Lewis probably said it best when he referred to Pricklypear as “one of the beauties as well as the greatest pests of the plains.”1 I usually see it with a pale yellow bloom, so this beautiful apricot colored version caught my attention.
Opuntia polyacantha, Prickly Pear cactus, or Plains Pricklypear, is a common plant of the high desert plains. It is almost completely covered with spines and tiny hairs that work their way into the skin. The hairs can be hard to see, but you’ll know they are there.
Opuntia polyacantha can be found from Alberta to Texas and California to Missouri. It is a food source for the black-tailed prairie dog, northern pocket gopher, bushy-tailed woodrat, Nuttall cottontail, black-tailed jackrabbit, white-tailed jackrabbit, desert cottontail, least chipmunk, collared peccary, and northern bobwhite.
It is used as browse by cattle, sheep, bison, deer and antelope after fire, and provides protective cover for many species of birds and small mammals.2
In some older texts you may find the assertion that high Pricklypear densities are caused by livestock overgrazing, but there is reason to view this conclusion with a grain of salt. Our earliest written records, such as the journals of Lewis and Clark, indicate that, at least in the last 200 years, Plains cactus has been a common component of native western rangelands. In some cases Lewis and Clark described areas thickly covered with Pricklypear. Research done in the 1960’s suggested the perceived increase of pricklypear under grazing pressure was a result of simply seeing the cactus already present as the taller grasses were grazed down.3
In recent history (the last 100 years), during times of extended drought ranchers have singed the spines off Pricklypear in order to make it edible for livestock. It is known to be high in carbohydrates. The fruits are also edible for humans. Native Americans traditionally prepare the fruits by either burning off the spines, or removing the offending spine covered ‘skin’ and using them in stews and soups.
Apparently, they can also save your life if you are ever stranded in the American desert. Just carefully peel off the skin of the fruit and eat the flesh which is high in water content.
I’ve never tried to propagate Opuntia, but it can be grown from seed, or by partially burying a ‘pad’ and keeping it somewhat moist. Opuntia naturally occurs in sandy, rocky, soil and requires minimal water in the range of 6-10 inches per year, maybe less.
1 Phillips, H. Wayne. 2003. Plants of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Mountain Press, Missoula, MT pg 99
3 Bement, R. E. 1968. Plains pricklypear: relation to grazing intensity and blue grama yield on Central Great Plains. Journal of Range Management. 21: 83-86.