Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
April, 2001
Regional Report

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Prickly pear cactus shows off its brilliant orange flowers loaded with pollen.

Cactus Flower

An enormous prickly pear cactus grows just inside my front gate. For much of the year, it has just big green pads with long spines that stab me when I try to garden in the vicinity. It reminds me of those science fiction movies where the evil commander gives the order to "fire at will" at the defenseless enemy. I can't win against this plant.

Spring Cactus Blooms

But all is forgiven in spring, when the prickly pear bursts forth with dozens of flame-orange flowers. It looks like a fireworks display. It starts with one or two blooms, then in full bloom has brilliant splashes of flowers covering the cactus pads in all directions. The blooms are about the size of my fist, which is large for a prickly pear.

Rains and Cactus

I don't know if the heavy rains we had this winter influenced how many flowers set, but the pads are jammed full of buds. I counted 18 on one pad. The cactus reminded me of its true nature, however, when I tried to count all of the flower buds and got too close to the needles. I quit in a bit of a huff.

The winter rains are responsible for the pads being thick, succulent, and very heavy this spring. One entire branch was too heavy to support itself and broke off, dropping six pads full of buds. It broke off cleanly so I trimmed the cut with a pair of long-handled loppers. It will dry in the air and seal itself, with no further treatment needed.

Of Spines and Glochids

I hated to see all of those buds from the broken branch go to waste, so I gingerly retrieved the pads and propped them up in containers. I have no idea if the buds will open, but they're so close to blooming it seems worth a try. It cost me only a few more spines and glochids in my knee, arm, and hand.

Glochids are tiny, hairlike bristles that surround the spine, and they are much worse than the spines to remove from your body parts. Spines can be grabbed with a tweezers and yanked, but the glochids are so thin that they break off, remaining in the skin to cause misery for hours. I place a piece of tape over the glochid and pull it off. Sometimes it works.

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