Could a Prickly Pear Cactus
 be planted in heavy soil?

Author : François Drouet

(translation from French by Marcello Finocchiaro)

 

 

Publication : 2003
Photographs : François Drouet
All rights reserved

 

A few years ago, after a long period of exile in the North, for professional reasons, I returned to the Var (Mediterranean coast, France) and frenetically started planting fruit trees typical of my place of origin, of which I had so long been deprived.

After the fig tree, the jujube and the Japanese loquat, I wondered if I could try something "more exotic" and therefore considered planting a prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica). I very much enjoy the fruit I eat with a small spoon, sliced lengthwise, into which I pour some Porto (while maintaining it firmly against the plate with a fork : thornless result warranted).

But some problems worried me : my soil is heavy (clay and chalky) and my yard hopelessly flat.

However, I very well knew that cacti, family to which the prickly pear belongs, require a light and sandy (at best) and very well drained soil.

All botanical books, all nursery catalogs will tell you the same. The most specialized ones even highly recommend complex, almost scientific-like, soil mixtures. Besides, I always asked myself where one could find these ingredients.

It was out of question to build a rookery that would remind me of northern regions. My prickly pear cactus had to grow in this flat and uniform soil like my jujube tree did.

After browsing the discouraging botanical literature over and over again, I eventually had a very simple thought : what do I risk? Seeing the pad leaf rot? Not seeing the pad leaf develop?

Besides, I firmly believed that water did not stagnate on my yard during winter and that "heavy soil" did not mean "swamp".

I decided to plant a pad leaf, given by a friend, and dug a large hole, filled with light soil and sand, in equal parts (no compost). Indeed, I asked myself if this technique was not going to provoke a "container" effect, my planting hole being flooded after each rainfall and unfortunately not being resorbed by the heavy soil delimiting it, so that my poor pad leaf would ineluctably rot.

As time went on, my pad leaf survived, grew and became an encouraging plant, without neither fertilizers nor specific cares.

Today, my nine-year-old prickly pear cactus is a clump-forming cactus, with about fifty pads and is 1.4 m by 2 m (photograph below).

Nine-year-old Opuntia ficus-indica planted in a heavy soil

Opuntia ficus-indica planted in a heavy soil

It produced its first fruits six years after planting and this year it bore forty fruits of good size and beautiful quality.

The fruits whistood -6°C without damage and, in my area, some fruits are still not harvested by the end of march.

Conclusion : you can plant a prickly pear cactus in heavy soil !

Questions : if the same cactus was planted in a light and dry soil, how tall would it be today? How many fruits would it bear? When would the first fruits appear? Was I simply lucky to be below the moisture threshold manageable by this Opuntia during winter?

 

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