Opuntia, Prickly Pears

Opuntia engelmannii fruit
Opuntia engelmannii fruit


Last updated December 6, 2018

Opuntias are the prickly pear cacti. There are over 90 species of Opuntia in the United States. We describe them here.  

Opuntias are unique cacti with unusual shapes and beautiful flowers.  They are part of the opuntiad supergroup of cacti. 

The “big three” states for opuntias are Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. But Florida and Georgia have a number of species too. Most states have at least one native prickly pear. The great news is that many western opuntias will grow in a variety of climates. So, you can grow them in your garden. 

Cholla Web is our sister Website, and it describes other opuntiads of the USA (chollas and dog chollas).

The Details

Of the many prickly pear cacti in the United States, some have been forgotten by time, and many names have fallen by the wayside. Some species have multiple names. Some species look superficially alike, and only close inspection can tell them apart (e.g., O. humifusa and O. mesacantha).

Thus, casual observation might indicate one Opuntia type where there are actually two or three. We use historical records and current findings along with our own field studies to identify prickly pears, their differences, and their similarities. 

What We Do

Opuntia valida
Opuntia valida, Artesia, NM

We describe Opuntia species, and we provide multiple photographs so you can see details. We take photos in habitat so that you can see how the plants look and grow in different seasons.

Our goal is to describe a prickly pear cactus in easy-to-understand terms so that you can identify all of them in habitat.

A group of editors verifies all the information in this Website, and we strive for accuracy. But we are always happy to learn new things. Just write to us or leave a comment. If you have an Opuntia, maybe we can help you identify it. 

We generally do not described Opuntia hybrids though there are many beautiful plants in gardens. Though prickly pear hybrids occur in Nature, they are difficult to identify properly and are not the norm in Nature. We concentrate on species.

What are 10 best small Opuntias for gardens? 

These prickly pear cacti are small, easy to grow, cold hardy, and floriferous: excellent for any garden. They have the added benefit of growing in flower pots, and they are easily obtained too. 

What are 10 best large Opuntias for gardens? 

Large, majestic prickly pear cacti are popular in gardens too. Though they require more room, they are worth it because they are amazing statement plants in, or out, of flower. Large plants are found in many southwestern gardens, but you can grow some in the Midwest or the Southeast. They are all good bloomers and one produces sweet fruit. 


Opuntia alta
Opuntia alta, TX

Through prickly pears are mostly desert plants, there are Opuntia species that will grow in the Southeast, the Northeast, and the upper Midwest.

Many opuntias grow naturally in climates without strong freezes, but some come from northern areas or high altitudes can fly through winters of exceptional cold. We like to grow opuntias, and writing about them helps us and others understand the various species and decide what to grow and photograph.

Prickly pear cacti are unique and worth studying because:

  • They are so numerous in the warmer parts of the county and easy plants in gardens.
  • They provide a fun detective story to find the original publications and match them with forgotten species,
  • They are uniquely drought resistant. 
  • They have beautiful flowers and edible fruits. 

4 thoughts on “Opuntia, Prickly Pears”

  1. Hi,

    There are a couple or three plants out there without spines and without glochids. The one I am most familiar with is O. cacanapa ‘Ellisiana’. It is also called O. Ellisiana. It forms a large plant 3-4 feet tall and across, but can be kept smaller by pruning. You can handle it with impunity, but I did find a glochid once.
    Read this page: https://www.opuntiads.com/opuntia-cacanapa-incl-o-ellisiana/ .


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