The nopal cactus, also called the prickly pear cactus, is native to the hot desert areas of North and Central America. It is a hardy plant that is easy to grow and maintain. If you live in a warm, arid or semi-tropical climate, you can easily grow nopal cacti in your garden. For cool or cold climates, nopal cacti make exotic hardy house plants. The large paddles of the nopal cactus can be harvested and eaten raw or cooked. When the cactus first puts out new growth, the paddles are tender and free of sharp spines. As the new growth matures, it will develop sharp spines. Always wear gloves when handling cacti and be sure to scrape the paddles well if you intend to eat them.
Mix potting soil with a handful of sharp sand. Fill the planting pot with the sand and soil mixture. Chose a pot that will drain well. Plastic planting pots have several holes in the bottom, which is ideal as this allows water to seep though the soil and disperse.
Break off a paddle from an existing nopal cactus. Wear heavy gloves and remove it by grasping the paddle gently and twisting until it separates from the plant. New tender growth will come off easily. More mature paddles might need to be severed with a sharp knife.
Place the cactus paddle in the planting pot. Position it sideways or upright covering about an eighth of the paddle so that it stands up in the soil. The newly planted cactus paddle will quickly develop a tap root. However, signs of growth will not appear for some months.
Water the cactus thoroughly after planting. As the cactus takes root, it will need less water. In general, cacti need little water to survive and grow. Too much water will cause the roots to rot. Make sure the pot is able to drain well because sitting in water or damp soil can cause the roots to rot.
Water infrequently allowing the roots to dry out between waterings. Feel the soil to see if it is damp. It should be thoroughly dry between waterings. Fertilize lightly once a month to encourage rapid growth.
After the cactus paddle has developed a strong tap root, it will begin to demonstrate new green growth on the edges of the paddle. The growth will start as tiny soft spiny buds and rapidly develop into green tender paddles. Growth at this point happens exponentially as each developing paddle produces several shoots of its own.
If you are keeping your cactus as a house plant, you can move it to a bigger more-permanent pot at this point. Or if your climate allows, you can plant your cactus in the ground, being sure to place it in soil that drains well.
Nopal cacti grow to be as tall as 10 feet hight, but with pruning you can keep it the height and shape you want. To prune a nopal cactus, grasp the paddle and twist gently until it comes away from the plant. The removed paddles can be eaten in salads, cooked or used to propagate more plants.