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Opuntia ficus-indica

Large cactus, up to 6 m, with edible fruits that look like figs.

Scientific nameOpuntia ficus-indica (L.) Miller

Common names: prickly pear, barbary fig, cactus pear, Indian fig, Indian fig prickly pear, Indian pricklypear, mission fig, smooth prickly pear


Status in Portugal: invasive species

Risk Assessment score: (in development)

SynonymyOpuntia maxima Miller, Opuntia gymnocarpa Weber, Opuntia ficus-barbarica A. Berge

last update: 07/07/2014

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How to recognise it

Succulent shrub (cactus) up to 6 m; terminal cladodes with30-50 cm, oblong or oblong-obovate, green in the beginning and grey at the end.

Leaves: tiny (5 x 2 mm), conical, deciduous; generally evident aureoles with numerous glochidia; variable spines in density (0 a 6) and size (2-5 a 10-40 mm), thin, straight and whitish.

Flowers: with 7-8 cm de diâmetro, yellow or bright orange; pale yellow filaments.

Fruits: pseudo-berries with 5-6 x 3-4 cm,oblong-obovate, deeply umbilicate on the apex, yellow, purple or variegated, edible.

Flowering: May to June.


Similar species

Opuntia ficus-indica is distinguished from other Opuntia species, also invasive in Portugal, by the size and shape of its cladodes. Opuntia elata Salm-Dyck is very similar but is distinguished from O. maxima by the presence of unlevelled cylindrical cladodes and much longer spines. Opuntia subulata (Mühlenpf.) Engelm is very different, being distinguished from O. maxima by the smaller size of the cladodes which are nearly cyclindrical. Opuntia stricta (Haw.) Haw. distinguished from O. maxima by the smaller size of the cladodes, the presence of 3-8 robust spines and by the fruits that are less fleshy.

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Characteristics that aid invasion

It reproduces by seed producing a high amount of seeds.

It also reproduces vegetatively, by stem fragments (cladodes) that easily detach, root and originate new plants.


Native distribution area

Tropical part of America (from Mexico to Colombia).


Distribution in Portugal

Mainland Portugal (Trás-os-Montes, Beira Alta, Beira Baixa, Beira Litoral, Estremadura, Ribatejo, Alto Alentejo, Baixo Alentejo, Algarve), Azores archipelago (islands of São Miguel and Santa Maria).


Geographic areas where there are records of Opuntia ficus-indica

Other places where the species is invasive

Europe (Spain), South Africa, Africa, Australia, North America (California, Hawaii), western Asia.


Introduction reasons

For ornamental purposes along hedges; sometimes for its edible fruit.


Preferential invasion environments

It invades arid areas covered by herbaceous or shrubby vegetation, rocky areas and coastal areas. It also invades disturbed areas, like roadsides, gardens or places where it was planted.


Impacts on ecossystems

It forms thick, impenetrable mats that hamper the development of native vegetation and major herbivores.


Economic impacts

Control methodologies are quite expensive.

The spines of the leaves are harmful, and they prevent the presence of animals and make control methodologies applications difficult.


Natura 2000 network habitats more subject to impacts

– Vegetated sea cliffs of the Mediterranean coasts with endemic Limonium spp. (1240);
– Atlantic decalcified fixed dunes (Calluno-Ulicetea) (2150);
– Coastal dunes with Juniperus spp. (2250);
– Thermo-Mediterranean and pre-desert scrub (5330);
– West Mediterranean clifftop phryganas (Astragalo-Plantaginetum subulatae) (5410).

Controlling an invasive species demands a well-planned management, which includes the determination of the invaded area, identifying the causes of invasion, assessing the impacts, defining the intervention priorities, selecting the adequate control methodologies and their application. Afterwards it is fundamental to monitor the efficiency of the methodologies and recuperation of the intervened area as to perform, whenever necessary, the follow-up control.

The control methodologies used for Opuntia ficus-indica include:


Physical control

Manual/mechanical pulling preceded (or not) by the stem cut (preferred methodology). In compacted substrates, uprooting must be during the rainy season as to facilitate the removal of the root system. It should be guaranteed that there are no fruits, large roots and cladode fragments left in the ground, which root easily and originate new invasion foci.

All pulled material should be removed from the location for posterior destruction and burning.


Chemical control

Herbicide application on the stems. Herbicide injection (active substance: glyphosate) in the stems. It should be done before fruit maturation, considering that the seeds of unripe fruits are already viable.


Biological control

In several countries different biological control agents are used that have shown to be efficient, namely: Cactoblastis cactorum (Bergroth) (Lepidoptera: Pyralidae) and Metamasius spinolae (Coleoptera: Curculionidae), that feed in the interior of the cladodes; Dactylopius opuntiae (Cockerell) (Hemiptera: Dactylopiidae) a cochineal that sucks the sap.

None of these agents has yet been tested in Portugal as to verify its harmlessness to native species, so its use is not yet an option in our country.


Visit the webpage How to Control for additional and more detailed information about the correct application of these methodologies.

Agricultural Research Council – Plant Protection Research Institute – weed">Weed Research Division (2014) Management of invasive alien plants: A list of biocontrol agents released against invasive alien plants in South Africa. Available: http://www.arc.agric.za/arc-ppri/Documents/WebAgentsreleased.pdf [Retrieved 03/03/2014].

CABI (2012) Opuntia ficus-indica. In: invasive">Invasive species">Species Compendium. CAB International, Wallingford, UK. Available: http://www.cabi.org/isc/ [Retrieved 10/11/2012].

Dana ED, Sanz-Elorza M, Vivas S, Sobrino E (2005) Especies vegetales invasoras en Andalucía. Consejería de Medio Ambiente, Junta de Andalucía, Sevilla, 233pp.

Gallo AG, Delgado OR, Land EO, Silva L (2008) Opuntia ficus-indica (L.) Mill. In: Silva L, Land EO, Luengo JLR (eds) Flora e fauna terrestre invasora na Macaronésia. Top 100 nos Açores, Madeira e Canárias. Arena, Ponta Delgada, pp. 229-232.

Hoffmann JH, Moran VC, Zimmermann HG (1999) Integrated management of Opuntia stricta (Haworth) Haworth (Cactaceae) in South Africa: an enhanced role for two, renowned, insect agents. African Entomology. Memoir n°1: 15-20.

Marchante E, Freitas H, Marchante H (2008) Guia prático para a identificação de plantas invasoras de Portugal Continental. Imprensa da Universidade de Coimbra, Coimbra, 183pp.