How Opuntia Species Are Identified


Opuntia polyacantha, NM
Opuntia polyacantha, New Mexico

The first iteration of Opuntia Web was built in 2005. Our scientists identified Opuntia species in the field. We visited the western states to study cacti in habitat. We also visited Florida, the southern Atlantic states, and the Midwest to observe cacti in those regions (e.g., O. macrarthra). We made a visit to Pennsylvania to verify the presence of O. humifusa. In addition to extensive field studies, we consulted herbarium specimens, old black and white photographs, compendia, the current literature, and original citations and descriptions. 

Bentonii with Fruit
Opuntia bentonii with Fruit, Galveston, TX

We compared our field observations of opuntias with the information we found from these sources to identify the plants that we observed. Additionally, we consulted with other specialists and scientists on an ad hoc basis. Herein, we provide evidence to support our findings in the form of descriptions, published literature, photo-reproductions of herbarium samples, and in situ photographs. Opuntia Web does not provide new taxonomic decisions. Rather, it uses published descriptions of species and identifies the plants in the field. Taxonomy is a separate discipline from the identification of plants in the field using published materials. Opuntia Web does Field Botany. 

Our understanding of Opuntia continues to evolve, and there are many names available for some species. A single citation is used herein to provide an Opuntia species name. The precise citation chosen provides the earliest identifying name for the taxon as we treat it and a place for the reader to start if more information is desired. Tropicos is a good place to expand the search for alternate treatments.  

We anticipate that some names will change in the future. We also understand that currently undescribed taxa will be reported in the future. We will change our treatments accordingly as new Opuntia information is published. For instance, one of our editors (Nancy Hussey) recently co-published the description of O. diploursina with her colleagues.

Some species of Opuntia have been lost to science because they were assumed to be synonymous with other taxa. For instance, O. cespitosa was lost because it was assumed to be synonymous with O. humifusa. However, more recently, botanists have shown O. cespitosa to be separate and distinct from O. humifusa. Likewise O. mesacantha ssp. mesacantha and O. mesacantha ssp. lata were assumed to be synonymous with O. humifusa but are now known to be different. Thus, there are four species known where it was thought there was only one. 

What is a species?

Opuntia sp. aff. valida, AZ
Opuntia aff valida, AZ

Identification of an Opuntia species requires a working sense of what a species is. We use the following considerations as our guide, “clusters of monotypic or polytypic biological entities, identified using morphology, genetics, or molecular biology, forming groups that have few or no intermediates with other groups when in contact.” We also accept that Opuntia species are “groups of organisms that inherit characters from each other…and are a reproductive community and unit.” 

We know that future phylogenetic hypotheses supported by molecular comparisons, rigorous morphometric, anatomic, and ecological analyses (see the treatment of O. humifusa s.l.) will supplement our current observations and help further illuminate our knowledge of opuntias. Field studies of Opuntia species will also be essential for our understanding and we will adapt and change this Website to reflect new findings. 

We consider varieties as populations within a species that differ from the type in some details and that blend into one another anywhere their distributions meet or overlap. It is often difficult to label an Opuntia type to a proper variety because, unlike hybrids, varietal intermediates may occur with regularity and may only be subtly different from the type. Our thought is that widespread and variable Opuntia species (e.g., O. phaeacantha or O. engelmannii) may contain undescribed varieties or even subspecies and species. For example, O. gregoriana is now considered to be a form of O. engelmannii, but it was once treated as a separate species. However, perhaps it could be described as a variety? 

Opuntia wootonii flower
Opuntia wootonii flower, Belen, NM


We consider gross morphological information of opuntias such as spine colors, sizes, numbers, and arrangements, etc; glochid arrangements, sizes, and colors; cladode shape, color, and overall aspect; areole details; fruit and seed characteristics, general plant appearance, size, and shape; etc. Even edaphics, elevation, geography, and climate are considered as we identify species. Sometimes Opuntia bloom season is considered. If observable, we also consider phenotypic clines, introgressions, and other types of data in making decisions about the limits of a taxon. Ploidies are determined by our Editor-in-Chief or are reported in the literature

Other data, such as phenology, pollination ecology, ecosystem position, and proposed phylogenies, etc., are mostly not available for opuntias at the specific level. However, where published such information is used to inform our treatments and descriptions of opuntias.

Because opuntias are notoriously plastic in gross morphology, we do not rely upon single plants, observations, or locations, etc., to inform our decisions. Rather, we observe multiple plants, in multiple locations, under different conditions, and over different seasons to make determinations.


Opuntia is a dynamic genus, and hybridization, polyploidy, and introgression are important biological processes that affect opuntias as well as our understanding of them. 


Opuntia hybrids do occur, but they are not the norm even though they can be confusing. Given the abundance of Opuntia species, the sheer number of individual plants, and their overlapping ranges, there are actually few hybrids observed in Nature. When they do occur they are generally found in regions where two Opuntia species overlap. Even in such zones, Opuntia hybrids are the exception. Because they are exceptions and may have unique features, hybrids are often prized in gardens. 


Polypoidization occurs in Opuntia. The basic chromosome number for Opuntia is 11 (2N = 22) However, many Opuntia species are polyploid; they may be tetraploid (2N = 44), hexaploid (2N = 66), or even octaploid (2N = 88). Triploid (N = 3X) and pentaploid (N = 5X) plants are known, but their contributions to gene exchange are unknown. 

Opuntia phaeacantha
Opuntia phaeacantha

Polyploidy may mask entities that are apparently identical, but which actually have different ploidies. For instance, there are diploid, triploid, and tetraploid examples of O. pusilla. Similarly, there are diploid and tetraploid examples of O. humifusa s.l. Auto- and allopolypoidy occurs in Opuntia, and such rich genetic resources have created wonderfully varied species. 


Introgression occurs in Opuntia species. Introgression is different from hybridization because it refers to the transfer of limited genetic information from one species to another through ancient hybridization and repeated backcrossing. Introgression begins with hybridization, but it is so much more. Hybridization may split two genomes equally, whereas introgression is generally the invasion of a few genes into one of the parents–leaving the species essentially the same as before. 

Introgression is a ubiquitous phenomenon in plants and animals and it contributes to adaptation. Modern humans are an example of an introgressed species because many of us carry 1%genes from Neanderthal humans. An example of introgression in Opuntia might be a pink-flowered population in a species that is generally yellow-flowered.

3 thoughts on “How Opuntia Species Are Identified”

  1. Hi can I send a few (4) photos of different species of Opuntia I have acquired and are slowly propagating?

  2. I have a couple of giant cactus in my yard and both are producing the beautiful red fruits and don’t look similar at all I love the fruit and make prickly pear jelly around the holidays/ where can I send a few pics to have you experts tell me if the fruits are edible or not, your expertise would be deeply appreciated.
    Thanks in advance

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