Desert prickly pear cactus

Pancake Prickly Pear Cactus

Genus: Opuntia
Species: chlorotica

The prickly pear cactus is a widely used and versatile cactus. It can be used in many different ways such as foods, crops, etc.. In many places the prickly pear is grown as a crop, but in others they are just grown in the wild. The prickly pear has started to grow as a weed in some areas but in others it is vulnerable.

The prickly pear cactus grows in many places. It’s found in the Sonoran and the Mojave Desert. The Sonoran Desert is located 25.3° to 33° North and 105° to 118° West.

In the Sonoran Desert it’s very hot and dry, and the ground is very sandy. The temperatures drop very low at night and rise very high during the day. In the Sonoran Desert, rainfall, rather than time of the year, more clearly predicts the seasons than the calendar. It does have two rainy seasons. The Sonoran Desert is the wettest desert in North America with temperatures that vary in different months. In January the average temperature is 51.8° F, in April it’s 65° F, in October it’s 70.6° F, and in July it’s 85.9° F. This cactus likes to grow in dry hot areas, as well as areas with intense monsoons and high temperatures.

The pancake prickly pear cactus grows up to 7 feet tall. It has circular pads arising from a thick, round trunk. The pads are actually fast growing stems. This cactus grows in a upright position with pads sticking out at all angles covered with barbed spin. The pads are four to six inches long, 9 inches wide, and .75 inches thick. The pads are very course and covered with spines. There are flowers located on the pads of the cactus. They are yellow with red centers and three to four inches wide. Several flowers grow on the edges of each pad. The fruit that grows from the flower are red or purple and turn gray when they get old. The fruit is one and six tenths to two and four tenths in diameter. The seeds of the plant are tan or cream colored and smooth with four-millimeter diameter.

There are many adaptations that the pancake prickly pear cactus has to the Sonoran Desert. Cacti have reduced their leaves to spines to reduce water loss and to protect the cactus. The roots of the prickly pear cactus are also made for very dry environment to help adapt to the deserts hot weather. Plants in the desert don\’d5t require much water or they need a way to store it for a drought. For example, the pads of the prickly pear cactus are used to store water for when they need it during a drought. In some places these adaptive significances help well. In some places these adaptive significances help well.

The pancake prickly pear cactus thrives as both a wild and domesticated plant.

by Prudence F. 2003


“Absorption.” (1/1/03)

“Desert Cacti and succulents for Southwestern Gardens.” (1/5/03).

“Desert Seasons.” (1/1/03).

“Geography, Climate, Life Zones.” (1/5/03).

“Prickly Pear cactus.”

461522595 (1/6/03).

“Prickly Pear Cactus.”

pricklypear.htm (1/1/03)

“Internal Movement and Storage.” (1/1/03)

“Pancake Prickly Pear.” (1/1/03).

“Prickly Pear Cactus.” (1/6/03).

“Prickly Pear Cactus.” (1/1/03).

“Research /Project Results: Lower Sonoran Desert Biome.”

“Root System of Cacti.” (1/1/03)

Rundel, Philip W. “Prickly Pear.” World Book Millennium. 2000 ed.

“Sonoran Desert.” (1/1/03).

“Tonto National Forest, Arizona Hiking the Transition Zone.” (1/1/03).

Prickly pear cactus


A member of the Cactaceae (or cactus) family, prickly pear cactus, also known as nopal, grows in the United States, Mexico, and South America. It also flourishes in Africa, Australia, and the Mediterranean.

Although prickly pear cactus can tolerate a wide range of temperature and moisture levels, it grows best in sunny, desert-like conditions. Over a dozen species of prickly pear cactus belong to the Opuntia genus, but all of them have flat, fleshy, green-colored pads that look like large leaves and are oval to round in shape. With a tendency to grow quickly and at odd angles, the pads are actually the stems of the plant. It is in the pads that the moisture is stored. In general, the pads range from 4 in (10 cm) to 18 in (46 cm) in length. Larger pads have been known to grow as wide as 9 in (23 cm) or more. The height of a prickly pear cactus can vary and be anywhere from less than a foot to 7 ft (2.1 m) tall.

Like most cactus plants, the prickly pear cactus has long, sharp spines that protrude from the pads. In addition, harder-to-see tiny spines, called glochids, can be found at the base of the more predominant spines. Disguised in fuzzy-looking patches, the glochids appear harmless. However, they come off the pad easily and once they’ve gotten into a person’s skin, they can be difficult to remove and cause irritation for days.

The pads and fruit of the prickly pear cactus are edible. The fruit can be peeled and eaten raw. However, many experts suggest that the fruit is best when it is made into candy, jelly, juice, or wine. It is also available dried or in extract form.

From early spring to summer, the cactus blossoms and sets fruit, which line the edges of the pads. Anytime thereafter, until late fall, the fruit ripens and is ready to be picked. The fruit should be harvested only when ripe and, according to Savio, “Those that are best for eating fresh ripen from September to November.” Once picked, the fruit has a brief shelf life—typically under a week.

Most often, the flowers of the prickly pear cactus are red, yellow, or purple with each flower yielding one fruit. On average, the fruit grows to be about 2.5 in (7 cm) long and is cylindrical in shape. Although the fruit’s flesh can be found in many different colors, such as white, green, yellow, red, or purple, most people in the United States are familiar with the reddish-purple or dark red variety; whereas in Mexico, the white-skinned varieties are most common.

In a 1998 paper presented in Santiago, Chile, at the International Symposium on Cactus Pear and Nopalitos Processing and Uses, Armida Rodriguez-Felix and Monica A. Villegas-Ochoa reported that the chemical composition of prickly pear cactus pads is not unlike most vegetables. High in amino acids (building blocks of proteins and highly bioactive, generally), prickly pear cactus is said to be high in fiber, B vitamins, magnesium , and iron . Rodriguez-Felix and Villegas-Ochoa listed the following ingredients as well:

  • water
  • carbohydrates
  • protein
  • fat
  • minerals
  • vitamin C
  • beta carotene

General use

Prickly pear cactus has been used for healing purposes and as food for centuries. Loaded with protein and vitamins, the cactus, also known as nopal, has been used to treat diabetes, stomach problems, cuts and bruises, sunburn , windburn, constipation , and cold symptoms. Folk remedies abound, such as the one that involves heating the pads and placing them on a cold sufferer’s chest to relieve congestion.

In an article published in The Hindu, India’s national newspaper, Ms. Margarita Barney de Cruz, president of the Group to Promote Education and Sustainable Development, was quoted as having said that nopal was even used in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries for painting churches and convents. Apparently, according to Barney de Cruz, this practice originated in rural Mexico when it

was discovered that prickly pear cactus could be used to make a highly effective waterproof paint for homes.

Rural residents, especially farmers, in Mexico and elsewhere have utilized the prickly pear cactus for years as an effective way to mark property lines, as well as a protective barrier against predators, both animal and human. In central Africa, the juice from the pads has long been considered an effective mosquito repellent.

An important part of the Mexican culture for centuries, prickly pear cactus is still being used there for medicinal and nutritional purposes. In Worldwide Gourmet, edited by Michele Serre, prickly pear cactus reportedly is one of the most important food crops collected by the native population and is widely eaten as both a fruit and vegetable. In northern Mexico, the pads are often fed to dairy cows in order to add a unique and sweet flavor to their milk. Not only is this feed inexpensive, but also the resulting dairy product is highly prized among local consumers.

Today, prickly pear cactus is still being used as a remedy for many of the same problems it was used for in the past. For example, it is still commonly used topically to treat cuts, insect bites, sunburn, and windburn. Over the past three decades, some interesting studies have been conducted on the healing properties of prickly pear cactus, with a primary research focus on its effectiveness in lowering blood sugar levels. reported that animal studies done in the 1990s indicate that extracts of the prickly pear at doses lower than traditionally used can reduce blood sugar levels. This is promising for the possible development of easy-to-use extracts that may some day be effective for use in treating diabetes in humans. With regard to the cactus pads themselves, not the extract, some interesting studies have indicated that the cooked pads do help reduce sugar levels, thereby validating traditional medicinal usage. According to the experts at, one theory of the mechanism of blood sugar lowering is that the high fiber from the pad’s gooey pectin absorbs sugar in the body, and then enables the body to very slowly release sugar through the course of the day.

Two 1988 studies, one published in Diabetes Care and the other in the Archives of Investigative Medicine, conducted by Frat-Munari and colleagues indicated that consuming 100 to 500 grams of cooked pads was beneficial in treating humans with diabetes. Results confirmed a drop of between 8 to 31% of blood glucose readings. The Frati-Munari studies involved three groups on three separate “treatments.” One group took nopal, one group took a water placebo, the third took zucchini squash. The water group experienced no change in serum glucose levels, whereas a slight increase of serum glucose concentrations was measured in the zucchini squash group. Those taking nopal displayed improvements in elevated blood sugar.

In a similar study published by the Texas Journal of Rural Health in 1998, Keith Rayburn, M.D., and colleagues had an interestingly different outcome. In the study by Rayburn et al, although blood sugar readings also fell after consumption, the water ingestion group showed a declining glucose concentration, whereas in the studies by Frati-Munari that was not the case. Dr. Rayburn and colleagues compared their study to two studies with similar findings (one by Chen et al conducted in 1988 and another by Gannon et al conducted in 1989) and made three important assessments. One explanation for the different findings might have to do with the water control group. It may have had a declining glucose reading because its members were allowed to drink as much water as they liked, which could have had a blood-sugar-lowering effect. Secondly, although the use of nopal in folk culture is not limited to one species, Rayburn and colleagues did point out that the nopal used in their study differed from the nopal used in the 1988 studies by Frati-Munari and colleagues. In fact, Rayburn and his colleagues specifically stated, “We cannot rule out the possibility that O. streptacantha might have more activity than other species.” Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Rayburn and colleagues concluded, “Despite lacking an acute hypoglycemic effect in our subjects, it is possible that nopal has other important metabolic effects, such as lowering lipids or increasing insulin sensitivity, as suggested by Frati-Munari et al .”

In a literature review published in 2002 by the Journal of American Pharmacists Association, Drs. Shapiro and Gong investigated the uses of several products and conclude that based on the evidence, several natural products in common use can lower blood glucose in patients with diabetes.

Interesting research continues to be conducted to validate or discover new ways in which prickly pear cactus can be used medicinally. For example, in a 1998 study published in Archives of Pharmaceutical Research by Dr. E. H. Park and colleagues, it was suggested that prickly pear cactus pads could be used to reduce inflammation and help relieve stomach problems. Some evidence also exists that prickly pear cactus could be effective in reducing cholesterol levels, but more research needs to be conducted.


Gloves should be worn when the pads and fruit are removed from the cactus. Even those varieties regarded as “spineless” have glochids, so beware. To avoid getting punctured by the spines, use a long, sharp knife to cut and tongs to lift the pads and fruit away from the plant. Place the cuttings in a bowl or basket with handles. Novices should continue to wear gloves until all the spines are removed. To remove the spines, simply scrape them off with a blunt knife, while holding the pad at its base. Another way to remove the spines is to burn them off by passing the pad over an open flame, but this should be done with great care and suitable utensils such as tongs with heat resistant handles. Many experts recommend cutting off the edges or peeling them entirely. Most experts agree that the young, bright green pads are the most tender and the best ones for culinary purposes.

If the pads are small, they can be sautéed in a covered pan with some olive oil and vegetables, such as mushrooms, peppers, onions, or tomatoes. The ingredients should be simmered over low heat until the pad is very tender. Some people also prefer to add ground pepper and herbs such as cilantro, basil, or rosemary . The nopales can also be sautéed until cooked. The pads can also be sliced thin to resemble green beans. As Savio states, “They can be eaten raw in salads, boiled and fried like eggplant, pickled with spices, or cooked with shellfish, pork, chilies, tomatoes, eggs, coriander, garlic , and onions.” In an article published by Wilderness Way, Christopher Nyerges suggests that the cut slices be boiled in water, drained, and then boiled again to reduce the sliminess. The slices can then be seasoned with butter and garlic powder prior to serving them. Once dried, the peeled and sliced pads are known as leather britches, according to Nyerges. Much like string beans, the leather britches add texture and fiber to stews and soups.

Omelets containing prickly pear cactus are common in the southwestern United States. When a young cactus pad is cooked in a skillet for use in an omelet, its bright green color will change to “a dull green-almost tan-as it cooks,” Nyerges explained.

An interesting suggestion regarding “the importance of a penny” can be found in the Worldwide Gourmet. In an article on prickly pear cactus, the reader is encouraged “to rub a copper penny with baking soda and lemon, heat it on the grill until it turns red, and then put it in the water used to cook the nopal. This allows the water to reach its boiling point more quickly and also neutralizes the viscous substance found in the cactus.”

Often tasting similar to watermelon, the fruit can be eaten raw and is delicious chilled. It is filled with little seeds, which account for its grainy texture. The seeds are edible, too, but some people prefer to remove them. In the Native American culture, it is customary to dry and grind the seeds for later use in flour.

According to Nyerges, making juice is simple. Just “press the peeled fruit through a colander to remove the seeds and add an equal amount of water to the sweet, pulpy mass.” When chilled, it’s a refreshing summer beverage.

For soft, shiny hair, cut a peeled cactus pad into 10 small pieces. Put them in a blender with two cups of water. Turn the blender on low for a few seconds, just enough to get the cactus juices into the water but not so long that the mixture turns to mush. Then strain the pieces out, leaving only the juicy water. The juicy water can then be used as a hair massage, which should be thoroughly rinsed out after one minute. If the mixture is allowed to thicken, it can still be used, although it will take more time to rinse out.

For minor cuts, the juice from the pads has been used traditionally much like aloe vera. Savio suggests to “simply cut off a portion of a pad, crush it, and squeeze the juice into the cut; the sap will soothe the wound.” When an equal measure of prickly pear cactus and water are mixed, the juice can be somewhat jelly-like, making it an ideal salve for windburn.

Recommended dosages vary, but most experts agree that eating 100 to 500 grams of the prickly pear cactus daily is reasonable, provided that there are no contraindications for doing so. For those that prefer juice, 2 to 4 ounces a day are suggested. If in doubt, consult with a physician or registered dietician for an individual assessment.


Even Opuntia cacti, regarded as spineless, have glochids, so beware.

Consuming prickly pear cactus is not recommended while pregnant or breast-feeding. In addition, it has not been established whether it is safe for young children or anyone with severe liver or kidney disease to consume nopal.

In general, prickly pear cactus is considered safe in food form, which has been consumed for centuries by native peoples. However, less is known about the extract form, which should be taken only after consulting a physician.

People taking drugs for diabetes should not consume nopal without first consulting with a physician, since insulin or diabetes medication dosage may be affected.

Because water causes dried nopal to swell, oral doses of dried nopal should be taken with at least 8 ounces of water to avoid potentially dangerous blockages of the esophagus or intestines.

Side effects

Adverse side effects such as mild bloating, diarrhea, headache , and nausea have been reported after consuming nopal.

The experts at caution that it is possible to be allergic to prickly pear cactus, although it isn’t common. Signs of an allergic reaction are those typically associated with other food allergies . They include skin rash, hives , swelling, chest pain , breathing problems such as tightness in the chest or throat, and digestive symptoms such as diarrhea or constipation. If any of these reactions occur, one should contact a physician immediately.

Although rare, contact dermatitis has been reported from touching the nopal plant or applying it to broken skin. People with sensitive skin should consult a physician before using nopal as a topical ointment. More common is skin irritation caused by coming in contact with the plant’s spines during the collection and cleaning process, which is why gloves should be worn, especially during the collection process.


Because some studies have shown that consuming nopal may cause lower blood sugar by increasing the body’s ability to absorb insulin, people taking drugs for diabetes, such as Actos, Avandia, Glyset, and Prandin, to name a few, should consult with their physician before adding nopal to their diets .

In order to avoid hypoglycemia , which is blood sugar that is too low, nopal should not be used in conjunction with other blood sugar medication and herbs such as bitter melon, chromium, kudzu , panax ginseng, or high amounts of ginger without the guidance of a health professional. Symptoms of hypoglycemia include shakiness, confusion, distorted speech, and loss of muscle control. Hypoglycemia is potentially an emergency and even deadly problem, and requires immediate intervention (offering fruit juice or professional health care management).

In theory, because dried nopal becomes gel-like when combined with water, taking it within two hours of other medications (or even after meals) could alter the way food and medications are absorbed in the body. Always consult with a physician or pharmacist before adding dried nopal (or any form of nopal) to your health care regime. Be sure to make a complete list of any other herbal product being taken, as well as any prescribed or over-the-counter medicine, so that an informed decision can be made.



Shapiro, K., and W. C. Gong. “Natural products used for diabetes.” Journal of American Pharmacists Association. (2002): 217–226.


Nyerges, “C. Prickly pear cactus.” Wilderness Way . <>.

“Prickly pear.” . <>.

“Prickly pear cactus crop with multiple uses.” The Hindu . <>.

Lee Ann Paradise

Official State Plant of Texas

The prickly pear cactus was designated the official plant symbol of Texas in 1995. All State Plants

Found in the deserts of the American southwest, the fruits of most prickly pear cacti are edible, and have been a source of food to native Americans for thousands of years. Cacti in general (and the fruits in particular) are still staple foods for some residents of Mexico and Latin America and the prickly pear cactus is raised commercially. The fruit is sold under the name Tuna – the branches or pads are eaten as a vegetable (called nopalito or nopales).

The name cactus is derived from the Greek word kaktos, which means prickly plant. Cacti and other succulents face a variety of threats in their natural environment. They are easily propagated from seeds and cuttings, so removing plants from their natural habitat is uneccessary and harmful to the delicate desert ecosystem.


WHEREAS, The State of Texas has traditionally recognized certain terrestrial forms indigenous to the state as official state symbols; and

WHEREAS, The bluebonnet, the pecan tree, and the mockingbird are examples of some natural specimens that serve to symbolize the rich diversity of the plains, forests, skies, and mountains of our vast state; and

WHEREAS, In keeping with this custom, the designation of the prickly pear cactus as the official state plant will provide suitable recognition for this hearty and beautiful denizen of the Texas landscape; and

WHEREAS, A native of the American Southwest and the Sonoran Desert region of Mexico, the prickly pear cactus provided nourishment to the earliest inhabitants of those regions, and both the sweet, fleshy fruit and the broad, flat stems were incorporated into tasty dishes; and

WHEREAS, Tunas, the prickly pear fruit, and nopales, which are made from the stem, have since become staples of the Mexican diet, and their growing popularity in Lone Star cuisine can be attributed to Texans’ appreciation for unusual and distinctive foods; and

WHEREAS, In recent years, the prickly pear cactus has been successfully exported and naturalized to tropical areas around the world, and it has proven to be a popular landscape choice for all who want to have a little bit of Texas in their own backyards; and

WHEREAS, This adaptable plant can survive under many different environmental conditions, and thus can be found from the hill country of Central Texas to the windswept plateaus and arid mountains of West Texas; because it thrives in a harsh climate that few plants can bear, the prickly pear cactus is often grown as forage for cattle and has had a tremendous positive impact on the vital Texas cattle industry; and

WHEREAS, Rugged, versatile, and uniquely beautiful, the prickly pear cactus has made numerous contributions to the landscape, cuisine, and character of the Lone Star State, and thus it is singularly qualified to represent the indomitable and proud Texas spirit as an official state symbol; now, therefore, be it

RESOLVED, That the 74th Legislature of the State of Texas hereby designate the prickly pear cactus as the official state plant of Texas.

Engelmann Prickly Pear Info – Learn About Growing Cactus Apple Plants

Engelmann prickly pear, also commonly called cactus apple plants, is a wide-ranging species of prickly pear. It is native to desert regions of California, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and northern Mexico. This is a pretty plant for desert gardens, and it will grow at a moderate rate to fill in large spaces.

Engelmann Prickly Pear Cactus Facts

Prickly pears belong to the cactus genus Opuntia, and there are several species in the genus, including O. engelmannii. Other names for this species are tulip prickly pear, nopal prickly pear, Texas prickly pear, and cactus apple. There are several varieties of Engelmann prickly pear as well.

Like other prickly pears, this species is segmented and grows and spreads with multiple flat, oblong pads. Depending on the variety, the pads may or may not have spines that can grow up to three inches (7.5 cm.) long. An Engelmann cactus will grow up to four to six feet (1.2 to 1.8 m.) tall and 15 feet (4.5 m.) wide. These cactus apple plants develop yellow flowers at the ends of the pads in spring of each year. This is followed by dark pink fruits that are edible.

Growing Engelmann Prickly Pear

Any southwestern U.S. desert garden is suitable for growing this prickly pear. It will tolerate a variety of soils as long as there is no chance of standing water. Full sun is important and it will be hardy to zone 8. Once your prickly pear is established, you shouldn’t need to water it. Normal rainfall will be adequate.

If needed, you can prune the cactus by removing pads. This is also a way to propagate the cactus. Take cuttings of pads and let them root in the soil.

There are few pests or diseases that will bother prickly pear. Excess moisture is the real enemy of the cactus. Too much water can lead to root rot, which will destroy the plant. And lack of airflow can encourage a cochineal scale infestation, so trim pads as needed to keep air moving between them.

Plant Database

Bransford, W.D. and Dolphia

Opuntia engelmannii var. lindheimeri

Opuntia engelmannii Salm-Dyck ex Engelm. var. lindheimeri (Engelm.) Parfitt & Pinkava

Synonym(s): Opuntia engelmannii var. alta, Opuntia engelmannii var. cacanapa, Opuntia engelmannii var. dulcis, Opuntia engelmannii var. texana, Opuntia lindheimeri, Opuntia lindheimeri var. lehmannii

USDA Native Status: L48 (N)

Texas prickly pear often grows to 5 feet tall. It may be erect or spreading, with a more or less definite trunk. The pads are green to blue-green, round to oval, 4-10 inches long. The tubercles are 1 1/2-2 1/2 inches apart. The 1-6 spines are yellow, which distinguishes this species from O. phaeacantha varieties. One spine is longer than the rest, about 4 1/2 inches. Occasionally a plant is spineless. The flowers, 2-5 inches across, are often crowded on the edge of the pad. They have several greenish-yellow sepals. Petals vary from yellow to yellow-orange to red, often with the whole range of colors on one plant. Flowers have 1 pistil and many yellow stamens. The fruit is a prickly pear, maturing purple, very seedy.

The species of this plant is named for George Engelmann (1809-1884) who was born in Germany and settled in St. Louis, Missouri, as a young man. He was a physician and botanist, describing especially North American Abies (Firs), Agaves, Cactus (for which he described more than 108 species), Cuscuta (Dodder), Euphorbiaceae (Spurge Family), Juncus (Rushes), Juniperus (“Cedar”), Pinus (Pines), Vitis (Grapes), and Yuccas. When he died much of his collection went to Missouri Botanical Garden.

This variety is named after Ferdinand Jacob Lindheimer (1801-1879) who is often called the Father of Texas Botany because of his work as the first permanent-resident plant collector in Texas. In 1834 Lindheimer immigrated to the United States as a political refugee. He spent from 1843-1852 collecting specimens in Texas. In 1844 he settled in New Braunfels, Texas, and was granted land on the banks of the Comal River, where he continued his plant collecting and attempted to establish a botanical garden. He shared his findings with many others who shared his interest in botany, including Ferdinand von Roemer and Adolph Scheele. Lindheimer is credited with the discovery of several hundred plant species. In addition his name is used to designate forty-eight species and subspecies of plants. He is buried in New Braunfels. His house, on Comal Street in New Braunfels, is now a museum.

From the Image Gallery

Plant Characteristics

Duration: Perennial
Habit: Cactus/Succulent
Leaf Retention: Evergreen
Size Class: 3-6 ft.

Bloom Information

Bloom Color: Red , Orange , Yellow , Green
Bloom Time: May , Jun


USA: LA , MO , MS , NM , OK , TX
Native Habitat: This cactus is found in Nevada, Utah, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas as well the Mojave, Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts. Well-drained sand, loam, clay, and caliche.

Growing Conditions

Water Use: Low
Light Requirement: Sun , Part Shade
Soil Moisture: Dry
Cold Tolerant: yes
Heat Tolerant: yes
Conditions Comments: The flattened pads of this cactus range from green to blue green. Depending on its location, the 2-4 inch flowers range from greenish yellow to orange. The purple, pear-shaped fruit, is very attractive as well as edible. There is also a spineless form that is displayed at the Wildflower Center formal gardens.


Use Food: Tunas (fruits) were roasted by Indians.
Warning: Most cacti of the genus Opuntia have sharp spines as well as tiny barbed bristles called glochids that can be difficult to remove from the skin. The bristles of the Beavertail can irritate the skin but this species does not pose the danger of species with long, rigid spines, such as the Plains Prickly-pear (Opuntia polyacantha).
Conspicuous Flowers: yes
Interesting Foliage: yes
Nectar Source: yes
Deer Resistant: High

Value to Beneficial Insects

Special Value to Native Bees
This information was provided by the Pollinator Program at The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.


Propagation Material: Seeds
Commercially Avail: yes

From the National Organizations Directory

According to the species list provided by Affiliate Organizations, this plant is on display at the following locations:
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center – Austin, TX
Brackenridge Field Laboratory – Austin, TX
Patsy Glenn Refuge – Wimberley, TX
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department – Austin, TX
Texas Master Naturalists – Lost Pines Chapter – Bastrop, TX
NPSOT – Williamson County Chapter – Georgetown, TX

Herbarium Specimen(s)

NPSOT 0948 Collected Sep 1, 1994 in Bexar County by Harry Cliffe


Bibref 318 – Native Texas Plants: Landscaping Region by Region (2002) Wasowski, S. & A. Wasowski
Bibref 248 – Texas Wildflowers: A Field Guide (1984) Loughmiller, C. & L. Loughmiller
Search More Titles in Bibliography

Additional resources

USDA: Find Opuntia engelmannii var. lindheimeri in USDA Plants
FNA: Find Opuntia engelmannii var. lindheimeri in the Flora of North America (if available)
Google: Search Google for Opuntia engelmannii var. lindheimeri


Record Modified: 2015-07-01
Research By: NPC, WFS

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Alamo Area Master Naturalist Jessica Leslie is the author of this piece. The first photo, Prickly Pear with tunas at PHP by Wendy Drezek and most of the Prickly Pear in PHP are Opuntia engelmannii var. lindheimeri. However, on a recent walk along the trail Dr. Floyd Waller pointed out another Prickly Pear species: Opuntia macrorhiza, the Plains Prickly Pear (aka Twistspine Prickly Pear). The Plains Prickly Pear can be distinguished from the more common Prickly Pear by the Plains Prickly Pear’s short stature (less than a foot), whitish (not yellowish) spines, somewhat folded (wrinkled, curved) obpryrform (not orbicular) pads, more elongated (less round) tunas, and a flower with a reddish center. The photo captioned Plains Prickly Pear by Wendy Drezek is a Plains Prickly Pear in PHP. For additional information to help distinguish these species and other Bexar County Opuntia species go to this link. There are over 200 species of prickly pear cactus in the genus Opuntia. They are native only to the western hemisphere, but they have been introduced to other parts of the world.


Opuntia species typically grow with flat, rounded pads or platycades with two types of spines, the harder, fixed spines and the smaller, hair-like spines, termed glochids, that easily detach from the cactus pad when in contact with another surface. The cactus produces a fruit or tuna that can be red, wine-red, green or yellow/orange depending upon the species.


Have you ever eaten a Prickly Pear cactus? If so, hopefully you removed the spines first! Both the pad and the fruit are used as a food source. The spines are removed from the pads by “sanding” them in a grit medium or by burning off the spines. The young stems or pads are often used as a vegetable or in a salad. In Mexican cuisine, the sliced or chopped pads can be found in egg dishes and in tacos. The fruit or tunas are used to make jellies, candies and beverages.


Another important use of the cactus is the production of cochineal dye. The dye is actually made from an insect that feeds upon the Prickly Pear cactus. Have you ever noticed small, white, cottony mounds on a cactus pad? They are Dactylopius coccus, a scale insect that feeds off the moisture and nutrients in the cactus sap. If you smash the insect between your fingers, it turns an intense maroon red. The insect produces carminic acid that helps to deter the bug’s predators. The acid is removed from the body and eggs of the insect to make the deep red dye.

Just how valuable was cochineal? Early Mixtec Indians used cochineal to dye their clothing to show social status. They actually farmed the cactus, working to develop different colors of red dyes. When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico, they became enamored of the deep red dye. Clothing was dyed with cochineal and shipped back to Europe. They could not ship enough of the textiles to keep up with the demand, so they began shipping the actual cochineal to Europe. Cochineal became second only to gold in value. After 250 years of Spanish domination of the dye, other countries became involved, and soon cochineal could be found all over the world.

In fact, whenever a natural red dye is desired, cochineal is still the popular choice today. Although artificial colors have replaced the use of natural ones, you can still find cochineal in several products today. Have you ever spread “bug juice” on your lips? Chances are, if you have used red lipstick, you have put cochineal dye on your lips. The two main uses of the dye are for red food coloring and for cosmetics, such as rouges and lipsticks. Anytime you notice these ingredients—carmine, natural red 4, CI 75470 or E120 natural coloring—the source is cochineal dye. It is used to color many fruit juices, such as Ruby Red Grapefruit juice, some brands of strawberry yogurt, tropical punch drinks, and water-color paints. Look for these ingredients next time you purchase some of these items.


Phil Hardberger Park is blessed with many Prickly Pear along its trails. All members of the subgenus Opuntia (with flat stems) are considered the state plant. The park’s most frequent Prickly Pear Cactus is the Opuntia engelmannii var. lindheimeri known to most people as the Prickly Pear. However, if you look especially closely you may see another Opuntia species, Opuntia macrorhiza, the Plains Prickly Pear. As you enjoy the visual splendor of these cacti realize you are seeing the State Plant of Texas.

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A project of the Alamo Area Master Naturalists working with the Phil Hardberger Conservancy and Alamo Group of the Sierra Club

© 2012 Alamo Area Master Naturalists

Prickly Pear Cactus

K – 2 Activity – Teacher Directions


The Prickly Pear Cactus is found throughout this region. The prickly pear is the official state plant. It is green in color. Its “pads” are actually branches and its needle like thorns are “leaves.” It does bloom with either yellow, red, or purple flowers; and produces a fruit. The pads (nopales) have been cooked and eaten as a vegetable for hundreds of years in Mexico! The fruit (tuna) is cooked and eaten too!


One toilet paper roll for each child
Crayons or markers
Copies of cactus parts for each child
Cactus Parts
Several flat wooden toothpicks broken into thirds, for each child

  1. Have students color each part of the cactus green.
  2. Glue the large rectangle piece around the toilet paper roll.
  3. Glue the tabs of each “pad” of the cactus to the outside of the toilet paper roll, two on one side and one on the other.
  4. Glue three or four broken pieces of toothpicks to each pad.
Additional Activities

Have students help you create a Panhandle Landscape on a bulletin board or wall by taping or gluing student made cacti to a background of plains grass.

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