Opuntia Web

Opuntia engelmannii fruit
Opuntia engelmannii fruit

Updated June 2021

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. However, the East has a number of species too. Most states have at least one native prickly pear. The good 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. Many species have multiple names because someone named a species in (for instance) New Mexico, whereas someone else named the species in Arizona. 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 more. 

What We Do

Opuntia valida
Opuntia valida, Artesia, NM

We describe the Opuntia species of the United States, 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. 

We use historical records, herbarium records, and current findings along with our own field studies to identify prickly pears, their differences, and their similarities. 

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

A group of editors verifies all the information on 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 describe Opuntia hybrids though there are many beautiful plants in gardens. Though prickly pear hybrids occur in Nature, they are not the norm. We concentrate on species. 

The Garden

This Website is not about gardening, but we agree that many Opuntia species are excellent garden plants. We like the following plants for gardens.  

What are the best small Opuntias for gardens? 

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

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 lower Midwest or the Southeast. They are all good bloomers and one produces sweet fruit. 

What are the best large Opuntias for gardens? 

Through prickly pears are mostly desert plants, there are prickly pear 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 that 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.

Conclusion

Opuntia alta
Opuntia alta, TX

Opuntia species are part of the supergroup: opuntiads. They are the plants with flat stems also known as paddle cacti.

Their names are confusing and many species are difficult to tell apart. Some species have been forgotten and we try to match up the species we see with the descriptions written 100 (or more) years ago. 

This Website has descriptions of over 90 prickly pear species and over 1500 photographs of them. 

Prickly pear cacti are unique and worth studying because: 

  • They are so numerous in the warmer parts of the county.
  • They have numerous and incredible adaptations for drought and heat.
  • They are important plants for desert wildlife.
  • Their ecology is little known. 
  • There is much yet to be learned about their basic biology.
  • They have a plastic morphology. 
  • There are lost or forgotten species to pair with the original descriptions.
  • There is controversy about their taxonomy. 
  • They have beautiful flowers and edible fruits. 

26 thoughts on “Opuntia Web”

  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/ .

    Joe

  2. Currently have two young opuntias growing alongside my golf course walkway. Will allow both the chance to grow to see what they might become. However, will deffinately transplant one, maybe both.

    Eager to obtain a clear ID, as soon as possible.

    Live in Arizona City, Arizona.

  3. What are the hardiest, tallest Opuntia varieties that I can introduce into my Hudson Valley, NY outside garden. I believe I’m in Zone 5, South of Poughkeepsie,Ny. Thanks

  4. Hi Stefan,

    I conferred with a colleague. Your plant is not a good fit for American species. However, we have some ideas/guesses. It seems like a largish woody plant.
    1. It is a garden hybrid.
    2. It may be related to O. engelmannii or O. arizonica and affected by culture conditions.
    3. There is a remote possibility is is an unusually woody form of O. tortispina.

    Joe

  5. Hi,

    I don’t know of any large plants for your area. It is remotely possible that O. ‘Ellisiana’ could work out. Likely it would be OK down to 15F. Perhaps you could grow it in a large pot and then wheel it into the garage for winter.

    Good luck.

    Joe Shaw

  6. Jim,

    As per our discussion, it will be easier to ID your plant when it is more mature. Perhaps with flowers and/or fruits.

    Joe Shaw

  7. Can you help me identify ours, I can send a photo later let me know where I can send it to thanks I would like to harvest for family food or fruit to help with swelling from arthritis. Thanks Sam

  8. Very cool website, I’m glad I stumbled upon it in my search to learn more about the cactuses in our new home’s garden. The former residents took such good care of the plants. I’m new to gardening so it’s interesting to learn about the different kinds.

  9. Hello,
    Congratulations on your informative and attractive website. I’m writing to ask permission to use one of your photos for an article on opuntia in the Foggy View, the newsletter of the Palos Verdes-South Bay Group of the Angeles Chapter of the Sierra Club. The photo we’d like to use is Opuntia aurea, east-entrance to Zion, Andrey-Zharkikh. Is Andrey Zharkikh the photographer? May we use it if we give credit?
    Thanks for your consideration.
    Judy

  10. Hi Judy,
    You may use any photo that is not attributed (most of them). If they are attributed, I will need to get permission. Sometimes that takes a while.

    Joe Shaw

  11. Hi Joseph
    Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us.
    I have question
    What are the best varieties of prickly pear for cultivation ? Like is in term of size and taste. And is there an excellent hybrid for cultivation ?
    Thanks

  12. Hi,
    Thanks for your note. We are always happy to get mail.

    Your question is a difficult one to answer in some ways because there are so many gardenworthy hybrids. If it is wild species you are interested you can find lists at http://www.opuntiads.com on the front page.

    If you are interested in hybrids, I suggest you pose your question on the FaceBook Opuntiads page. You might get many answers so be sure so specific small if you want small (the size of O. polyacantha or smaller). There are many garden worthy larger plants too.

    Joe

  13. What is the difference between opuntia subulata and opuntia cylindrica? How can you tell the difference? Thanks.

  14. Wanneer kunnen zaailingen van opuntia Vulgaris in de buitenlucht gezet worden . Ik woon in Hardenberg Nederland .

  15. To Rob Mender, Hi Rob, if you’ve already found an answer to your Austrocylindropuntia question, I apologize for the duplication here. There are three very similar larger species that are often recognized in this genus, and two of them are generally “lumped” together as one.

    A. subulata is the most commonly grown, at least as it is usually expanded to include plants that have been called A. exaltata as well. True A. subulata is a plant with extra long leaves (generally noticeably longer than the stems are thick, as compared to about the same), but otherwise there is little different between the two that individual variation doesn’t explain (flower color, growth habit, number and length of spines, etc. vary from individual to individual).

    Cylindropuntia subulata (including exaltata) is native to the Andes, but just where it is native or not is somewhat debated, because it is so widely cultivated, and it escapes cultivation sometimes. Probably it is native just in Peru.

    C. cylindrica is quite similar to these, but it has significantly shorter leaves than any form of C. cylindrica/exaltata, and it has more rows of shorter tubercles on the stems and fruits. This one is probably native just in Ecuador.

    There are monstrose forms of these that are mostly plants retaining juvenile traits, staying small, and often proliferate by many little short stem segments – looking very different from normal adult plants. These can be difficult to sort out unless they happen to produce a normal adult stem, because they are so different from the adult plants, and because they can look very similar regardless of which species they are (and they are often mislabeled). These often make rather tiny leaves too, regardless of which species they are, so the leaves may not help much. Generally though, even with these, the A. cylindrica plants will have more and shorter tubercles on the stems.

    A. pachypus is related and similar too. It has fatter stems and makes a more compact plant that tends to grow wider and less tall, and it has even more tubercles than A. cylindrica. It is from lower elevations in Peru than where A. subulata is supposed to be native, and seems to perhaps favor a drier climate. I’m not aware of any monstrose juvenile cultivars of this species.

    Other species of Austrocylindropuntia are all less robust plants with more slender and often much shorter and more compactly arranged stems than normal adult forms of the previous ones.

  16. Regarding Austrocylinropuntia pachypus. I should add that the spines are quite different, usually more of them, and more slender and shorter.

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