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Barbary fig, the cactus with paddles and prickly pear fruits

Barbary fig paddles

Barbary fig, or Opuntia ficus-indica, is the cactus that bears prickly pears.

Barbary fig key facts

NameOpuntia ficus‑indica
Family – Cactaceae
Type – perennial cactus

Height – 15 feet (5 m) and more
Soil – light, well-draining, any pH
Hardiness – not hardy (minimum 50°F or 10 °C)

Flowering: spring, summer  –  Foliage: evergreen  –  Exposure: full sun

Barbary fig is a perennial cactus that grows as large as a regular tree. Its blue-green stems are formed by pads (the flat portions that look like ping-pong paddles). The blooming for this cactus starts in spring and continues throughout the entire summer. Edible fleshy fruits follow suit: the barbary figs.

Planting a barbary fig tree

Opuntia ficus‑indica won’t grow in just any climate. Indeed, it isn’t hardy at all, to the point that it needs temperatures higher than 50°F (10°C). As a consequence, set it up in full sun so that it can get all the light and heat it needs to thrive.

Planting barbary figLike many other perennial cacti, Barbary fig is vulnerable to excess moisture. It must thus be planted in well-draining, light soil. The pH doesn’t matter, anything will do. Once you’ve selected the right spot, the planting itself is pretty straightforward for your barbary fig:

  • Favor planting in spring.
  • Dig a hole about 8 inches (20 cm) deep.
  • Feel free to add soil mix and sand to increase drainage.
  • After removing the pot, tease the clump open a bit and release a few roots so that they may spread more readily.
  • Settle the plant down in the hole and backfill, pressing the soil down as you go.
  • Depending on how moist the soil is, you might want to water just once at the start.

Growing a barbary fig tree in pots isn’t impossible. However, it grows very large when it matures and will still have lots of spikes and pricks: repotting and moving the pot will get increasingly difficult.

Caring for barbary fig

Since it doesn’t fear drought, you won’t need to water your barbary fig. If it is set up in a pot, you’ll have to:

  • Flowering barbary fig with three buds on the waywater only when the surface of the substrate has dried up;
  • add special fertilizer 3 to 4 times a year, during the growth phase (spring, summer, fall);
  • avoid both watering and fertilizing during winter.


You won’t need to prune your barbary fig.

Propagating barbary fig:

You can multiply your plant either through seed or through stem cuttings in spring or summer.

Diseases and pests:

Barbary fig is a resistant perennial. It generally doesn’t fall sick. Nonetheless, there is one situation that is sure to kill it: root rot due to insufficient drainage in the soil. Regarding pests, you’ll have to stay on the lookout for scale insects, they’ll quickly overrun your plant.

Landscaping and pairing

The shape, size and growing requirements of the Barbary fig tree make it an excellent choice for dry gardens. Compose a wonderful exotic landscape together with:

  • trees and shrubs such as eucalyptus, fragrant santolina, pineapple broom, etc.
  • or other perennials such as Agave, Aloe, Kniphofia, alien-like spurge, succulent plants, etc.

Barbary fig cultivars

Common names – barbary fig, Mickey Mouse cactus, prickly pear, tree cactus

Barbary fig paddle with four fruitsOpuntia ficus‑indica is traded through a few different cultivars. The main difference between them is the color of their fruits:

  • ‘Sulfarina’ has yellow fruits;
  • ‘Sanguigna’ has violet-red fruits;
  • ‘Muscaredda’ bears whitish fruits.

There are also quite a lot of hybrids, and a relative often sold as houseplants is Opuntia vulgaris.

→ Read also: health benefits of Barbary fig

Smart tip

The barbary fig cactus has spikes on both leaves and fruits. Once lodged in your skin, they’re hard to remove. It’s important to wear gloves and to be careful when you handle the plant.

Images: adobestock: Kathy Images; Pixabay: Hans Braxmeier, Pål Karlsen, Virginie

Written by Christophe Dutertre | With a formal degree in landscaping and an informal love of gardens, Christophe will introduce you to this passion we all share. Novelty, down-to-earth tips and environment-friendly techniques are marked on the map, so let's get going!
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