Plant of the Month - June 2018
It may come as a surprise to some that any member of the Cactus family (Cactaceae) could be considered to be an alpine plant, let alone any that would be hardy enough to grow outdoors, unprotected from winter rain and (very) cold temperatures. One of the many genera which fit the bill are the Opuntias, the prickly pears - a fitting name if you have ever had the misfortune of brushing against one. Native only to the Americas, many species have now become naturalised across the globe. If you are tempted to try at least one Cactus in the garden, this one is both easy, fast growing and extremely attractive, only requiring very free draining soil and exposure to good strong sunlight.
The original plant of Opuntia 'Smithwick' was found by Claude Barr near the city of Smithwick,South Dakota in North America. it is now accepted that it is a natural hybrid between Opuntia polyacantha and Opuntia fragilis (at one time thought to be a hybrid between Opuntia fragilis and Opuntia humifusa). Noted for both the large size and number of flowers produced, this plant has a 'Wow' factor wherever it is found in flower. A word of caution, this plant should carry a health warning - IT IS VERY PRICKLY! One of its methods of self-distribution is to attach itself to anything which gets near enough, using barbed spines, so place it somewhere out of the reach of young, investigative hands or be prepared for the howls.
The translucent, large yellow flowers with a boss of red anthers and yellow powdery pollen can be up to 10cm in diameter, with a number of flowers borne on each 'pad'.
Propogation of this hybrid is straightforward , the individual 'pads' fall freely from the plant ( an inherited trait from O.fragilis) and root easily, usually where they fall but control can be obtained using a peat/sand mix. Opuntia 'Smithwick' produces fertile pollen and has been used in complex hybridisations.