Prickly Pear

Prickly pear cactus with one yellow flower
Prickly Pear Cactus

NPS Photo

Prickly pear is a type of cactus that is commonly seen in the monument. These cacti are well adapted to desert ecosystems, and prefer sandy, well drained soil. There are several species of Opuntia which are all known as prickly pear, including the purple fruited pricky pear and the potato prickly pear. The range of these species is extensive. Prickly pear can be found growing from Mexico to Canada, and some species grow on the eastern coast of the U.S. as well. It can thrive in a variety of ecosystems, with pads to retain water, spines to protect the plant, and an ability to grow in challenging environments.

The cactus pads are actually flattened stems, and the spines grow from the point that produces leaves in other plants. Their main function is photosynthesis, water storage, and food production. A waxy coating on the pads helps keep evaporation down to a minimum and dulls the bright green color of the pad to prevent cooking on hot summer days. During a drought, you may see prickly pear pads turn red, which protects the plant from ultraviolet light.

Prickly pear cactus with yellow and pink flowers
Prickly Pear in Bloom

NPS Photo

Each pad can survive for around ten years. Prickly pear stems produce an average of one new pad each year. As the old pads die, the new pads can send down roots so the plant can continue mining for nutrients and water. This allows the cacti to spread and inhabit new areas.

Flowers appear in the summer and can be yellow, pink, violet, bronze, or yellow-green. They are made up of one stigma, which is surrounded by hundreds of touch sensitive stamens. Beetles are one of the main pollinators. When they climb into the flower to forage, the stamens curl in, covering the beetle with pollen. The beetle will then journey on to other flowers, pollinating them as it goes.

Prickly pear cactus in bloom with yellow and pink flowers
Prickly Pear with Yellow Blooms

NPS Photo

During wetter years, prickly pear will produce an edible, sweet tasting fruit. The animals in the monument appreciate this food source, especially the coyotes. Collecting prickly pear fruit is not permitted in the monument. If you are in a place where collecting is allowed, you can help wildlife by leaving some of the fruit behind on each plant. That will also allow the prickly pear seeds a chance to sprout. Prickly pear are good plants for xeriscaping, with the added benefit of edible fruit for the home gardener. The fruit can be used for jams, jellies, syrups, and juices.

The pads of prickly pear are used as a food source by wildlife too, especially during times of drought. The spiny cacti provide shelter and burrowing sites for rodents. In the summer, the flowers give hikers some welcome splashes of color on the trails. It truly is a versatile plant, able to grow in a range of habitats, and holds a key place in the desert ecosystem.

Last updated: March 1, 2022

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