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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

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?

What's next?

project update by
Monday, March 1, 2021 - 08:03

Hi, I recently joined the group. How do I get started? Will Nate be in touch, or am I to find starter plants on my own/through the group? I'm in zone 5, Chicago area. Thanks!

One small success

project update by
Monday, March 1, 2021 - 01:18

Of all the seeds that sprouted and failed in different ways, one seedling did good and now seems to grow very very fast. I keep it as an houseplant for now and when it is strong enough to get cuttings I'll do that and test outside conditions in southern Finland

Need pads/seeds to start

project update by
Sunday, February 21, 2021 - 11:52

I am located in zone 5b in Michigan and would love to try to grow these. My grandmother grew these on her farm not far from where I reside.

Want to join project

project update by
Monday, January 18, 2021 - 02:36

I have a small prickly pear farm near Sterling Kansas and I would like to join this project. Currently I am growing opuntia humifusa, opuntia engelmanni, opuntia ellisiana var texana and opuntia cacanapa ellisiana, and a cultivar called Party Favor. Can anyone send me some pads? I'll pay shipping.


project update by
Tuesday, October 13, 2020 - 05:25

Hoping to get seeds next year and try growing them. Have an area with several types of opuntia, want to try the cholla small tree/bush form here in southern WV next year. Maybe flowering in the red tones.

Zone 6b Ranchito Rows prickly pear project

project update by
Friday, June 5, 2020 - 08:07

I brought up 4 cactus pads from the SF Bay Area in January and left them to harden off the cuts. Then I put them individually about 1/3 of the way down in big pots of cactus mix potting soil and didn't water them until I began to see some growth indications. Sparingly watering and letting the soil completely dry out before watering again and keeping them in my unheated high tunnel on a table, they began to put out new pads and bloom tunas. I moved the biggest one with the most pads outside for the summer. See photo. Eventually, I will plant it in the ground where it is now. The cement block building will provide protection from the southwestern wind storms as it grows larger.

Still waiting...

project update by
Wednesday, April 15, 2020 - 01:30

so far no germinations, I'm still trying however as I see many people said it took months for them as well! Would love for to get pads from someone if I don't get the gemination going! its been about a month so far. same with my yaupon holly, these and the Hancock ground cherries are the only things that haven't germinated for me yet.

Nopales Cactus

project update by
Saturday, January 25, 2020 - 11:33

I am not sure this is the correct place to inquire. I am trying to find out if there is a variety of edible Nopales Cactus I can acquire that are hardy in climate zone 6b. Any help would be appreciated.

Finally got three seedlings

project update by
Saturday, August 10, 2019 - 10:43

It turned out incredible hard to germinate prickly pear seeds but three out of many tens did it.
Update of 09/06/2019: after some three months more little cacti emerge...