Known by lovable names like the bunny ear cactus, or the Mickey Mouse cactus, it’s easy to think that Opuntia microdasys might be a friendly plant.
It grows from flattened oval shaped stems, often referred to as ‘pads’.
Each pad is covered in small clusters of microscopic spines or glochids, arranged in attractive mathematical patterns, often yellow, and sometimes white or a rusty orange.
These colourful, fluffy looking clusters of tiny spines are what makes these cacti so attractive as houseplants, but they are just as prickly as their large-spined relatives.
How to care for a bunny ear cactus
The bunny ear cactus is highly specialised to make the most of any atmospheric moisture during the dry season in Mexico, where they are native to.
This drought resistant adaptation means they can go several months totally forgotten about, without any detrimental effects.
Your cactus will still, most likely, be alive.
Of course the weather in London is not yet quite what it is in Mexico, but you can use this plant's adaptation to your advantage in our more temperate climate.
Like all succulents, Opuntia cacti resent having wet and cold roots for extended periods of time. Instead of exposing your cactus to the same extremes and stresses of Mexican climate, you can stop watering your cactus and replicate a drought on your windowsill through the colder, darker months of the year.
This will render your cactus dormant until you start watering it again when the weather warms up again in the spring.
It is a mistake to think that because Opuntia is a cactus that you can get away with never watering it. This is true for a few months, but eventually your cactus will begin to shrivel and eventually die, use the warmer months of the year, from May to September to water between once a week and once a fortnight, allowing the compost to dry out between waterings, and your cactus will reward you with the growth of new ears or pads.
Giving your Opuntia enough light is also key to its success. You can’t really give this cactus too much light - position by a window that gets sun all day, or for much of the day - a south or south-west facing window is ideal. Too little light, and the oval shaped pads, will begin to grow long and thin and bend towards the window.
How to propagate a bunny ear cactus
Opuntia can be propagated from whole pads or stems removed from the parent plant, either by cutting or breaking them off. Take care to protect your skin from the tiny hair like spines, and for best results, summer is the best time to propagate Opuntia. The separated pads then need to callus over, leave them somewhere warm and dry for 2-3 days, until the wound has healed and appears dry.
The pads can then be placed on or partially buried in a free draining compost, either a specialist cactus and succulent compost, or a mix of 2 parts multipurpose peat-free compost with 1 part horticultural sand and horticultural grit. Even pure sand on its own that has been slightly moistened will be enough for the cutting to start making roots. New plants can be slow to root, keep the compost moist but not wet, and after a month or so, try to move the pad slightly, if it feels anchored, it means it has rooted. Ease off the watering and watch it grow!
George Hudson is Head of Plants and Education at Walworth Garden, a South London charity delivering workshops, courses, therapeutic horticulture and plants for sale in a garden open to all. Follow on Instagram @walworthgarden