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Prickly Pear Cactus

Genus Opuntia

Most prickly pear cactus have yellow, red or purple flowers, even among the same species. They vary in height from less than a foot (Plains, Hedgehog, Tuberous) to 6 or 7 feet (Texas, Santa Rita, Pancake). Pads can vary in width, length, shape and color. The Beavertail, Santa Rita and Blind Pear are regarded as spineless, but all have glochids.

Prickly Pear Cactus flower
Prickly Pear Cactus flowers

Prickly pear cactus information

Prickly pear cactus represent about a dozen species of the Opuntia genus (Family Cactaceae) in the North American deserts. All have flat, fleshy pads that look like large leaves. The pads are actually modified branches or stems that serve several functions -- water storage, photosynthesis and flower production. Chollas are also members of the Opuntia genus but have cylindrical, jointed stems rather than flat pads.

Like other cactus, most prickly pears and chollas have large spines -- actually modified leaves -- growing from tubercles -- small, wart-like projections -- on their stems. But members of the Opuntia genus are unique because of their clusters of fine, tiny, barbed spines called glochids. Found just above the cluster of regular spines, glochids are yellow or red in color and detach easily from the pads. Glochids are often difficult to see and more difficult to remove, once lodged in the skin.


Tiny, barbed spines called glochids.

The fruits of most prickly pears are edible and sold in stores under the name "tuna." Prickly pear branches (the pads) are also cooked and eaten as a vegetable. They, too, are sold in stores under the name "Nopalito." Because of the glochids, great care is required when harvesting or preparing prickly pear cactus. Both fruits and pads of the prickly pear cactus are rich in slowly absorbed soluble fibers that may help keep blood sugar stable. Prickly Pear Nectar is made with the juice and pulp of the fruits and is available from our online store.

Prickly pear cactus drink recipes

Range & Habitat

Prickly pear cactus are found in all of the deserts of the American Southwest, with different species having adapted to different locale and elevation ranges. Most require course, well-drained soil in dry, rocky flats or slopes. But some prefer mountain pinyon/juniper forests, while others require steep, rocky slopes in mountain foothills. What is that white stuff on my cactus? The cochineal covers much of the lower elevations in the western United States and Mexico. It feeds almost solely on the pads of selected prickly pear cacti species. More information and pictures click here.

prickly pear cactus

There has been medical interest in the Prickly Pear plant. Some studies have shown that the pectin contained in the Prickly Pear pulp lowers levels of "bad" cholesterol while leaving "good" cholesterol levels unchanged. Another study found that the fibrous pectin in the fruit may lowers diabetics' need for insulin. Both fruits and pads of the prickly pear cactus are rich in slowly absorbed soluble fibers that help keep blood sugar stable. There are on going studies and at this point there are no proven results on humans. You can make your own study and see if works for you, which is the only test that really counts. More...

In addition to the North American native prickly pear cactus listed below, there are many varieties, non-native imports and hybrids, so identification can often be difficult. Information on the 15 species below is based on wild, non-cultivated samples.

Prickly pear cactus food products
Prickly pear cactus health products
Prickly pear cactus drink recipes
Prickly Pear Sweets & Treats more recipes
Prickly pear cactus information


Video - Prickly pear cactus are found in all of the deserts of the American Southwest. Most prickly pears have large spines on their stems and vary in height from less than a foot to 6 or 7 feet. Click to see Video

 

15 species of prickly pear cactus

BEARDED PRICKLY PEAR
Opuntia strigil

Desert: Chihuahuan Desert
Height: Up to 3 feet
Pads: Small, oblong, yellow-green with short, colored spines
Flowers: Cream-color
Fruit: Small, bright red
Elevation: 3,000-4,500 feet

BEAVERTAIL CACTUS
Opuntia basilaris

Desert: Great Basin, Mojave, Sonoran
Height: 12-18 inches
Pads: Shaped like a beaver's tail, gray-green to 13 inches
Flowers: Bright rose, 2-3 inches
Fruit: Oval to 1.5 inches, gray -brown, dry at maturity with many seeds
Elevation: 0-9,000 feet

BLIND PRICKLY PEAR
Opuntia rufida

Desert: Chihuahuan near Big Bend, Texas
Height: Up to 6 feet
Pads: Circular, 6 inches, covered with velvety hairs and reddish glochids
Flowers: Bright yellow, orange with age
Fruit: Red and fleshy
Elevation: 2,000-3,500 feet

BROWN-SPINDED PRICKLY PEAR
Opuntia phaeacantha

Desert: Great Basin, Mojave, Sonoran and Chihuahuan
Height: 2-3 feet
Pads: Oblong, blue-green, 4-6 inches
Flowers: Yellow, sometimes red at the base
Fruit: Plump, juicy red or purple
Elevation: 2,000-8,000 feet

prickly pear cactus

 

ENGLEMANN'S PRICKLY PEAR
Opuntia engelmannii

Desert: Sonoran and Chihuahuan
Height: Up to 5 feet
Pads: Blue-green, 12-inch circular or oblong
Flowers: Yellow to peach with age
Fruit: Large, juicy, reddish purple
Elevation: 1,500-6,200 feet

HEDGEHOG PRICKLY PEAR / PORCUPINE PRICKLY PEAR
Opuntia erinacea

Desert: Mojave, Great Basin
Height: 12-18 inches
Pads: Spiny, 5 inches
Flowers: Bright yellow or rose
Fruit: Very spiny
Elevation: 1,500-7,500 feet

LOW PRICKLY PEAR / SMOOTH PRICKLY PEAR
Opuntia humifusa

Desert: Great Basin, Mojave, Sonoran and Chihuahuan
Height: Up to 2 feet
Pads: Oval or round, 3-6 inches
Flowers: Sulfur yellow with red base
Fruit: Pear-shaped and hairless
Elevation: 0-5,500 feet

NEW MEXICO PRICKLY PEAR / PURPLE-FRUITED PRICKLY PEAR
Opuntia phaecantha

Desert: Chihuahuan Desert
Height: Up to 3.5 feet
Pads: Green, 4-6 inches with downward spines
Flowers: Bright yellow, 2 inches
Fruit: Pear-shaped, reddish purple
Elevation: 500-3,000 feet

PANCAKE PRICKLY PEAR
Opuntia chlorotica

Desert: Mojave and Sonoran
Height: Up to 7 feet
Pads: Circular, bluish, arising from a thick, round trunk
Flowers: Yellow with red centers
Fruit: Fleshy, purple-gray
Elevation: 2,000-6,000 feet

PLAINS PRICKLY PEAR
Opuntia polycantha

Desert: Great Basin, Mojave, Sonoran, Chihuahuan
Height: 6-12 inches
Pads: Oval, 3-4 inches, blue-green
Flowers: Reddish-orange to yellow, 2.5 inches.
Fruit: Very spiny, to 1.5 inches, tan and dry when ripe
Elevation: 4,000-10,000 feet

PURPLE PRICKLY PEAR
Opuntia violacea

Desert: Chihuahuan
Height: Up to 3.5 feet
Pads: Oblong, bluish purple, with long black or white spines
Flowers: Yellow with red centers
Fruit: Oval to 1.5 inches, green
Elevation: 3,000-5,500 feet

SANTA RITA PRICKLY PEAR
Opuntia violacea

Desert: Chihuahuan
Height: Up to 6 feet
Pads: Hairless lavender to purple
Flowers: Lemon-yellow
Fruit: Oval to 1.5 inches, green
Elevation: 1,500-7,500 feet

SPINY-FRUITED PRICKLY PEAR
Opuntia spinosbacca

Desert: Chihuahuan Desert, Big Bend, Texas
Height: Up to 4 feet
Pads: Elongated, yellow-green with orange spines
Flowers: Yellow-orange with red bases
Fruit: Spiny, fleshy, yellow-green
Elevation: 2,000-3,000 feet

TEXAS PRICKLY PEAR
Opuntia lindheimeri

Desert: Chihuahuan
Height: Up to 5.5 feet
Pads: 10-inch oval with translucent yellow spines
Flowers: Yellow
Fruit: Purple with white top
Elevation: 0-4,600 feet

TUBEROUS PRICKLY PEAR
Opuntia macrorhiza

Desert: Sonoran and Chihuahuan
Height: 6 inches
Pads: Dark green or blue-green
Flowers: Yellow, red centers or all red
Fruit: Juicy and spineless
Elevation: 2,000-9,000 feet

 


Desert Cacti
Cholla Cactus
Beavertail Cactus
Chain Fruit Cholla
Desert Christmas Cactus
Prickly Pear Sweets & Treats
Desert Plant & Wildflower Index

 


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Prickly pear cactus Video
Prickly pear cactus are found in all of the deserts of the American Southwest. Most prickly pears have large spines on their stems and vary in height from less than a foot to 6 or 7 feet.


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