Prickly Pear Engleman variety with fruit. photo by Jonathan Duhamel
Prickly pear cacti (genus Opuntia) range from southern Canada to southern South America, in habitats ranging from arid desert to tropical semiarid woodlands and high mountains. There are about 18 species in the Sonoran Desert region, some of which form hybrids. Native peoples recognize many more varieties. I have five (maybe six) varieties of prickly pear in my yard. The most common in the Tucson area is the Engelmann prickly pear (photo).
According to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (ASDM), cacti of genus Opuntia, which includes chollas, are distinguished from other cacti by four characteristics. “First, the stems grow in distinctly jointed segments. The elongation of joints is permanently terminated by the onset of the dry season; subsequent growth of the plant occurs by the initiation of new joints by branching from the areoles. (Other cacti have indeterminate growth. A saguaro stem, for example, grows ever longer each growing season until the plant dies or the stem tip is damaged.) Second, whether or not they have regular spines, Opuntioid areoles bear glochids (usually small to minute, barbed spines that are very sharp and brittle, and very easily detached). Third, rudimentary leaves are present on new joints. Fourth, the seeds have a pale covering called an aril; most other cacti have shiny black seeds.”
Prickly pears are Western Hemisphere plants, but they are now found all over the world. “Sailors brought them back from the New World in the sixteenth century and they are found in Italy, India, Ceylon, South Africa and Australia. In all but Italy, the hope was to raise cochineal insects, but the insects died and the cactus escaped to become part of the landscape.” – ASDM
Cochineal insects, a source of red dye, grow, sometimes profusely, on prickly pear pads under white fuzzy webs, especially in August. (See The Cochineal, a little bug with a valuable product) Spineless varieties of prickly pear were also tried as food for cattle. In South Africa, I saw many plantations on farms for that purpose.
Use as food:
Both the pads and fruit are eaten by pack rats, jackrabbits, javelina, insects, and humans. Note: the pads contain oxalic acid which can make humans sick. However, new spring pads contain much less oxalic acid so these pads were used for human consumption. Preparation may include boiling to leach out the acid. Many native American tribes used the pads as their green vegetable. The flesh is mucilaginous (like okra) and was used to thicken soups.
Fruit from any of the prickly pears can be eaten by humans. The fruit turns reddish-purple when ripe. (The ripe fruit is called “tuna”or “cactus fig”) Some preparation is required to remove the spines and glochids. Native Americans rolled the fruit in sand or other plant material. Cowboys used to put the fruit on a stick and burn off the glochids with a match or over a camp fire.
Generally people eat the flesh of the fruit and discard the seeds. The seeds are edible, but too many cause intestinal upsets. The seeds can be parched, dried, and ground into a flour. They don’t cause digestive upset that way. The juice of the fruit may be made into a syrup or jelly or used in pies and drinks.
Flower petals can be used to garnish salads.
Preparation techniques for both pads and fruit are shown here: http://www.wikihow.com/Eat-Prickly-Pear-Cactus and
According to WebMD: Prickly pear cactus is used to treat type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity, alcohol hangover, colitis, diarrhea, and benign prostatic hypertrophy (BPH). It is also used to fight viral infections. Prickly pear cactus contains fiber and pectin, which can lower blood glucose by decreasing the absorption of sugar in the stomach and intestine. Some researchers think that it might also decrease cholesterol levels, and kill viruses in the body.
According to DesertUSA, “Researchers are using the prickly pear juice, produced by Arizona Cactus Ranch in Southern Arizona, for their studies, because it is pure. Pascua Yaqui Tribe in Tucson Arizona uses Arizona Cactus Ranch Prickly Pear Nectar in their Alternative Medicine Diabetic Preventive Program since 1997. Prickly pear extract has also been shown to reduce the severity and occurrence of hangovers if taken in advance of drinking. Nausea, dry mouth, appetite loss, and alcohol-related inflammation were all reduced in test subjects who ingested prickly pear extract 5 hours prior to drinking. You can make your own tests and see if it works for you, which is the only test that really counts.”
The juice from the pads was also used topically to treat cuts, bruises, and inflammation of the skin.
The juice from prickly pears has long been used to strengthen adobe mortar. It was so used in the restoration of the San Xavier Mission in Tucson.
As mentioned above, there are many species and hybrids, so exact identification may be difficult. ASDM notes: “Numerous species of cholla and some prickly pears hybridize with one another. Hybrid populations are fairly common. Some of these hybrids may reproduce sexually; others are sexually sterile but can reproduce vegetatively. There are several such ‘clonal microspecies’ in the Tucson area alone, some of which are restricted to a patch of just a few acres. Most of the descriptions of these species are published only in scientific monographs and have not yet appeared in general plant lists and keys. So if you are frustrated with being unable to identify a cholla or prickly pear from a field guide, be assured that you’re not alone. No field guide can cover all the possible hybrids and ‘microspecies.’”
See more ADI articles on desert plants:
A Boojum, definitely a boojum
Agaves provide food, fiber and adult beverages
Arizona Christmas Cactus
Arizona’s Wild Cotton
Beargrass and basketry
Brittlebush and chewing gum
Cactus water will make you sick
Chain-fruit and teddy bear cholla cactus
Chiltepin peppers, spice and medicine
Creepy Creeping Devil Cactus
Desert Broom – another medicinal plant
Desert Spoon (Sotol)
Desert Tobacco, a Pretty but Poisonous Desert Plant
Devil’s Claw provides food, fiber and medicine
Guayacán a pretty flowering tree
Invasion of the Popcorn Flowers
Joshua Trees of the Mohave Desert
Life on a Dead Saguaro
Medusa’s Head a strange and useful plant
Mesquite trees provide food, fuel, medicine, and more
Night-blooming Cereus cactus
Oak trees of the Sonoran Desert region
Ocotillo – an aide to hummingbirds and geologists
Palo brea trees and their uses
Palo Verde trees about to turn the desert golden
Sacred Datura – pretty, poisonous, and hallucinogenic
Saguaro Cactus Icon of the Sonoran Desert
Senita and Totem Pole Cacti
Spectacular flowers of the red Torch Cactus
Staghorn and Buckhorn Cholla Cactus
The Jojoba bush and its valuable oil
Yuccas provide food, fiber, and soap
Opuntia Cactus Varieties: What Are Different Types Of Opuntia Cactus
Opuntia is the largest genus in the cactus family. You will recognize most by their classic “prickly pear” appearance. There are many types of Opuntia cactus that are common houseplants and are known for their jointed stems and flattened pads. All varieties of Opuntia are easy to grow provided there is ample light, well-drained soil and warm temperatures during the growing season. In warmer climates, growing Opuntia in gardens adds desert appeal and unique flora to the landscape.
Different Varieties of Opuntia
Cactus provide numerous textures and forms for the fun dish garden or as standalone specimens. Opuntia, with their many varied species, are readily available and have a classic form that calls to mind open desert and searing sun. The genus can be found wild across North and South Americas, the Caribbean, Argentina and even as far north as Canada. Interestingly, Opuntia freely hybridize, leading to new species and hybrid crosses. In the U.S. there are 40 recognized species.
Most Opuntia species do not have classic spines but an arrangement called glochids. These are fine, detachable and fuzzy to woolly. If you touch them, you will immediately wish you hadn’t, as they are extremely irritable and difficult to remove. In spite
of this detriment, Opuntia are extremely appealing and easy to grow. Some types of Opuntia cactus do have large spines, however.
Flowers are cup shaped and may be yellow, white, or pink. These may develop into fruits of red or green. Some Opuntia cactus varieties have edible fruits called “tunas.” These can be made into delicious jam or even candy. The flat pads of the cactus are called cladodes. These pads are also edible and called “nopales.” Some fun Opuntia to grow might include:
- Purple prickly pear
- Barbary fig
- Tulip prickly pear
- Bunny ears prickly pear
- Violet prickly pear
- Pancake prickly pear
- Beaver tail pear
Growing Opuntia Cacti
The one thing Opuntia cannot stand is soggy soil. Soil needs to drain freely and have a high amount of gritty material mixed in. For outdoor plants, choose a sunny location with protection from winter winds.
Fertilize monthly with a 0-10-10 to help produce flowers and fruits. Opuntia, once established, will tolerate as much water as necessary to keep pads from wrinkling. During the winter, diminish watering by half, as the plant will be in dormancy.
Established cacti can have pads harvested 6 times per year. Use clean, sharp knives for harvesting. Take pads from mid-morning to midafternoon when the acid content is lowest for best flavor. “Tunas” are ripe at the end of summer. To harvest fruits, wait until the glochids fall off and then gently twist and pull. Ripe fruit should come off easily.
The cactus is easy to grow from seed but its slow progression means fully sized specimens will take years. For faster production, try growing Opuntia cacti from pads. Cut a pad that is at least 6 months old and allow the cut end to dry out a bit or callus. If you wish, dip the end in Bordeaux mix or brush on an anti-fungal dust.
Make a mixture of equal parts sand or pumice and soil. Settle the pad an inch or so deep into this mixture with rocks or stakes around to hold it upright. Do not water until the pad has sent out roots, usually in a month. Then water the plant but let it dry out between successive waterings.
Your new plant will flower and set fruit during the first year. Limit the number of pads you take from the plant for at least a year.
Opuntia engelmanni Salm-Dyck ex Engelmann
Cactaceae (Cactus Family)
Prickly pear is a large cactus with flattened, mostly spiny stems that produce deep red, juicy and sweet fruits. Early historic observations and archeological data indicate Native Americans relied on prickly pear for food, medicine, and as a source of needles, containers, and water. Although the largest stands are located inland, it is likely that coastal Indians utilized prickly pear as a food source, for the seeds have been recovered from at least one prehistoric site in the Coastal Bend.
Prickly pear gets its name from numerous sharp spines borne on the stems, and from the seasonal fruits known as pears or tunas. The long, sharp spines (the prickly part of the name) are actually modified leaves that harden as they age. Technically, the plant’s “branches,” known as pads or nopales, are succulent, evergreen stem segments. The fruits, known as tunas, ripen in midsummer to a deep red color, and contain a sweet purple-red juice. The tunas are harvested by many animals as well as people.
Along the Texas coast, as in southern Texas, the most common species of prickly pear is Opuntia engelmannii, (Blum and Jones 1985; Johnston 1963; Judd 2002; McAlister and McAlister 1990; McMahan, et al. 1984). Prickly pear is more widespread and abundant from the Coastal Bend south, although it grows on Matagorda Island and Matagorda Peninsula and along the upper Texas coast in fewer numbers. The plant can multiply into dense, shrubby clumps covering large tracts of land. The broken off stem segments readily take root and create whole plants, which means that if a grazing animal or other force disturbs the plant, the scattered stem segments or pads simply take root where they drop, spreading the plant across an ever widening area (Dodd 1968).
It is also likely that coastal Native American groups accessed larger stands of prickly pear located a few miles inland. There are fairly dense concentrations on the King Ranch, and extremely large stands west of the Nueces River in Duval and Jim Wells Counties. Stands exist west of the Nueces River, between San Diego and Alice, and southward to the area around Falfurrias (Campbell and Campbell 1981). Another scholar locates the tuna gathering grounds northwest of Beeville and just south of the Nueces River near Freer (Krieger 2002).
At least along the middle to lower Texas coast, Native Americans could encounter large stands by walking a few miles inland in any direction. Johnston (1963) observed that the southern Texas savannahs, a mix of grassy prairies and thorn scrub, were shaped by a combination of fire and local soil types, and that large stands of prickly pear were also present in the clayey soils on the inner coastal plain. Suffice to say that throughout the South Texas Plains there were areas where prickly pear grew in high densities. During the tuna harvest these areas would have been a magnet for seasonal aggregations of native peoples.
Archeology. Very few large-scale excavations have been completed on the coast of Texas. Because preservation of organic archeological materials is poor in this region, those excavations that have been completed have not yielded much in the way of plant remains. However, a recent project on Oso Bay in Corpus Christi has yielded some material, including prickly pear seeds from a hearth feature located on low clay dunes overlooking the bay. The identification of plant materials from 41NU2 demonstrates that improved excavation and recovery methods will improve our understanding of plant use on the coast.
The other notable occurrence of prickly pear involved the excavation of a sampling of a historic site, most notably, a 17th century French ship, the Belle. La Salle’s ship had been exploring the Texas coast for about one year before running aground in Matagorda Bay during the early months of 1686 (Dering 2004). Prickly pear seeds were recovered from the bilge of La Belle. The story is a fascinating portrait of men caught in circumstances far exceeding their survival abilities.
In the closing days of 1684 three French ships began the exploration of the unfamiliar Texas coastline. Shallow seas and bays, narrow passes bordered by shifting sandbars, and relentless onshore winds challenged the seamen. The low coastline was home to unfamiliar plants and animals, and the vast majority of the 200 or so people who were about to become stranded were not prepared for the hardships this land would bring to them.
The Frenchmen’s inability to communicate with the Native Americans living along the coast quickly led to enmity between the two groups, isolating the settlers from a valuable source of local knowledge. Translated journals of the few men who survived their stay recount their failed attempt to settle the area and illustrate their profound ignorance of wilderness-living skills (Foster 1998; Weddle 2001). Yet in spite of the general inability, or lack of will, to adapt and survive, a few men in the group, most notably Henri Joutel, Robert Cavelier de La Salle, Jean-Baptiste Minet, and the Talon brothers demonstrated some aptitude for learning the land.
Although the bilge samples contained plants from the Old World, the Caribbean, and Texas, it is likely that Texas plants were brought on board both during the exploration and after the ship was stranded. The explorers continued to use the stranded ship for some time even after supplies were off-loaded to shore.
Prickly pear grows on Matagorda Island, on low terraces surrounding the bays, and is scattered throughout the region on low cuestas or other erosional breaks. It grew in sufficient quantity to be noted by the explorers. Joutel (Foster 1998:124) describes the plants as “. . . raquettes because they have a leaf of that same shape. They bear flowers around the leaves which sprout fruit that look almost like figs. But the leaves are full of quills, and even the fruit have them all around.”
The fruit proved tempting to some of the men in La Salle’s crew. They were very hungry, primarily because the officers controlled the food supplies and kept much of them away from the crew. The men were tempted by the red prickly pear fruit and disobeyed the order to avoid them. As they had no idea how to prepare the fruit, they simply stuffed them into their mouths and started chewing.
La Salle maintained that a few men choked to death on the prickly pear fruit because they did not first remove the fine spines or glochids that grow on the surface (Weddle 2001:11). Joutel, referring to the tuna as a fig, provides a detailed description of the fruit and how improperly ingesting it killed one of his men.
One must strip the fruit before eating it because, although the quills are quite small and almost imperceptible, without fail they make one sick once they lodge in the throat and on the roof of the mouth. One of our soldiers even died from having eaten the fig greedily without wiping it. All these quills caused tremendous inflammation of the throat and eventually suffocated him. These fruits do not have much taste and come in all sizes, shapes, and colors (Foster 1998:124).
Prickly pear fruit tend to ripen slowly, changing colors from green to light red to dark purple, and can stay on the plant for long periods of time if grazing pressure is light. This may explain Joutel’s observation about the variation in size, shape, and color. Although prickly pear is also native to the West Indies, the ignorance demonstrated by the explorers suggests that they did not encounter the plant until they reached the Texas coast.
Prickly pear pads (green fleshy stems) were edible, and even used as containers. Both the immature pads (nopalitos) and the mature pads (nopales) were consumed by the foragers of the past. Although the immature pad can be eaten raw, the mature pad most likely was baked first.
Food. Please heed the following warning. Although they share many positive benefits, there are critical differences between the domesticated prickly pear (Opuntia ficus-indica) and the wild species of prickly pear that most of the Native Americans consumed (Opuntia engelmannii and others). Even the immature pads and ripe fruit of wild prickly pear cactus can have very small spines that cause inflammation of the tongue and throat. These must be removed carefully. However, if you carefully remove the spines and prickly tufts, both the fruit and pads, especially the young pads (nopalitos) are edible. Although 85-90% water by weight, prickly pear fruit is rich in Vitamin C and is a good source of carbohydrates. The pads contain fewer carbohydrates but are rich in Vitamin A.
It is smarter to buy the spineless, cultivated variety at the grocery store. Nopalitos are available in the fresh fruits and vegetables section of most grocery stores, as are the tunas (fruit). The grocery store nopales and tunas are grown from a spineless prickly pear variety originally developed by the famous plant breeder Luther Burbank.
The most famous ethnohistoric account of prickly pear use is the great recorded by Cabeza de Vaca, the first European to cross Texas and write a first-hand report. In midsummer many different groups would converge on the area in southern Texas where prickly pear was ripening, and this was their favorite time of the year.
They would squeeze the juice out of the fruit and dry the pulp and skin (Covey 1983). He also describes how they “gathered many tuna leaves and roasted them in an oven, and we gave them so much fire that were ready to eat” (Krieger 2002).
Ethnographic accounts of prickly pear that were recorded outside of Texas give us more ideas about the use of this plant. Tunas are harvested by knocking or twisting the fruits off the pads into a basket. The stiff hairs that cover the fruits need to be removed before they are consumed, and this can be accomplished by parching the fruit in hot coals or rubbing off the hairs using a rock. The fruits can be eaten raw, or they can be pounded in a mortar and pestle
Typical preparation of the fruit includes drying and pressing fruits in to a large flatcake, as done by the Yavapai. There are examples of the fruit being pit-baked, as is reported for the Cahuilla. The Cahuilla pick the fleshy young fruit of Opuntia basilaris in early summer and steam or bake it (Bean and Saubel 1972). Opuntia engelmannii fruit is very juicy and needs only to be pounded and sun-dried. Although there are no ethnographic references to pit-baking green or partially ripened Opuntia engelmannii, Phil Dering has pit-baked the green or partially fruit and found it to be palatable.
Medicine and other uses. Prickly pear pads also have very useful medicinal applications, and the dietary value of the immature pads, or nopalitos, may prove to be important in controlling or preventing Type 2 (adult onset) diabetes. Here are some of the historic and modern uses of nopales documented by oral history as well as some actual medical research. Although some of these uses might work for wilderness first aid in extreme situations, please don’t try out these techniques at home without the guidance of a medical professional.
- Hot poultice of prickly pear pad skin applied to boils
- Split pads used as a hemostat to stop bleeding
- Infusion of pads used to treat urinary tract infections
- Mucilage (pulp) in raw nopalitos reduces rate of sugar absorption, hence they are effectively reduce symptoms of insulin shock
- Mature pads as poultice and antiseptic for wounds
- Mature pads to treat burns
- Tea made from pads for treating tuberculosis scar tissue
- Mucilage from mature pads kills bacteria in cultures, so it has antibiotic properties
- Hot poultice of prickly pear pad skin applied to boils
- Split pads used as a hemostat to stop bleeding
- Infusion of pads used to treat swollen prostate
The pads are high in calcium, both insoluble calcium oxalate and soluble mucilage. They have a hypoglycemic effect, significantly lowering cholesterol and preventing glycemia. Soluble fibers, including viscous mucilage, inhibit the absorption of simple carbohydrates. Pads also contain high levels of amylose, a starch that breaks down into simple sugars more slowly than amylopectin, the starch in bread and potatoes. Mature pads, however, contain calcium oxalate crystals that are insoluble and may cause health problems. According to Laredo herbalist Tony Ramirez, nopales are useful in “preventing diet-related cardiovascular disease and adult onset diabetes” as well as protecting the male prostate gland. (Fowler 2001).
Bean, L., and K. Saubel
1972 Temalpakh: Cahuilla Indian Knowledge and Usage of Plants. Malki Museum Press.
Blum, M. and J. R. Jones.
1985 Variation in vegetation density and foredune complexity at north Padre Island, Texas. Texas Journal of Science 37: 63-73
Covey, Cyclone, translator and editor
1983 Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America by Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca. University of New Mexico Press. .
Campbell, Thomas N., and T.J. Campbell
1981 Historic Indian Groups of the Choke Canyon Reservoir and Surrounding Area. Choke Canyon Series Volume 1. Center for Archeological Research. The University of Texas at San Antonio. San Antonio, Texas.
Collins, Michael B. and Thomas R. Hester
1968 A Wooden Mortar and Pestle From Val Verde County, Texas. Bulletin of the Texas Archeological Society 39:1-8.
2004 Plant Remains from the Belle. Report submitted to the Texas Historical Commission.
2008 Plant Remains from 41NU2. Report submitted to the Center for Archaeological Research. The University of Texas at San Antonio.
1968 Mechanical Control of pricklypear and other wood species on the Rio Grande Plains. Journal of Range Management 21:366-370.
2001 Rattler Oil, Mesquite Beans and Prickly Pear: Medicine from Nature’s Pharmacy. Texas Co-Op Power, September.
Foster, William C, ed.
1998 La Salle Expedition to Texas: The Journal of Henri Joutel, 1684-1687. Texas State Historical Association, Austin.
Johnston, M. C.
1963 Past and Present Grasslands of Texas and Mexico. Ecology 44(3):456- 466.
Krieger, Alex D.
2002 We Came Naked and Barefoot: The Journey of Cabeza de Vaca across North America. University of Texas Press. Austin.
McAlister, W.H. and M.K. McAlister
1990 Matagorda Island, A Naturalistâs Guide. University of Texas Press. Austin.
2001 The Wreck of La Belle, The Ruin of La Salle. Texas A&M University Press. College Station, Texas.
Introduction to Opuntias: THE Signature Cactus Genus
When most people think of a cactus, they either imagine a giant Saguaro-like monolith, or a small, clumping Opuntia-like plant. Opuntias are among the most recognizable of all the succulents, if not one of the most familiar of all plants. Despite this familiarity, it is not one of the most grown plants, by a long shot. And perhaps there is a good reason for that. They can be rather difficult plants to love or even to get along with.
As Kelli mentioned in her article, Opuntias have a unique shape and structure of flattened, segmented pads that seem to grow randomly out of each other. Other cacti may have segmented growth like Opuntia, but if they are not flattened, they are either completely unrelated, or are now included in other related genera and USED to be included in the Opuntia. Some other flattened, segmented cacti have also been moved to other genera for picky flower or spine details which I don’t even begin to try to comprehend (yet). Some opuntias are monsters, growing over 20 feet tall, while others are barely a few inches high. Most are of a greenish color, but some are brown, grey, turquoise, purple, pale blue, yellow etc. Some have long, lethal spines while others have gazillions of thinner hairlike spines, and some have only the fuzzy, miniscule glochids Kelli mentioned in her article, while yet still others are completely spineless (aka ‘user-friendly’). It is usually the spines that taxonomists use to distinguish this species from that, as well as some floral characterstics. For me, this makes telling apart these plants an ‘art’ that I have not come close to perfecting as I have little patience in counting the myriad spines, trying to decide which are central spines, radial spines etc. I prefer to tell them apart by their general appearance… which is why I cannot tell most of them apart.
Review of ‘Opuntia Basics’:
One of the unique characterstics of Opuntias is they are made of flattened pads growing almost randomly out of each other (see Opuntia arcei in left photo); Other plants frequently labeled as Opuntias but with more tube-shaped ‘pads’, or fusiform, or spherical etc., as these other two above in a botanical garden have now been put in variouis other genera (center plant was labeled Opuntia leoncito, but is now Maihueniopsis glomerata, and the plant on right is tagged Opuntia caribaea, but is now Cylindropuntia caribaea). So if you see an Opuntia with segments or shapes other than flattened, be suspicious it is no longer in the Opuntia genus.
On the other hand, sometimes freakishly flattened Cacti that are also lumped into the Opuntia genus by many nurseries and botanical gardens turn out to be another genus, too, so be careful assuming all flattened pad cacti are Opuntias. Left: Brasiliopuntia caribaea, middle photo is Consolea nashii and right is Nopalea cochenilifera. At least these are–I think–RELATED to Opuntias…
Also, as Kelli mentioned in her recent Opuntia article, there are two types of spines on Opuntias: the spines and the glochids. The plant on the left shows a few regular spines, and a tuft of glochids in the center (Opuntia aciculata). The plant in the middle shows mostly spines (Opuntia erinacea var. ursina) while the two varieties of Opuntia microdasys on the right have only glochids.
And the above Opuntias either have no spines and almost no glochids (left, Opunita basilaris) or seeming no spines of any kind (center- Opuntia ficus-indica var. decumana photo by Kell), or have only spines and no glochids (that I can see)- right, Opuntia vulgaris variegated. Note: most plants that LOOK like they have no glochids, usually still do, and the smaller the glochids are, the more difficult they seem to be to get out of one’s skin, so caution is advised!!
As a group, the Opuntias are often referred to as the “prickly pears,” and all Opuntias make these fruits (many are edible)- left Opuntia aequatorialis, center Opuntia robusta; right shows that all the close relatives that USED to be Opuntias also make ‘prickly pears’ (Cylindropuntia leptocaulis)
Opuntias (and relatives) can be an ornery bunch and many wonder why grow them… but like all cacti, there is a beautiful side to each species that almost everyone can appreciate: the flowers! left- Opuntia basilaris, middle Grusonia invicta (aptly named the Dagger Cholla), right Opuntia ‘Baby Rita’ (photo by Kell)
and unknown species left, Nopalea cochenilifera middle and Opuntia ficus-indica right
Opuntia monacantha var. variegata (Joshep’s Coat) left; Opuntia litoralis var. austrocalifornica (middle) and Opuntia macrocentra (right)
Opuntia polycantha (left- photo by Growin); Opuntia quimilo (middle- photo by CactusJordi) and rigth, Opuntia salmiana
Cylindropuntia acanthocarpa (left), Opuntia stenopetala (center) and Grusonia pulchella (right; photo by CactusJordi)
left: Opuntia x vaseyi (photo acactus); center Tephrocactus alexanderi var. geometricus (photo CactusJordi) and right Cylindropuntia kleiniae (photo by leeann6)
Though Opuntias are fairly easy to grow cacti, they get some parasitic diseases that plague these cacti in certain situations.
Left is an Opuntia infested with a coccineal insect, that, if not treated, can eventually kill the cactus. However, in most cases, it just leaves these plants looking unsightly and unthrifty. This insect is sometimes cultivated on purpose. If you crush one of these white bugs (the bugs are actually not white- the white is some mucoid, almost ‘spit-like’ protective covering) you will see a bright crimson spot. This dye has been used for a few centuries and is coveted as one of the best natural red dyes available. But if you are not into producing commercial dyes, this bug is a nuisance, and a pretty hard one to control. The white protective layer seems to make it fairly resistant to most chemicals, so these often have to be hosed off forcibly first. Right shows a plant crusted with scale, which can kill Opuntia even faster than the coccineal bugs can. Scale, however, has no upside. And it, too, is difficult to control. However, plants grown in full sun are much less likely to get this bug than those grown in too much shade, so avoiding the shady situations is a good way to keep this from getting out of hand. Again, hosing off of the bugs forcibly is a good place to start, and THEN using some chemical control can be helpful to keep it from coming back. Scale tends to permanently scar these plants so better to avoid than treat.
The Opuntia Species (or at least a few of them):
There are literally hundreds of species of Opuntia. Most grow in the deserts of North and South America, but some are more tropical and some can survive climates where it snows frequently. Below is a brief overview of some of the species of Opuntia I have photographed, many which I have grown and several which I have had other experiences.
Opuntia basilaris (Beavertail Cactus): This is a species native to the southwestern United States, and is very common. This is one of my favorite species partly due to its interesting appearance, shocking-pink flowers and relative ‘user-friendliness’. It is a low plant with thick pads often in the shape of a beaver’s tail (hence the name) of a dull blue-green, pale green, pinkish to purplish color and nearly spineless (even the glochids of this plant are relatively user-friendly). I have some growing on my property in the Antelope Valley in southern California that I did not plant there… it’s my first plant native species on my property that I actually like!
Opuntia basilaris shots from plants in botanical gardens in southern California. Right is a weird, short-fat pad form called Opuntia basilaris var. brachyclada.
These Opuntia basilaris are native plants in my area and shots of naturally occuring plants in my very own yard!
Opuntia echios- Tree Prickly Pear: One of the rarer native cacti to the Galapagos island, this is a potential monster with a potential maximum height of thirty feet. I have never been to the Galapagos, but I have seen several of these at botanical gardens and they are one of the most densely spined Oputnias I have seen. I include this one because it is interesting in comparison with the relatively spineless dwarf of a cactus, Opuntia basilaris.
Shots of Opuntia echios in a botanical garden in Santa Barbara (Lotusland) showing intesne spination and a tall overall plant (these plants are still very young)
Opuntia englemannii var. linguiformis- Cow’s Tongue Prickly Pear: This is a large shrubby species and, to me, the most ornamental variety of the species, with irregularly shaped, flattened, thin pads (that look a bit like a cow’s tongue).
Opuntia englemannii var. linguiformis at a botanical garden (left) and two shots of a plant in neighbor’s back yard (middle and right)
Opuntia eglemannii var. lingiformis flowers and fruits (left and center); another interesting form of Opuntia englemannii- variety subarmata (right)
Opuntia ficus-indica var. decumana- Smooth Barbary Fig: This species is one of the most economically important of the genus (see another article by Kelli: http://davesgarden.com/guides/articles/view/4238/) and this form is one of the more ornamental and user-friendly of all the cacti. I have grown this one and it is easy (though tends to topple over once it grows over eight to ten feet tall). It has no spines at all (that I have seen)- not even glochids (at least none worth mentioning). This makes it one of the better species to use in cooking, feeding desert tortoises, or planting near a walkway since it is attractive and completely user friendly.
Opuntia ficus-indica normal form used as a hedge (left); Opuntia ficus-indica var. decumana photos (center in a botanical garden, and right in my yard)
Opuntia fragilis (Brittle Cactus) this is one of the more dwarf species of Opuntia and has one of the best cold tolerances of all the cacti (down to zone 4a, or -30F). It has variable spines (long to almost non-existent) and is also very ‘fragile’, losing its somewhat egg-shaped pads easily when moving this plant, or just bumping into it. It spreads easily this way, grabbing onto animals that venture too close, a pad tears away, gets a short ride, and re-roots where ever it’s deposited. As a child I certainly did my part in moving this plant around to new areas inadvertently, as it hitchhiked on my socks while I would carelessly lumber about the local wilderness in New Mexico- not one of my fonder cactus memories.
Opuntia fragilis shots (middle photo Ally_UT, and right is a plant in Canada, by kennedyh)
Opuntia gosseliana- Violet Prickly Pear: one of my favorite species is this brilliantly colored plant, with turquoise pads that turn a nice, pinkish-violet in stressful conditions (cool, dry etc.). There are several other violet species (Opuntia macrocentra and Opuntia ‘Santa Rita’) that I have a difficult time telling apart- all make great landscape plants of remarkable ornamental value. Opuntia macrocentra is the plant featured at the start of this article
Plant labeled as Opuntia gosseliana left; Opuntia ‘Santa Rita’ middle showing changes during drought (center); right is plant labeled as Opuntia gosseliana var. Santa Rita (obviously I am not the only confused)
Opuntia ‘Santa Rita’ showing particularly nice color changes (left); Opuntia macrocentra ‘extra spiny’ in a show (center) and right showing color changes with stress
Opuntia microdasys (Bunny Ears)- There are many forms of this popular landscape plant and I have grown several of these varieties in my own garden. They have a fuzzy, velvety almost soft, comfortable look that is quite the opposite of reality. These are among some of the plants I dread dealing with the most, and I grow a LOT of spiney, toxic and dangerous plants. This species and all its varieties have no long, scary, needle-like spines, but are covered with gazillions of dinky, harmless-looking, adherent glochids that come off in thousands with the lightest brush or touch. These dislodged miniscule spines weigh about the same as motes of house dust and quickly become impaled in clothing, skin and exposed mucus membranes making any subsequent movements painful and annoying for hours or even to days to come. I love the look of these cacti, but I never want to have to move or prune one again.
Opuntia microdasys shots
Opuntia microdasys var. rufida (left) and ‘Funny Bunny’ (center)- both plants in my collection; right are seedlings of several varieties for sale at nursery down the street from me
Opuntia phaeacantha (New Mexico Prickly Pear, among other names): This is another childhood nemesis of mine and has wounded me numerous times throughout my youth as I hiked about northern New Mexico (where I was born and raised). It is an only very slightly ornamental, small, shrubby, sneaky species (likes to grow in other low scrub and ‘hide’) with long, sharp spines that easily pass through sneakers (my perennial hiking gear). Europeans report this is one of the easier cacti to grow in cool, moist climates where most other Opuntias suffer. Lucky them!
Opuntia pycnantha This is not a common species, but one of my favorites due to its amazing ornamental appeal. It not only has attractive rust colored spines and nice, neat, dense patterns on the pads, but it tends to grow somewhat symmetrically, at least compared to most randomly growing Opuntia species, making it an exceptional Opuntia for pot or small garden culture. Unfortunately it is not one of the more cold tolerant species and though I have planted it in my new home in the Anteleope Valley, I am pessimistic about its long term survival there.
Opuntia pycnantha in my collection (left) showing flower; nice clump in collector’s garden center; and a particularly nice, symmetrically grown plant in a cactus show (right)
Shots of Opuntia pycnantha pads showing nice even rows of spines. Mature pad on left and new, extra fuzzy immature pad on the right
Opuntia robusta (Dinner Plate Cactus) This is another favorite of mine, having large, almost completely circular, thick pads almost a foot in diameter–very robust. The ornamental value of this species is exceptional but you need a large space to grow this one.
Opuntia robusta colony (left); center showing fruits and right showing a rooted pad with some new growth at the top. Most Opuntia species are easy to root from single pads like this
Below are more Opuntia examples I have seen about southern California just to give you some idea of the variety available in cultivation
Opuntia cochenilifera (a variegated form) left; Opuntia durangensis (center); Opuntia vulgaris (right), one of my favorite in terms of ornamental look and nice spination
Opuntia ellisiana left, a large, variable species (this one circular and nearly spinelss); Opuntia macbridei center (a very low growing, clumping minature species); right Opuntia streptacantha- one of the larger species
Opuntia chlorotica left, another of the nice pale blue species; center is Opuntia rufida, and nice neat plant with few spines, but nasty glochids; right is Opuntia dillenii, another large species
Opuntia galapagei (left) and Opuntia megasperma (center) are two more species native to the Galapagos islands; right is Opuntia pailana, a species with very long spines.
There are MANY more species of Opuntia, but these are among my personal favorites (or least favorites). The following are a few examples of other cactus species that USED to be in the Opuntia genus, or are very closely related genera.
The Opuntia Relatives:
Austrocylindropuntias and Cylindropuntias are genera that many texts and resources still include in the Opuntia. But these plants are notably tubular, rather than flattened. The Cylindropuntia are common shrubs throughout much of the southwest and are known collectively as Cholla (pronounced Choy’- ya). Cholla are another childhood nightmare plant, and I have spent many hours during hikes about New Mexico attempting to pull these spines out my arms and legs. The spines of many Cholla are barbed, making pulling them out of tissue a very difficult and painful undertaking. Jumping Cholla are the worst with entire cactus limbs quickly adhering to a passerby who barely even touches them (they seem to ‘jump’ onto you) and quickly becoming impossibly impaled onto any available surface.
Cylindropuntia in my back yard, C. acanthocarpa (left)- a local native; middle Cylindropuntia echinocarpa and right, Cylindropuntia bigloveis (Jumping Chollas)
Cylindropuntia californica (left), Cylindropuntia fulgida (center), another Jumping Cholla species; and Cylindropuntia leptocaulis (right)
The Austrocylindropuntia are pretty similar but are the South American cholla versions of the shrubby, tubular cacti. There are other minor differences, but not ones I can really pick out easily. Some Grusonia can be ‘cholla-like’ as well, but tend to be pretty small in comparison to these other two genera.
Austrocylindropuntia subalata (Eves’ Needle), a common species, left; Austrocylindropuntia pachypus (center), Austrocylindropuntia atroviridis in a plant show right
Consolea, Brasiliopuntia and Nopalea are more very Opuntia-like genera of cacti with remarkably flattened pads. Most of these are tree cacti and get quite tall. The species I am most familiar with and have grown before is Consolea rubescens, or Road Kill Cactus. It is a fairly ‘user-friendly’ species with minimal spination and a remarkably flattened appearance (as if run over by a truck). Nopalea cochinillifera is another one I have grown and it has a nice globoid overall shape to the entire shrub, is fairly user-friendly as well, and has some of the most shocking pink, oramental flowers of all the Opuntia-like cacti.
Young Consolea rubescens (Road Kill Cacti) left, and a tall one in the desert middle; right is Consolea falcata, showing this genus can grow into a large tree
Cumulopuntias and Tephrocacti are dwarf, segmented genera with more spherical than flattened pads, making them some of the more popular genera for ornamental pot culture. The Tephrocacti, in my experience, are one the nicest small potted cactus genera, but reallly prone to fall apart thanks to their very weak segemental attachments… large specimens like one below are extremely hard to keep from falling apart and need to handled with extreme care to keep them all together.
Cumulopuntias corotilla (left), dactylifera (center) and pentlandii (right)… a lot of these look the same to me, and hard to tell from some of the other genera (such as Maihueniopsis)
Tephrocactus articulatus var. diadematus, or sometimes known as the Pinecone Cactus, a very popular and easy to grow (and user-friendly) species left; one of the most ornamental of all cactus (and this one an overall show winner) Tephrocactus alexanderi var. geometricus center; Tephrocactus molinensis right
Tephrocactus articulatus var papyracanthus, or Paperspine Cactus left, another very popular species; Tephrocactus alexanderi center and Tephrocactus weberi right
Grusonia, Tunilla, Pterocactus and Maihuenia (and closely related Maihueniopsis) are several more dwarf cacti sometimes lumped into the Opuntia as well
Grusonia moelleri (left), Grusonia bradtiana (center) and Grusonia invicta (aka the Dagger Cholla- right)
Pterocactus fischeri (left); Pterocactus tuberosus (center); and Pterocactus australis (right)
Tunilla soehrensii (left) and Tunilla corrugata (right)
Maihuenia poeppigiana (left) and Puna clavaroides (right) are both very popular species for pot culture and most growers still list them as Opuntias
Maihueniopsis bonnieae (left) and Maihueniopsis subterranea (right)
For more on Opuntias, check out this website.