pads can be 2 ft in diameter. That would be great for a trunk species, though it doesn't survive harsh cold.
 
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Does anyone know how far north they will overwinter and produce fruit?
 
Abe Connally
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Jenna Ferresty wrote:Does anyone know how far north they will overwinter and produce fruit?



I've read that some species survive in Canada.
 
Abe Connally
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Here's some instructions for grafting other cacti to prickly pear: http://www.cactus-art.biz/technics/Grafting_on_opuntia_compressa_step_by_step.htm
 
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Abe Connally, thank you for the grafting link. Seriously, thank you.
 
Abe Connally
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Deb Rebel wrote:Abe Connally, thank you for the grafting link. Seriously, thank you.



I really like the possibility of grafting cacti, even just for prickly pear. I need to test it out, but I could see where you take wild plants and graft improved varieties for fruit or vegetable production.
 
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The prickly pear also serves well if you have livestock and your grazing is suffering from severe drought conditions. All that you need to do is burn off the thorns with a pear burner ( tank of propane and a large torch attachment).
Where I am at, you can cut one of those leafs off and it will root out where it lands. Be careful with this stuff because it can be extremely evasive in semi-arid climates. There are different species out there and some species produce better fruit while other species produce better leafs. It's not the only cacti in the southwest that produces edible fruit but is by far the most prolific. I cleared a ton of it out, squashed it all with the excavator, mixed it in with a ton of wood chips, leaves and other debris, and the giant heap got to cooking in no time. Once everything was fully composted, I spread the pile into a 8'' layer over hard pan black clay soil with rock and layered doubled ground mesquite brush over it. 8 years later and 8 layers later, I have a year around producing garden without irrigation (in south-central Texas) and without chemicals, pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers. If I catch a new land owner clearing out prickly pear along with mesquite brush and everything else, I will load it up, bring it back to my place and grind it all together and use it to the fullest extent. As for as cultivating prickly pear, I do so in small quantities and I prefer the spineless napolito.
 
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Location: Aurora, Colorado
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Interesting reading about the many varieties and uses of prickly pear. This stuff grows around Colorado's Royal Gorge like weeds. You need to watch where you step.
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Location: North Carolina
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You can even find Opuntia in places you would not expect them. I live in North Carolina, where we have around 45 or more inches of rainfall a year. While we do have droughts, our region is far far from arid. Yet, even here you can find opuntia.

This is a picture of Opuntia humifusa, the only cactus that is native to my region. I've been growing these for a while now, and have quite a few plants. This species is found from North to South along the entire Eastern United States. There is also a great deal of variation in this species - meaning that the Opuntia humifusa in New York is not like the species found in my region.

So far, natural rainfall has been enough to sustain them. A unique trait of Opuntia humifusa is its tolerance of both cold and humidity. For a cactus, it can tolerate a lot of moisture. Mine is growing fine in a heavy clay soil that can stay saturated for days.

The second picture is an Op. humifusa flower. Bee approved!

In my region, they grow in pine savannas. Though, I've also seen them growing down sheer cliff faces in Maryland. Wish I had a picture of that!

Another thing of interest - they mostly spread horizontally. The one in the picture is a few months old and quite vertical - eventually it will fall over and keep growing. It's only one foot tall!
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Abe Connally wrote:

Jenna Ferresty wrote:Does anyone know how far north they will overwinter and produce fruit?



I've read that some species survive in Canada.



Yes, some grow here wild. Here in the Okanagan valley, a small prickly pear (Opuntia fragilis) is native, but because the "leaves" are so small the local xeriscape professionals recommend planting Opuntia polycantha instead for better appearance and ease of harvesting. So I assume that will over winter here too!
A neighbour has been throwing out some of his cactus leaves, leaving them out with the yard waste for pick up. I keep intending to try saving some of them from disposal.

I'm glad to learn about the trick of boiling the heck out of the cactus to avoid having to deal with the spines!

 
Abe Connally
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Vera Stewart wrote:
I'm glad to learn about the trick of boiling the heck out of the cactus to avoid having to deal with the spines!



you don't even have to boil them for very long 5-10 minutes and they are mush!
 
Kenneth Thompson
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Growing around the stuff here in South Texas, I have noticed a few things after a big thicket of the stuff was cleared out. For one, You never actually clear it out completely without ripping the soil repeatedly and deeply; The prickly pear down here have deep root systems, as well as very wide, vast shallow roots. The soil underneath them is loose and very aeriated and after the first few inches of top soil, there's always a slight dampness-even during long drought periods. Taking that into account, the PP could be good to plant edibles next to; I'll have to try it out. It's a wonder that I have never thought about it until now-just have to watch the thorns come harvest time!

 
Kenneth Thompson
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Kenneth Thompson wrote:Growing around the stuff here in South Texas, I have noticed a few things after a big thicket of the stuff was cleared out. For one, You never actually clear it out completely without ripping the soil repeatedly and deeply; The prickly pear down here have deep root systems, as well as very wide, vast shallow roots. The soil underneath them is loose and very aeriated and after the first few inches of top soil, there's always a slight dampness-even during long drought periods. Taking that into account, the PP could be good to plant edibles next to; I'll have to try it out. It's a wonder that I have never thought about it until now-just have to watch the thorns come harvest time!

Growing up*
 
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Location: Winters, California
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Kenneth Thompson wrote:The prickly pear down here have deep root systems, as well as very wide, vast shallow roots. The soil underneath them is loose and very aeriated and after the first few inches of top soil, there's always a slight dampness-even during long drought periods.


That's really good info. Thanks, Kenneth!

I managed to find someone locally who has fruiting prickly pears and gave me one already potted up. I'll be keeping it in the pot for now - when I have my own homestead I'll propagate it for the fruit!
 
Kenneth Thompson
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Keep in touch with me and I'll send you some of the native here and the spineless Napolitano pear. We also have a native hot pepper, Chile Petin. They look more like a berry than a pepper. They are high producers and are perrinials. I've seen them come back from freezes and when long periods of drought occur, they just go dormant. If you or anyone wants some, I can send out seeds. Simply and gently crush the peppers between your thumb and index finger, and drop the seeds where you want them to grow. Do this on loose, fine crumb soil and water the seeds in. Once they have established their root system, they need no care at all. Down here in the wild, they can get up to 10 ft tall and I have seen them as wide as 8 ft. If you like hot chiles, this will be the one. I know this ought to be a whole different topic. Sorry folks.
 
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Hi, I think I would be interested in some seeds or cuttings of edible prickly pears as well as the Napolinato pear and Chile Petin. I may be relocating to a very arid zone 9 region shortly and am a bit overwhelmed learning about and searching for drought tolerent species.
 
Kenneth Thompson
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Anyone looking for the prickly pear seeds can email me. The seeds are for free! There is no shortage of the stuff in south Texas, kinda like Mesquite brush. kenrthompson777@hotmail.com
 
Kenneth Thompson
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Harmony- the peppers and the spineless napolito are free too. Just email me and we'll get it started.
 
Kenneth Thompson
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Jujubee fruit trees in these hot and dry conditions as well. Commonly referred to as Chinese dates. After being introduced over a century ago, they have naturally propagated across the region. Date palms, olives, grapes, etc. There's plenty. I know that down here, I have hugul mounds and hugul beds. I also have been using heavy layers of native mulch (chips from native trees and brush and leaves) aka Back to Eden gardening method as many on the web knows it by. I have found that the inverted hugul beds are more productive than the mounds because the hot months make up most of the year and the mounds loose moisture rapidly. By far though-heavy thick layers of mulch works the best in the long run, as for as keeping a good submoisture content in your top soil and eventually, the soil will listen up to a point to where you won't have to work the soil any. Walk into a forest, peel back the layer of leaves, and you'll find the most fertile stuff on earth. By continually applying layers upon layers of leaves, wood chips,etc. you are mimicking what nature has been doing on that forest floor. If you are in a desert, usually there's plenty of rocks to be had. Use rocks as mulch and lots of them;covering as much soil as possible. Sorry for going on and on.
 
Kenneth Thompson
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I HATE using this phone to send messages. Darn thing inputs words that I don't intend to use and my big fingers mistypes
 
Deb Rebel
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(yep the curse of autocorrect. Gentle laughter here)

I hate having to type four times and picking the one I want and it still 'fixes' it for me.

I wish I had your warmer winter but would not want the summer. AS it is it gets pretty baked here, and it seems I'm being blessed with a long warm fall, my night temps are still staying up and allowing me to get things ready for the winter pull-in.

Looking forward to trying the prickly pears... I have gotten ahold of a few 'tunas' and I can stand the flavor. Hoping they do the magic on the blood pressure. If not at least I will have a living deterrant fence for whatever predated all my quince and yellow apples this year (and those are SO good, and I got one that someone missed)
 
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Tyler Ludens wrote:

Abe Connally wrote:

I am very familiar with Sotol, and we used the dried stalks for making shade structures and things. You can also train them as they grow to make really neat curved sticks.

But, I had no idea you could eat them. How do they taste, Tyler?



They taste blandly plant-like, certainly nothing to write home about, and they take a long time to cook. Native folks baked them in pits, but we moderns could use slow-cookers or solar ovens. I like to grow them as a potential serious famine food, as they look nothing like food to the average person. But as a day to day staple, they are not a good choice, given other easier, tastier options.



The seeds are a staple wildlife food here also, but I've never thought about eating them. One stalk should give you enough for a sample.
 
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tips

1. bring a flame thrower when you harvest
-they have tiny fibers and you'll be itchy for weeks
-burn the suckers
2. process them quickly after harvest
-when you remove the fruit the fleshy inside is exposed
-doesn't keep long
 
Abe Connally
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Jason Machin wrote:tips

1. bring a flame thrower when you harvest
-they have tiny fibers and you'll be itchy for weeks
-burn the suckers
2. process them quickly after harvest
-when you remove the fruit the fleshy inside is exposed
-doesn't keep long



I don't bother with flames, it's too much work. Just use tongs and you will be fine. Cook the tiny fibers and spines, they dissolve in hot water.

I've got some wine brewing, that's how you keep them for long!
http://velacreations.com/blog/prickly-pear-wine/



 
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Just re: cutting back the cactus at the base to avoid packrats making nests underneath.

It's what I have heard recommended as well, however, in some deserts (like the sonoran) having packrats can be a valuable resource, if you can find a way to live with 'em. Where I am, the dirt is so hard that digging vermin like packrats and ground squirrels, as well as ants and termites, are the only critters that dig into the soil and aerate it. Many of the plants here grow better if they have one of these critters underneath as the critters improve the soil in the area, add nutrients to it, and the burrows allow paths for more water to get down deeper into the soil.

The low growth is also often used for ground dwelling animals like quail, in my area.

I've been leaving my cactus low to the ground, then adding in habitat to attract rat snakes to feed on the pack rats and keep the population very low. I get extra quail and birds that utilize the space and help keep insects from my other plants.

Just another perspective.
 
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Pennsylvania is no place for the prickly pear.... But I am a huge fan of alliteration so I had to come say hats off to the thread name!
 
Abe Connally
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I collected a few boxes of pads while collecting fruit this year, and we planted them out recently. I think we had about 150 pads or so, only from the best fruit producers. We left these pads for several weeks in the shade to callous over, and many had started to root. We planted about a meter apart along the fence line.

http://velacreations.com/blog/prickly-pear-fence-line/

 
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Abe Connally wrote:

Jenna Ferresty wrote:Does anyone know how far north they will overwinter and produce fruit?



I've read that some species survive in Canada.



I live in one of the two semi-arid desert regions of British Columbia (Canada) and there are prickly pear cactii all over my property, Abe.
.. albeit considerably smaller than what you have but they hurt just as much if you step on them.
 
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I'm thinking the very tip top of a hugelkultur mound would be an awsome spot for planting prickly pear, especially if you live in one of those marginal areas with heavy soils that don't drain well. Using them something like a deer fence on a perimeter mound to keep the nibblers at bay, plus a delicious harvest. What you all think? (you know before I go out and do it what should I be wary of?)
 
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Prickly Pear is a generic term....it contains several species, with different fruit, cold-hardiness etc...the most common as a fruit tree is Opuntia ficus-indica, but it's not very cold-hardy. For sure not -10°C...
 
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I love me some prickly pears! Recently I have moved back to my home town of Tucson,AZ where we have lots of native cacti including a bounty of PP.
Here's what I can share of my experience, I’ll do my best to keep on topic:

First, as mentioned, there are countless varieties of Opuntia, and they vary greatly in so many respects. Spines, pad size/shape, growth habit/height, climate preference, flower colors, fruit size/qualities etc.

I think a smart place to start is addressing the spines and bristles! Some varieties have more of the aforementioned fuzzy little mini stickers. I have just learned these are called glochids. Those are infinitely more unpleasant in your skin than simple thorny spines. spines you just grab and pull out. Bristles you reach for the duct tape and elmers glue. I've found the glue to work a little better, just say goodbye to most of your hair. Apply a thin smear of glue over the affected area and after it dries you peel it off, taking the fuzzy bristles with it. I've had a couple unfortunate run-ins (literally) growing up a desert rat and I tell you it can take HOURS to remove the bristly fuzz from all over a wailing child...
Fortunately for me the best local fruiting types have more spines and just a few glochids. Never tried a blowtorch and never felt inclined to. sounds like tons of extra work to me. Just wear long sleeves and pants of course, throw your clothes in a hot wash after and I've never had trouble with the little buggers. More bristley species might warrant greater measures (boil your clothes?).
I STRONGLY ENCOURAGE EYE PROTECTION, but that's cause I've had my cornea scratched before by airborne glochids and it was agonizing. That incident did not happen during harvesting, nor was it from a fruiting type PP, just being a kid playing in the desert. Don't harvest on a breezy day and NEVER touch your face, eyes, or crotch during harvest or propagation. These are common sense of course but still worth a warning for those who've never dealt with bristly cactus.
Harvesting itself is a breeze with a bucket or 5 and a pair of the longest tongs you can find. I use the tongs and harvest gently. Grasp the tuna and twist. If they’re ripe the fruit come off easily and you don't get many of those mini stickers/fuzz going airborne. its amazing how fast you can fill up buckets in a thick patch. you hardly take 2 steps and you need another bucket. I can see how pruning/shaping them into taller, openly branched "trees" might be cool but they just grow wild in such thick patches that there has never been any trouble picking all we care to process without needing to bother for any hard to reach fruit.
We have the round magenta red ones similar to Abe's pic at the first post and another good variety that has taller, more oblong fruit with a deeper burgundy color on the skin. Both primary types, and one or two more red variations seem to produce very similar juice in quality and color. Only really used them for juice and jelly, which are both delicious. It's been many years since I tried the fresh fruit but as I recall it was lackluster. I would love, LOVE to get ahold of some nice fresh figgy varieties. I've never had one but apparently the more yellow/orange fruited types can be better as fresh fruit.

To PROCESS the fruit, Mom just rinses them off and runs them thorns and all through a "berry press" and out flows the juice! That's it!
The spines and bristles don't come through at all. If you don't have a juicer you can mash the fruit and boil the spines away (extracting the juice at the same time), or roast the whole fruits real quick in a wide shallow basket over an open flame. This will burn them off pretty efficiently and we did that method until discovering the juicer. The juice press is the quickest easy way to get what your after and this one filters out all the spines. The fruit is VERY JUICY and YIELDS LOTS of juice. Of course you could boil the pulp a bit to extract some more, weak quality, juice but the pure juice is definitely the creme de la creme. The vibrant magenta color juice we get is not very sweet fresh which is why it is usually boiled down into syrup, jelly, wine etc. We do put the pure juice in lemonade though to make the best pink lemonade! you can freeze the juice in ice cube trays and then collect them. Mom still fills bags with these pink cubes in the freezer. Just pop a couple cubes into your preferred drink and it turns pink with some prickly pear flavor. Jelly is a big hit too. haven't got the syrup technique down yet but I'll be working on it next crop.
Have not ever processed the seeds but I've read they (and other tiny seeded cactus like saguaro and organ pipe) are nutritious. Apparently these seeds were a valuable food source to the aboriginals of this area, especially if other foods suffered in drought. I think they toasted them and ground them up, then mixed into a drink.

PROPAGATING the pads vegetatively is the fastest and easiest way to cultivate the prickly pear. It is also very common in nature. If a pad is dislodged and laying on the ground it will usually sprout roots and forms a new plant. Plenty about that already here so I'll talk about seeds. I've not actually sprouted seeds of PP but I have sprouted saguaro and golden barrel seeds which I think very likely to be essentially the same. All are tiny black seeds. Some suggest scarifying the seed which can be done easily by combining fine sand and seeds in your palm, then rub your hands together. We used a low flat tray, only 1-2 inches tall with drain holes, filled with extra sandy soil. Simply sprinkle the tiny seeds in, sprinkle a bit more sand on top, and water. Keep the sand moist until the sprouts start to emerge. A Spray bottle or mister is good because it is gentle and applies just enough water. One can cover the trays early on to keep things humid and not have to spray them all the time. If covered with plastic (a bag works) I suggest removing the cover for at least a few minutes daily to ventilate well and discourage mold. I don't remember how long it takes but I remember they came up thick as a carpet. After they emerge remove any moisture trapping cover immediately but continue regular watering. The little babies naturally sprout during the monsoon season, when thundershowers are a daily occurence. Make sure the tray drains well though so you don’t waterlog it, just keep it moist. They will want to be propogated in partial shade. In nature they sprout in the milder microclimate of a nurse plant such as mesquite, palo verde etc. If you don't have a convenient location in partial shade you can simply lay a small piece of shade cloth over the flat. They start off pretty slow, so be patient. After the tiny, spikey, sedlings start to take shape and show some green divide them up and transplant either into pots or the ground. About the size of a pencil eraser, or your small fingernail, seemed to work well. If going directly to ground we place a small wire cage around the transplant to protect it for a while. There are some tough critters around here called javelinas that will munch on PP, espcially if water is scarce. Babies are also susceptible to rabbits and deer. Mostly the cage marks their location as they are really hard to see when they are this small. Saguaro and barrel cactus both grow slower than pp. We left the cages on for the first several years until the cactus outgrows the cage.

If anyone wants to sprout some, I'd be happy to provide seeds from the next crop, but that won’t be until August or September.

I am very confident PP on top of a hugel mound will work well. We have a large shelter belt along the roadway that was built up, and planted, over a decade ago. A low area was filled in with some brush and lots of horse manure. Then soil (silty flood leavings) was put on top and PP pads planted as well as chollas and a few other things. The cactus seem to love it there and between prickly pear and cholla they have formed a fairly impenetrable hedge that yields lots of PP fruit, edible cholla buds, and is habitat to many small animals. Birds, reptiles, and mammals. This area is wide and level, not really a raised mound as commonly built with hugelkultur. I am just now building a taller, skinnier, more typical, raised hugelberm along another side of the property for flood control. Using the same basic recipe of brush, manure, soil. Berm gets nearly full sun and even with mulch I'm sure the top will get pretty dry much of the year. We average just 11inches/yr. I'll put a bunch of PP pads on top while leaving the moister,low area north of the berm for (slightly) more thirsty plants. As the PP grows up it will create a living thorny fence that shades the North side, creating a milder microclimate down there. The South side of this berm mostly bounds the driveway. Hopefully chiletepin will like it there and be able to sprout back in spring above whatever groundcovers can establish domain on the harsh hot side of the berm.

Feeling pretty longwinded with this post, but there is yet another use for PP that has not been mentioned yet in this thread. The use of the mucilaginous flesh of the mature pads to STABILIZE EARTH for building purposes. Plaster, rammed earth, adobe etc. I've no experience with this but will be trying it out soon on some small test experiments. Apparently the pads are chopped up well and left to soak/ferment for a time (weekish?). The resulting mash is then strained and the liquid mixed with earth for Adobe or RE. This is reported to impart the finished wall a measure of resistance to water and weather. I think it can be applied as a render coating over the top of a dried earth wall, or plaster, as well. I'm eager to test it out and will do some test bricks alongside untreated controls.

 
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Location: Austin TX/Sierra Blanca TX
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What a great thread! I absolutely LOVE prickly pears. I plan on growing many on my land. Thanks for all the helpful advice, posters!
 
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I don't think I had the cold hardy variety. I stuck them inside a hoophouse in December (though we'd already had some frost), and I've ignored them until today, when some wind blew the plastic off of the hoophouse. They are all shriveled, almost rotten looking. Also, from reading some posts online about prickly pears in the winter, I should have put them into some sandy/rocky soil that would drain well, though they were pots, so not really subject to getting waterlogged due to being under the plastic.
 
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Location: San Francisco
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Question: why are people planting the pads without shade or a nurse plant? They'll grow without but they benefit greatly with moister soils and dappled light in very dry and hot climates until they get three-fivr pads high

Peter Heffernan wrote:Beware!
Prickly Pear rendered 58 MILLION ACRES UTTERLY UNUSABLE in Australia in the early 19th century, because birds so quickly spread seads everywhere!
Be very careful not to make the solution into THE PROBLEM!



I mean it's not unusable, your Australians just weren't/aren't using it because it involves a complete shift in how to manage non-natives & cattle.

Someone mentioned burning the pads to feed to animals. That is correct in many places from Arizona to Hawaii but my favorite example of this isn't too far away from OZ across the Indian Ocean on the southwestern corner of Madagascar where Opuntia scrambled across the euphorbia drylands.

Rather than destroy the dry lands the Sakalava realized the use of it and expanded their cattle raising in the area, created living fences for defense against the French and relied on the fruits for water.

Of course it ends with the French unable to stop them in their symbiotic relationship with points and so they brought a pest to destroy opuntia, causing massive famine and militarial defeat buuuut at least there is an agro-pastoral/"silvo"-pastoral example of Opuntia in a foreign land that "takes over" and it benefiting herders.
 
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Andrew Ray wrote: I suppose this might be the one plant the goats won't be able to destroy...

One question-- I assume that these can tolerate severe cold? Our worst winters can go to -25C, those usually just -10C.



Goats do eat tunera, but they do not destroy them, as they usually eat the top of a pad. I can see them nibbled and I know that it is from goats.

For cold, there are varieties, and they do not stand the same low temps.
 
Xisca Nicolas
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Tyler Ludens wrote:I've not tried rooting the pads that you can sometimes find at the grocery, but you might try that.



They sell tender very young ones.
Old ones are the ones that you would use for planting.
I am not sure, but I guess that the ones of the grocery store will only rot.
 
Abe Connally
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I just collected some Opuntia ellisiana pads for a cold hardy spineless prickly pear to grow here. I've been looking into a spineless variety for rabbit fodder. These should be good down to -10F or lower, which is colder than we ever get.

The most common form of spineless in my area is Opuntia ficus-indica, but it doesn't survive the few hard freezes we get, and dies back every year.

Here's some info on Opuntia ellisiana
http://www.backyardnature.net/n/w/no-spine.htm
 
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That must be the kind we have, because ours are very hardy.

 
Abe Connally
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Tyler Ludens wrote:That must be the kind we have, because ours are very hardy.


Probably so, because they are native to Texas. Most states that have spineless PP have Opuntia ellisiana.

Opuntia ficus-indica is popular in Mexico, Florida, and some of the warmer states and areas. It's what is typically used in commercial plantations.
 
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