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Cold-Hardy Prickly Pear Cactus

This project aims to test — and push — the northern limits of a large-fruited species of prickly pear cactus (Opuntia stricta), native the U.S. Southeast, along with O. stricta hybrids and other large-fruited species. Of particular interest are strains with readily edible young pads as well.
Prickly pear cacti provide popular food across tropical regions of the world, though the genus is native to the Americas. Most commonly grown for the sweet fruit, colorful-fleshed fruit, the species Opuntia ficus-indica is the most famous, but many other species are commonly eaten or juiced. In Mexico and other places, the fully-formed young pads are a common vegetable (known as nopal, singular, or nopales, plural). A low-growing, small-fruited species known as Opuntia humifusa grows along the U.S. east coast as far north as New England, but it is the relatively large-fruited species called Opuntia stricta that is of interest here. Native as far north as North Carolina or possibly Virginia, Opuntia stricta is the tallest and largest of the cold-hardy prickly pears. The fruit grow to roughly 3 inches long by 2 inches wide. The deep red-purple flesh is quite tasty, a pleasing mix of sweet and tart. Additionally, the fruit were recently found to contain among the highest amounts of betacyanins (the same antioxidant pigment that gives red beets their color), compared to other prickly pears, which means it has medicinal or nutritive uses that have yet to be fully studied. It has large pads that grow similarly to nopales, but little is known about its possible use as a vegetable. This plant was not on our radar until I found a patch growing in a south-facing front yard in southern New Jersey (shown in photo). It appears to be quite mature, and was well laden with fruit when I came across it in 2017. As of March 2018, I'm attempting to sprout many seeds after preparing them in three different ways (dried fresh from the ripe fruit, dried naturally after slowly rotting indoors, and stratified outdoors over the winter while kept moist in the rotten flesh of the fruit). Hopefully one or all of these methods will produce a plethora of seedlings. I intend with this project to send seeds and/or seedlings to volunteers across the northern United States to test the limits of this hardy species. Where it was found in New Jersey is considered USDA Zone 7, but winters sometimes get quite cold here, dipping into temperatures more typical of Zone 5. I'm willing to send seeds (once we learn how to best germinate them) and seedlings to volunteers as far north as Zone 4, or possibly colder. I'm also interested in identifying cultivars with particularly large fruit and/or readily edible young pads. This project will begin with Opuntia stricta (grown in the presence of Opuntia humifusa), but intentional hybrids and other species will be included as I get them from other growers and researchers.
Researcher background
Co-founder of EFN. See bio in "About" section.
Are you seeking volunteer growers or other types of volunteers?
Yes, seeking volunteer growers
How many volunteers do you need?
What will you ask volunteers to do?
Volunteers will be asked to grow and observe these cacti over the next few years. It will likely take 5 years or so before all of the characteristics of each plant become fully apparent. Volunteers are requested to grow at least five or ten plants in a sunny spot where they expect to be able to maintain the plants for at least five years. Plants should be kept well weeded and not be sprayed with any chemicals.

Annual or twice-a-year reports on winter survival will be the most important metric, but qualitative analysis of fruit size, yield, and flavor, as well as pad edibility, will be of interest as well. Live pads (the easiest way to propagate this species) and/or seeds from exceptional plants will be expected to be returned at some point, once evaluation and comparisons are made. Photographs throughout the process will be encouraged.
Other requirements of volunteers?
Volunteers with a variety of soil types, to as cold as Zone 4 or 3, are sought.
Is this a multi-year project?
Can volunteers expect to be able to keep some germplasm (seeds, bulbs, cuttings, spores, etc) at the close of the project?
Yes, of course
Anything else?
Volunteers should always wear gloves when working with this species, and the gloves used should only be used for this purpose. Many Opuntia species, including this one, not only have long spines, but also minuscule hairlike spines called glochids that are painful and very difficult to remove once they enter the skin.
Researcher Location

United States

Project Updates

Interested in volunteering

project update by
Sunday, February 18, 2024 - 07:38

Hi there! I'd been looking into breeding my own cold-hardy pricklies before I found this project, and I'd like to offer my space for growing in Illinois Zone 6b.

How do I participate?

project update by
Thursday, October 12, 2023 - 01:23

I live in joliet illinois zone 5b and would love to try growing a taller cactus than eastern prickly pear. How do i proceed to be a part of this? Thank you.

Interested in participating

project update by
Friday, August 25, 2023 - 04:57

Hey all, I'm joining from Detroit, MI (Zone 6) and would be interested in growing for this project. I recently learned opuntia humifusa grows in the state and would love to grow it, the pilot species for this project, or work on hybrids.


project update by
Tuesday, February 21, 2023 - 10:22

I would be happy to help with this project. I'm in zone 5a.

Interested in Participating

project update by
Wednesday, February 8, 2023 - 09:14

I'm in NW Iowa (on the edge of zones 4/5) and would love to participate if more volunteers are needed.

First winter outside

project update by
Tuesday, February 7, 2023 - 10:03

This is the only one I could grow from seed, so I rooted one pad and planted it outside early last summer. It grew very much, about tripled. It grows on old stone fence, I put some clayish sand for the roots, other than that it has to find it's nutrients from composted moss etc.
The winter has been mild, mostly just barely freezing, worst has been maybe -15 Celsius and not for a long. It seems to do quite all right, maybe a bit yellowing on some areas but I believe this will not be fatal by any means. Continuing to monitor it.

Seeds still available?

project update by
Friday, February 3, 2023 - 08:59

I am already growing Eastern Prickly Pear Cactus in two separate areas and would like to participate. Do you still have seeds for sale? Thanks!

To Columbcile

project update by
Wednesday, December 28, 2022 - 01:48

I could not reply to your comment for some reason so decided to do a separate post:

Hello, I have Opuntia humifusa but they are shriveled and dormant. I don't mind helping you out this spring when they start growing again. I am in zone 6b.

I can tell everyone right now that Opuntia ficus-indica will not live outdoor in 6b. Unless, perhaps, you somehow provide shelter for it during the cold? Maybe bring it inside. Mine died the very first freeze we got in November I mean deader than a door knob. I was testing it in both pots and directly in the ground. The pads in the ground are south facing behind a barn in soil that is very well draining. It is a hot spot and the pads there look dead too. But maybe the roots are alive? We shall see this spring. The pads in the pots look dead, dead, dead.

I should mention that the killing temperature was within the temperatures for zone 8. I think I lost my Opuntia ficus- indica because they were first year cuttings. The killing temp was around 19 degrees. USDA zone 8 lows are 10-20 depending on if 8a or 8b.

I am not finished testing though. I am going to get more pads and try covering them next winter a frost cloth or similar and some green Christmas lights (not led and if I can find them) to bring up the temp a bit. My pads were first year babies. Maybe a little older, more established plant would fair a better chance? Should be a fun experiment.

The photo is what a Opuntia ficus-indica does in freezing temps while in a pot.

Willing to purchase established zone 6 pads

project update by
Wednesday, December 28, 2022 - 12:27

I'm up here in Maine, and have had terrible link with the seeds, if anyone has a good established zone 6 plant(s) going, I'll buy a pad(s) to treat the zone 5 hardiness! Please let me know!

Seeds or Cactus pads?

project update by
Wednesday, October 5, 2022 - 08:28

Hey everyone! I specialize in growing cold-hardy cactus that are native to my are, but many of them don't have the best edible fruits. I'm in zone 7a. Are seeds and pads still available for participating in this research project? I'd love to help trial Opuntia stricta along with my Opuntia humifusa, Opuntia macrorhiza, Opuntia engelmannii var. lindheimeri, Opuntia ficus-indica, and many others!

Pollen spacing question, seed or cutting acquisition question?

project update by
Thursday, September 29, 2022 - 12:24

Hin When I joined this prickly pear project on the website it gave me a notification that the email server had goofed somehow so I thought I would check in here. I'm very interested in seeds or cuttings. Cold hardy prickly pear has been of interest to me for a while, seems like a great climate resilient crop. I would appreciate being able to solicit or buy from one of y'all, not sure how to solicit from anybody. I presently have a couple unidentified Opuntia specimens from Texas and Missouri that have been growing, budding, and overwintering well, no blooms yet, but would like to try some in the garden away from the heat of the house soon. I would like a suggestion as to how far apart to plant them so I can make room for a specimen from this project, or to ask generally if it messes up anybody's pollen goals if I have them near each other. Thank you for your time and I appreciate everybody's work on these Opuntia!

Excited to join

project update by
Tuesday, August 23, 2022 - 08:42

Hey guys, I’m happy to be here. I have a few prickly pear plants that I bring inside when temps drop, but recently I’ve been more interested in a cold hardy variety so I will definitely be looking to help.

Response to thealexpyne

project update by
Saturday, June 18, 2022 - 03:53

Hi! Not sure how to reply to someone's update—is it possible? Just wanted to chip in responding to alexpyne that at least I germinated with the following steps:
1) scratched surface of each seed with sandpaper
2) soaked seeds overnight
3) planted seeds perhaps 1/4 inch under the soil in plastic seed starting trays; mix was some soil, some seed starting mix, and sand
4) first I just let the tray sit there, and then after no germination for a couple weeks I changed methods and used a heat mat and plastic cover and kept the environment very very humid. I then started to get germination in around a week. I think the seeds like heat and dampness/humidity.
5) I removed the heat mat and plastic cover once several seedlings started growing their first spines.
6) some seeds still took until four months (!) later to germinate. I'm sure that if I had let the other trays sit for another year I probably would have gotten even more germination.

Recommended way to germinate?

project update by
Friday, June 17, 2022 - 03:29

Hello everybody,

I'm relatively new to experimental plant projects and was curious if over the years of breeding these new varieties of prickly pear anyone has any "best practices" for germination. When I recieved the vineland hardy and willoughby spit prickly pear seeds, I surface sowed them in well draining soil. I sowed about 40 seeds for each variety and I don't yet see any sprouts (it's been two weeks now). If I were to try again, should I sow in containers instead?

Thanks for any help!
- Alex

Recommended way to germinate?

project update by
Friday, June 17, 2022 - 03:27

Hello everybody,

I'm relatively new to experimental plant projects and was curious if over the years of breeding these new varieties of prickly pear anyone has any "best practices" for germination. When I recieved the vineland hardy and willoughby spit prickly pear seeds, I surface sowed them in well draining soil. I sowed about 40 seeds for each variety and I don't yet see any sprouts (it's been two weeks now). If I were to try again, should I sow in containers instead?

Thanks for any help!
- Alex

Mine is a feisty little fellow now!

project update by
Wednesday, September 15, 2021 - 05:57

This one germinated last winter, and now, after summer is a nice little thing with a clear pad already. Not going to propagate it just yet, better keep it as an "indoor plant" this winter, and maybe next summer I'll root one pad, and try its winter hardiness.

Update at 4 months!

project update by
Friday, September 3, 2021 - 09:06

Hi everyone! I'm Nora and I live in NJ, zone 6b or 6a. After purchasing both NJ (Vineland Hardy) and VA (Willoughby Spit) prickly pear seeds from EFN earlier this year and taking care of the seedlings with all my might, I only just now found this project! So excited to be able to share in the cactus-growing journey with others.

I started my seedlings on May 5th of this year and they started sprouting toward the end of May/early June. I probably had around 35% germination. I started them in little seed-starting trays with an easily removable plastic cover next to a northeast-facing window. They were on a heat mat and they only started popping up once I kept the soil consistently moist. Every day I would take off the cover and let the accumulated water drip back into their cells or onto the floor of their tray, and added more water when they weren't moist enough to make condensation. Once they started growing their first paddle and spines I took off the cover and hung a grow light—I did it so late because some had a sunburnt appearance when they first came up. Now each one is in its own larger pot and I water more or less once a week. They started tipping over, though, and when I checked with people in the reddit cactus group I decided that the plants were etiolated/top heavy because the light wasn't strong enough, and now it's hung about 6 inches from the tops of the plants. We'll see how they do from here! Attached are a few photos. Currently there are 3 from NJ and 6 from VA


project update by
Sunday, August 29, 2021 - 09:53

Got my seeds from EFN last year and was not able to plant them until a few weeks ago...Read the comments here about low rates of germination so I tried 4 different ways to prepare the seeds..sanding, water soaking, piercing, and lemon juice soaking. The method that worked for me was to pierce the seeds with a pin and soak them in water for several hours. Also keeping them covered with plastic and inside at around 70 degrees. Germination happened in about 2 weeks.

No germination from three different varieties

project update by
Monday, July 26, 2021 - 06:12

I bought seeds for the three varieties on sale at the EFN store in the winter of 2021 and planted five seeds of each in march. I unfortunately got no germination. I will try again next year, maybe with some cold stratification.

Do I need to attach my prickly pears cactuses to props?

project update by
Wednesday, March 17, 2021 - 10:40

My prickly pear cactuses are partially from seeds I got as seeds here at Experimental Farm Network and germinated two years ago, and partially from pads I got from other source. They overwintered fine, but kind of lied down to the ground. Do I need to prop them up, or is it a natural behavior? Maybe this way they will develop additional roots?