Guest Author - Connie Krochmal
Of the prickly pears, there is one species in particular that has a wide distribution in the New World—the Irish mittens.
Irish mittens is also known as prickly pear or Indian fig. It can be found in most all areas of the country to some degree except for Maine and the Northwest. A variety or form of this species may also be native to parts of South America. In addition, this plant has also naturalized in parts of Europe where it is now even found in some mountainous areas of Switzerland. The Latin name for this species refers to the fact that the plant spreads along the ground.
Sometimes erect, this plant will usually be more prostrate and spreading. It is low growing. However, it can eventually grow to be over three feet in diameter. The joints are light to dark green, and often have a shiny appearance.
The individual joints can grow to nearly seven inches in length. The larger segments are somewhat rounded and flat. This is one of the cacti that are often spineless. There may be a limited number of spines along the margins of the joints. However, there are brownish-red glochids or hair-like spiny bristles. This species actually produces foliage that lasts for a very short time before it turns brown and dies back.
The large, vivid yellow blossoms grow to three inches in diameter. There can be a colorful red eye in the center that is shaped like a star. The blossoms have up to a dozen petals. These open during June and July at the nodes either singly or in small clusters.
The pear-like fruits are pulpy and edible. These ripen to red or purple. These fruits are unusual in that the entire thing can be planted. These give rise to sprouts that are known as eared buds. In addition, this plant can also be propagated from seeds and cuttings.
A variegated form of this plant is sometimes available.
This plant has spreading, branching, fibrous roots.
Irish mittens can be grown outdoors in some areas as a garden plant. It is also suitable as a houseplant. When grown indoors, they will need full sun. If you choose this route, give them a warm indoor temperature as well. Allow the potting soil to dry out between waterings. For the winter rest period, reduce water somewhat, adding just enough to keep the soil from becoming completely dry. This needs a coarse, well drained potting mix.
Fertilize every couple weeks during the growing season, using only ¼ the strength listed on the fertilizer label.
As a houseplant, this tends to be pretty fast growing and will need repotting every couple years.