Eastern Prickly Pear

Opuntia humifusa (formerly O. compressa)
Thorny
Edible
Family

Cactaceae (cacti)

Description

A low, spreading, succulent cactus. Flowers numerous, yellow, with many similar-looking sepals and petals, the innermost often with an orange splotch, to 3 inches across, with many stamens. Blooms May–July. The large, paddlelike green parts (pads) are technically the thickened, flattened stems. New pads have tiny, soft, conical protuberances that are the true leaves; these persist only briefly before drying and falling off. At the base of each leaf is a cluster of 1-6 spines plus many tiny, hairlike bristles that are very difficult to remove from the skin once they are embedded. Fruit is edible, purplish red, and pear-shaped, with tufts or bristles. The seeds are embedded in a pale, mucilaginous substance.

Similar species: Plains prickly pear (O. macrorhiza) is uncommon and found mostly in southwestern Missouri. It might actually be a spinier variety of eastern prickly pear. Starvation cactus (O. polyacantha) was once found in Jasper County but has probably been extirpated.

Size

This cactus grows along the ground and sometimes forms low mounds.

eastern_prickly_pear_pad_03-20-14.jpg

Photo of eastern prickly pear closeup on pad with areoles
Eastern Prickly Pear (Pad)

36_05-2011.jpg

eastern prickly pear cactus
Eastern Prickly Pear Cactus
Habitat and conservation

Grows in sunny, dry places: rocky areas of upland prairies, sand prairies, glades, tops and exposed ledges of bluffs, and rocky stream terraces; also pastures, roadsides, railroads, and open, disturbed areas.

image of Eastern Prickly Pear distribution map
Distribution in Missouri

Scattered nearly statewide.

Status

Prickly pears and nearly all other members of the cactus family are indigenous to the Americas. There are about 200 species in the genus Opuntia. Another large genus of cacti, Cylindropuntia, the chollas, which have a similar growth habit but have cylindical and not paddle-shaped stems, used to be considered members of the Opuntia genus.

Human connections

The fruits and young pads of some species of prickly pears are eaten in regions where cacti are more common. Prickly pear candy is made in the desert southwest, and canned, sliced nopales (the pads) can be bought in the Hispanic section in grocery stores. Try them in Mexican-style scrambled eggs!

Ecosystem connections

The spines of prickly pears serve the plant in at least two ways. First, they deter herbivores from eating them. Second, since the pads easily break off at the joints and can take root elsewhere, the spines can facilitate their distribution by hooking on to the feet of animals.