One of the most common dessert cacti of North and Central America is the Opuntia basilaris or the beavertail cactus. This bushy cactus is characterized by its teardrop-shaped flat pads, resembling the tail of a beaver, thus giving it its nickname. The beavertail cactus, just like its larger cousin the prickly pear, flowers copiously, bears edible fruit and foliage, propagates easily, and is a hardy, excellent landscape plant.
Beavertail cactus can be found growing naturally in the southwestern United States (primarily southern California, Arizona, and Utah) and northern Mexico in the Baja, Sonora, and Mojave deserts. This cactus prefers very dry, rocky slopes or sandy inclines and prospers in full sun, once established. The beavertail cactus can store tremendous amounts of water gathered from the desert’s winter rainy season for long periods of drought encountered in the summer. Typically, it is hardy down to -18 degrees Celsius (0 degrees Fahrenheit).
The beavertail cactus can be used as an attractive landscaping plant. Its roots are not destructively deep growing and yet they can hold tenaciously to varying curvatures of hills. Generally, this cactus attains a height of two to four feet at the center of its cluster of pads and spreads out in a bush-like fashion, following root growth. They require full drainage and although they can store water, they grow to be more lush when watered regularly at the end of winter and early spring and then more lightly and less frequently, but still regularly throughout summer. The cactus produces red to redish-fuchsia blooms in March and April (sometimes later depending on rainfall) and yields elongated egg-shaped fruits, grayish red/brown in color.The beavertail cactus is extremely easy to propagate from cuttings. A broken off pad can be rooted quickly and once a large enough root system has grown from a cutting, the new plant will produce branches of new pads and flowers usually after just the first year or two of growth.
Both the fruit and the pads of the beavertail cactus are edible. The fruit must be strained of its many seeds first, but when distilled and jellied, it can be made into a lightly sweet delicious jam. The pads are typically cut into strips then grilled with butter or vinegar or battered and deep fried, once the spines have been removed and the pad skin peeled. The spines of the beavertails cactus are glochid, meaning they are small clusters of barbed spines that enter a surface and cannot be pulled out without damaging the area in which they are embedded (like a tiny fish hook). When handling beavertail cactus, using thick gloves and/or folded up strips of newspaper for extra protection is highly recommended.
Beavertail cactus are wondrous, versatile desert plants that are beautiful, easy to grow, delicious to eat, and are truly one of natures greatest products!