A hardy cactus for your railroad
Common name: Dwarf prickly pear cactus, devil’s tongue
Latin name: Opuntia sp.
USDA Hardiness Zones: 3-10, depending on species
Cultural needs: Gravelly or sandy well-drained, neutral soil, sun or part shade
Plant size: 4-6″ pads, clumping
To feature “devil’s tongue” cactus in a family hobby may be controversial—just check out all those spines. Not soft or fuzzy, stiff spines hurt if stuck in skin and can break off, burying their little daggers in flesh. Opuntia pads are edible, if you can get past the spines, and bear delicious fruit, also called Indian fig. The pictured, barrier-like row of cactus growing in Zone 3 Alberta, Canada, certainly starts a conversation; the hobo and his old boxcar appear to want isolation. Most of us think of prickly pear cacti (cactuses) as native to the Southwest US, but Canada hosts a few native, cold-hardy species. O. polyacantha is probably the one pictured. Eastern prickly pear (O. humifusa, Zones 4-10) is flatter with fewer spines. O. ‘Baby Rita’, Zones 6-11, grows 8″-2′ high with small purple pads stacked on each other. After all, it’s the widened stems we’re looking at—no leaves at all. Baby Rita may be a good choice for railroad gardens because the purple pads could be like a crossing signal: “Caution!” How do you transplant them? Fold a section of newspaper several times and wrap it around the pads.