Plant Profile Prickly Pear Cactus

There is nothing pretentious about about the Opuntia, better known as the prickly pear. This cactus has large spines growing in tubercles, a small, wart-like projection on their stems.  They have clusters of regular spines called Glochids. These are either yellow or red in color and detach from the pads. Glochids are difficult to remove if they get embedded into the skin, so a person needs to be careful if trekking the deserts where this cactus is found.

The prickly pear cactus can be found in the deserts of the Southwest. Yet some have adapted to different locales and elevation ranges. The need for soil which is dry, flat or sloppy makes the Southwestern parts of the U.S. great for their growth.

These spiky little clusters bear fruit which is edible and their branches or (pads) are edible as well. If you’re walking down the Mexican aisle of the grocery store you might come upon a product called “Nopalito”, this is the canned or glassed pads of the prickly pear.

There are many variations of the prickly pear. Some of the different prickly pear types are:

Bearded Prickly Pear:  This cactus grows in the Chihuahuan Desert and grows up to 3 feet tall. They have small oblong, yellow-green colored spines. Their flower is cream colored with small red fruits.

Beavertail Cactus:  Grows in the Great Basin, Mojave, and Sonoran Desert. They grow about 12 to 18 inches and are shaped like a beaver’s tail. They produce a bright rose about 2 to 3 inches and their fruit is 1.5 inches and oval in shape.

Blind Prickly Pear:  This poky little fellow grows near Big Bend, Texas. It’s height ranges from 2 to 3 feet tall. It’s pads are oblong with a blue-green appearance. Their fruit can be yellow and red at the base. The fruit is plump and juicy.

Englemann’s Prickly Pear:  Found in the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Desert, this monster grows up to 5 feet. Their pads are blue/green and 12 inches either circular or oblong. They have yellow to peach flowers and their fruit is large, juicy and a reddish purple color.

Texas Prickly Pear:  This cactus lives in the Texas desert and grow to a staggering 5.5 feet. Their pads are oval with  translucent yellow spines. They have yellow flowers with a purple fruit.

These Opuntia or prickly pears are perennials, so they grow back yearly or they grow year round depending on the area. You’ll find many people using the prickly pear as yard decoration and as boarders to protect their lawns or property.

When traveling the  South Western parts of the U.S. don’t be surprised if you come upon the prickly pear in these states, (AZ, CA, CO, ID, KS, MO, MT, ND, NE, NM, NV, OK, OR, SD, TX, UT, WA, WY). They are weedy and invasive adapting well to the warmer and dry climates.

Some studies have shown the prickly pear to be somewhat medicinal, stating its pulp lowers levels of “bad” cholesterol while leaving “good” cholesterol levels unchanged. Too, studies have found that the fibrous pectin in the fruit may lowers diabetics’ need for insulin. So this cactus has more value than being yard decoration or a nuisance.

For a further detailed account of the prickly pear visit Plants profile for Opuntia (prickly pear)