Plant of the Week
Thornless Prickly Pear Cactus
Latin: Opuntia tuna
Luther Burbank and I seem to have something in common. That is, we just don’t
understand or quite trust for that matter, people who don’t like cactus.
Burbank, the famous turn of the century plant breeder who gave us the russet
potato we eat with our steaks, was a visionary plant breeder who saw potential
where others simply saw confusion. Burbank was an eclectic breeder who worked
with hundreds of different plants, but one of his most bizarre breeding attempts
must be his effort to produce the spineless prickly pear. Burbank (1849-1926) is
not a very highly regarded plant breeder, at least in academic circles, because
he seemed to promote his "new creations" in such a way that would make a used
car salesman blush and his record keeping skills were practically non-existent.
While Burbank, and his several ghost writers, produced lots of books including
his 13-volume "How Plants are Trained to Work for Man," (published in 1914 and
reissued in 1921 as eight volumes) -- it is difficult to determine what species
he used in his various and sundry crosses.
Burbank’s cactus breeding seems to have begun in the closing years of the 19th
Century. For a Mr. Harwood, in his 1905 book, "New Creations in Plant Life,"
discusses the project and promotes it profusely, but concludes that they are not
quite fully ready to be launched. Harwood says that the cactus will not be sold
for profit, but by 1914 Burbank seems to have changed his mind for he says that
a John Ruthland from Australia paid him $1,000 for a single pad and "practically
paid for his new home" from proceeds of the sale.
Burbank first collected seeds or cuttings of all the spineless types he could
acquire and then, with the energy of a deranged bumble bee, crossed and
re-crossed various sorts until he achieved complete spinelessness. He released a
dozen or more thornless cacti with names such as "Gravity," "Royal," "Prolific,"
"Hemet" and "Melrose."
Burbank claimed that, not only did these selections produce seedlings that would
also be thornless, but that the cattle that fed on them would have no need for
water, because they could get all they needed from their forage. He proposed a
feed-lot system where the opuntia slabs, along with some alfalfa and bran, would
be harvested and hauled to the cattle so that the cattle did not destroy the
plants as they grazed on them. From his experiments at his own proving grounds
Burbank estimated that he would get 100 tons of production per acre.
Well, needless to say, opuntia never made it as a dry-land forage crop for the
thirsty parts of the world. As it turns out, thornlessness in cacti is in part
genetically controlled, but also environmentally controlled. When plants are
stressed enough, they sometimes will produce thorns so Burbank’s dream of
million acre of cactus ranches never was to be.
As an ornamental the prickly pear is an interesting specimen plant. Depending on
the selection, it can grow from 2- to 8-feet tall. Hybrids are hardy statewide
in Arkansas if they are given full sun and good drainage.
In summer, plants produces teacup-sized yellow blossoms that are followed by a
fleshy, edible fruit. While placing a prickly pear in the landscape so it looks
appropriate is always a challenge in our well-watered state, it can make an
interesting conversation piece as the story of Burbank and his big dream are
By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension News -
October 29, 1999
The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.
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