Prickly pearBotanical name: Opuntia humifusa...


August 03, 1991|By Amalie Adler Ascher

Prickly pear

Botanical name: Opuntia humifusa austrina

Pronunciation: o-PUN-shi-ah

Family: Cactaceae (Catus)

Origin: North and South America, West Indies

Class: Perennial

Display period: Late spring, summer

Height: 6 inches

Environment: Full sun

Ordinarily you wouldn't expect to see cactuses growing in a Baltimore yard. But the prickly pear is hardy enough, if the soil is well-drained, to take temperatures outdoors as cold as in Massachusetts or Montana.

Nothing would grow in the hard clay that composed the 8-by-10-foot steep slope fronting Kathy and Charles Jancius' Hamden row house. And even if grass could be made to catch hold, it would be practically impossible to mow. In desperation, Mrs. Jancius (who claims not to have a green thumb) worked some all-purpose sand into the soil and stuck in a couple of prickly pear cuttings given her by her mother.

Proliferating like weeds and providing more cuttings to accelerate the spread, the cactuses in a few years had blanketed the area so heavily that Mrs. Jancius has been giving away offshoots by the boxful ever since.

The prickly pear's flat pads -- one emerging out of another -- and prostrate growth suit it to ground cover treatment, especially in problem areas or where the need to ward off trespassers occurs. However, plants, covered by stickers, must be handled with pliers (Mrs. Jancius' tool), tongs, heavy gloves or thick layers of newspapers.

When the cup-shaped, 3-inch, waxy, yellow flowers cover the Jancius's slope in June (and intermittently thereafter), passersby stop in rapt admiration and some are presumptuous enough to (( ring the couple's doorbell and ask for information or a piece to root.

Formerly classified as O. compressa, the prickly pear, after blossoming, bears fleshy red fruits that are eaten in some places, such as Mexico.

In winter, Mrs. Jancius says, the cactuses "dry up and look dead. They start waking up in April and come to life quickly." The plants never need watering, she says, and the only care they need is the occasional removal of trash, lifted out with grocery-type tongs.

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