Passion for Prickly Pears ... article

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Mar 17, 2013
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I thought this was a nice article about someone who collects prickly pears... sharing ...

A Passion for Prickly Pears with Home Gardener & Nursery Woman Diane Stout – Orland

By Jennifer Jewell February 20, 2009

Diane Stout loves Prickly Pear (Opuntia spp.) cactus - all kinds of them. She likes them in artwork, she likes them in pots, she likes them in all shapes and sizes all around her Orland garden. She likes them so much she named her nursery in Orland after the plants. The home garden that she shares with her husband Dave is home to nearly 40 individual Opuntia plants, comprising 16 different species or varieties. Opuntias are quite hardy, very low-maintenance and extremely drought tolerant. In general, they prefer full sun, lean rocky soil with sharp drainage, and once established, they need almost no supplemental water. Photo: Diane Stout standing beside some of the tallest Opuntias in her Orland garden

Opuntia is a genus of close to 200 species of cacti originating to North, Central and South America and the West Indies. The genus can be divided into what some people call the Prickly Pear cacti – with round but flatter pads, and the Cholla or Teddy Bear cacti – with heavily spined, oblong sausage-shaped pads. California beavertail cactus (Opuntia basilaris), Teddy Bear Cholla (O. bigelovii), Pancake or Dollar Joint Prickly Pear (O. chlorotica), Silver or Golden Cholla (O. echinocarpa), Old Man Prickly Pear (O. erinacea), and Buckhorn Cholla (O. acanthocarpa), are all considered native to California – mostly to the desert scrub and desert woodland regions of the state. Photo: A purple-fruited Opuntia.

Side note: while some Opuntia species have been designated invasive in some regions of the world, the California Invasive Plants Council’s interactive database of invasive plants does not list any Opuntia as invasive in the state.

As evidenced by Diane’s garden, many Opuntias thrive in the North State – frost, rain, wind, heat and all. Photo: Opuntias are outstanding in mixed plantings, such as here against an adobe wall with a large Salvia softening the front of the border.

“Someone asked me if the ‘prickly pair’ I had named the nursery after was me and my husband,” says Diane laughing at the memory. She and Dave moved to Orland from the Santa Barbara area (where Diane also ran a small garden center and nursery) in 2004. The Prickly Pear Garden Center was profiled on In a North State Garden in September of 2008. “But I became fascinated with Prickly Pear cacti when I lived down in Santa Barbara and I saw a number of different varieties on a garden tour of a tropical garden. I was so enthralled with their shapes, structures and colors. Something about the patterns of the spines and the architecture of the plants themselves grabbed me and I have collected them ever since. I’m sure it’s related to Fibonacci numbers, the Golden Ratio, the Golden mean – those mathematical and philosophical studies of why certain ratios or patterns recur over and over in nature and science and why we as humans are attracted to them as being ‘beautiful,’” she finishes thoughtfully. “And the abundant crepe-paper like flowers in spring, followed by brightly-colored fruit in the fall and winter are amazing.” Photo: Opuntias with striking spine or glochid patterns, such as this one with burnt orange glochids, are particularly appealing to Diane Stout.

No cacti of any kind were on the Stout’s property when they first moved in. “This is the first garden of my own that I’ve had the room to play around with all kinds of Prickly Pears,” she tells me as we walk around. The plants line walkways, are focal points, and are arranged as container specimens on porches. Dave is the builder and he constructed the little front courtyard as well as the several arbors and raised beds around the garden for Diane. These have become frames and backgrounds for her growing Opuntia collection. Photo: The front courtyard of the Stout's home garden is lined with taller-growing Opuntias as a hedge.

“Soon after we moved in, I blew my knee out riding my horse, and during my months of rehabilitation, I would walk or ride my bike around the neighborhood. Soon I began to notice some old farmhouses and a church that had interesting old stands of Prickly Pears and as I got stronger I would bring my buckets and my shovels, knock on doors and ask if I could take cuttings from plants I really liked. People always said ‘sure’ and then looked at me sort of oddly – as if I were crazy to want the plants, or to see if was crazy enough that they could get me to take the whole stand out for them!” Photo: Diane began her collection in earnest by asking for cuttings from mature stands of Opuntias in the area, for instance from old farmsteads or churches. Here an established stand of Prickly Pears complements the side of an old industrial metal quonset hut in Los Molinos.

But the history and uses – to say nothing of the beauty – of Opuntias is rich and varied – “and their uses in a landscape are so versatile,” Diane insists, “people just don’t know because you so rarely see them used well or thoughtfully in a garden.” Opuntias are – historically and currently - sources of food for both people and animals. The pads and the fruits of many kinds of Opuntias are edible, even considered delicacies. The juice from the cacti are fermented and used as an alcohol. (A friend of mine just had Prickly Pear cactus liqueur in Malta.) The juice and flesh of the pads also have long histories of medicinal uses. The dead, dried plants are burned as heating fuel. Larger varieties are grown as security fencing in rural areas. And many varieties are grown for their year-round beauty. The flowers are as abundant and colorful – ranging from red, to orange to pink to white – as the fruit, which can range from vibrant red, to orange to purple. Photo: Diane loves interesting Prickly Pears. This one has 'crested' or wavy pads and yellow glochids.

In her own garden, Diane has some plants that are clearly specimens on display all on their own – notable for their size, shape, color – or something, She has others she has massed for effect others that she has put in mixed plantings with complementary plants such as rosemary, olive, and agave. While I love the specimen plantings that make you say “oooh and ahhh,” these mixed plantings are particularly effective in demonstrating how lush, green and interesting Opuntias are in wider contexts. Photo: A heart-shaped pad on a plant in Diane's front courtyard.

When Diane takes a cutting from a plant – her own or anyone else’s – she tries to cut off a section that includes three or more pads or sections of the plant. She uses a long sharp knife and heavy utility gloves. Some people recommend using a thick stack of newspaper folded over to hold the plants, or old carpet remnants, either of which you then throw away as the tiny spines and hairs (glochids) from many of the species are impossible to remove from clothing or gloves. “I always seem to have some small microscopic spine festering in some fingertip,” says Diane. To remove spines or glochids from your fingers, Gwen Kelaidis in her book Hardy Succulents recommends spreading rubber cement across the affected area. When the rubber cement has firmed up and is sticky, peel it off and it generally pulls the prickers out too. Photo: The vibrant red, fist-sized fruit of one of Diane's larger plants in a mixed planting with olive and Agave.

Once a cutting is collected, Diane lets the cut heal over and dry up – “at least a few days, but sometimes I forget and the cuttings are there for a few weeks,” she tells me sheepishly. They still seem to thrive where they’re planted in her garden. She had several Opuntia branches break off her larger plants in windstorms earlier this winter. She “chiseled” a few of them in to the hard rocky dirt as frames on either side of the entrance to her driveway, the rest she has yet to place and they lie serenely on a garden bench during my visit. Photo: Diane loves the way the light plays across her cacti. Light shimmers across the surface of the pads and is refracted through the spines.

The only pest or diseases that Diane has experienced with her Opuntia plants is some scale (the fuzzy white blobs you often see on cactus, and which are the source of Cochineal red dye), and some fungal rot. Good hygiene, i.e, removing scale or diseased pads, sharp drainage in the form of a gravel mulch around the plant’s collar and sufficient air circulation (pay special attention to giving the plants enough room in a mixed planting) are good preventative measures. Otherwise, Opuntias are about as maintenance free, striking and lovely as any gardener might want. Just ask Diane Stout. Photo: The calloused or 'healed' end of a cacti or succulent indicates that it is ready to be planted and can withstand rot.

Most North State nurseries have a variety of Opuntias for sale. For specialty varieties, try Creative Cacti and Succulents in Chico.
The Northern California Cactus and Succulent Association, a branch of the Cactus and Succulent Society of America puts out a regular newsletter. Photo: Purple-red margins and glochids on smaller Opuntia.

Finally, several good books on succulents (and all cacti are succulents) have been published in the last few years and include some excellent information on Opuntias.
Cacti, Agaves and Yucca of California and Nevada, Ingram, Stephen; Cachuma Press 2009.
Hardy Succulents, Kelaidis, Gwen Moore; Storey Press 2007
Designing with Succulents, Baldwin, Debra Lee; Timber Press 2007. Photo: Red fruit peeking around a pad in an Opuntia.

In a North State Garden is an educational outreach program of the Northern California Natural History Museum and a co-production of North State Public Radio. The program is conceived, written, hosted and photographed by Jennifer Jewell, Executive Producer - all rights reserved, To listen to podcasts of past segments, click here.


The Dog Trainer
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Jan 9, 2010
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Cool article! I had to click into it to see the pics. Glad I'm not the only one who likes these. I have at least 7 opuntia varieties and around 30 stands. Plus the organ pipe cactus too.
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