Prickly Pear — January 2011

Prickly Pear Plant

Prickly Pear Flowers

Prickly Pear Tunas

With their bright, bold colors and surprisingly large size, is it any wonder that we tend to be drawn to cactus flowers? Emerging from an otherwise barren and even threatening landscape they provide an irresistible visual treat and serve the plant well by effectively attracting pollinators. The yellow blossoms of the plains prickly pear cactus do their job very well indeed. Opuntia is the genus of cactus plants commonly called prickly pears and Opuntia phaeacantha is one of the two common species of Opuntia on the Preserve and one of nine prickly pear species native to New Mexico. The genus was named for succulent plants found in the city of Opus, Greece by Joseph Pitton deTournefort (1656-1708), a French botanist noted for his clear definition of the concept of a plant genus. Phaeacantha refers to the presence of dark spines from the Greek words phaios, meaning dusky or dark gray and akantha, meaning thorn or spine. Other common names for Opuntia phaeacantha are brown-spined prickly pear, desert prickly pear, tulip prickly pear, and Mojave prickly pear.

The plains prickly pear typically grows in the rocky soil of old fields and open areas of piñon-juniper woodlands. The round to ovate pads of the cactus are actually stem segments that grow upright along the surface of the ground. This fleshy stem is usually bluish green and about one-half inch thick. Two types of spines arise in clusters from the surface of the pads. The large, stiff spines are slightly flattened and tend to be yellow-gray toward the tip and red-brown toward the base. From one to ten such spines occur at each node and at the base of the large spines is a cluster of much smaller spines that appear as a light brown tuft. These hair-like short spines have barbs capable of embedding in an animal’s skin causing significant irritation.

Flowers usually appear in June from buds that grow along the upper edges of the pads. The yellow, waxy petals sometimes turn peach or pink as they age and the center of some flowers is a red-brown color. As with the pad size and/or shape and the spine length and/or color in this species, floral characteristics can be quite variable. The center of the flowers have numerous yellow stamens that twist and curl inward when touched, an adaptation that ensures crawling pollinators like bees and beetles become covered with pollen. The central pistil is green and after pollination a fleshy fruit containing numerous seeds will develop from its base. When mature, the fruit turns red-purple and has traditionally been called a tuna.

The plains prickly pear was regularly collected by Native Americans and eaten, but never as a primary food source, usually being mixed with other foods like corn or squash. Tunas and pads were sometimes eaten raw after removing the spines. The flesh of the pads is mucilaginous and therefore could easily be mixed with dry ingredients such as cornmeal and cooked. Cooked pads were also known to have been used to make candy, chewing gum, and jelly. Zunis used tunas to prepare a red dye and the Havasupai used spines for tattooing. Today it is not uncommon to find pads that have obviously been grazed, so the plants do have value as wildlife food. And the plains prickly pear is reported to be a host for giant skipper butterfly larvae. Yes, there is much to appreciate about this common cactus, its dramatic colors, its diverse and frequently comical shapes, its intriguing, sometimes inspiring patterns: as long as we don’t allow its alluring flowers to draw us too close.

Download beautiful pdf of this essay here.

© Jerry Melaragno 2011

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