Cactus, Prickly Pear - Opuntia polycantha

(Plains Pricklypear, Hairspine Cactus, Panhandle Pricklypear, Starvation Pricklypear)

Family: Cactus (Cactaceae) - Native

Past bridge #16 near Visitor Center parking lot (N35D32'58.452 X W105D41'10.847)

Flowers first observed: 6/7/17

Plant w/Flowers

The Flower



"It is native to North America, where it is widespread in Western Canada, the Great Plains, the central and Western United States, and Chihuahua in northern Mexico." (Wikipedia)


"This prickly-pear cactus forms dense thickets 8 ft. across and up to 8 ft. tall, though usually shorter. Common to abundant in abandoned pastures and old fields on stony soil. Forms low patches of flat joints,  stem segments, or horizontal lines of 3 or more joints standing on edge, some tinged reddish purple in winter. Spines of 2 kinds: one kind 1/2 to 2 inches long and single, or 2 or 4 together, gray to brown or yellowish, sometimes pointing downward, and the other kind minute ones in dense  oval clusters from which the long spines arise. Flowers showy, yellow, often with a red center, up to 3 inches wide, opening in April and May.  Fruit fleshy, up to 2 1/4 inches long, purplish, flattened to concave at the  apex, tapering to the base. 

The Desert Prickly-pear is an erect or sprawling  shrub with fleshy  fruit and brown to black spines. This species has a very wide range, and up to ten or more varieties have been described, making exact identification confusing. Usually the varieties are distinguished by pad size,  spine distribution on the pad,  spine color and size, and  fruit length. The Desert Prickly-pear has adapted to both the deserts of Texas and the cool moist forests of the Rocky Mountains. It blooms from April to June." (

Ethnobotanical Uses


"Prickly-pear cacti were widely used for food, though the fruits of these species are smaller and less fleshy than those of their southern relatives. The flavor ranges from bland to sweet to sour and has been likened (at best) to sweet pomegranates. Spines were peeled off, burned or, picked off (with fingers protected by deerskin tips), or removed by sweeping piles of fruit with sagebrush branches. The fruits were then split to remove the seeds and eaten raw (alone or with other fruits), cooked in stews and soups as a thickener, or dried for later use. --- Dried seeds were added to soups and stews or were ground into flour and used as a thickener. Raw cactus stems have been likened to cucumber, but they were usually eaten only when there was a shortage of food. Young segments were boiled and peeled to remove their spines, and the pulpy flesh was fried. Cactus stems have also been pickled or candied."(Kershaw 142-3)

"To enjoy the so-called Indian fig, cut off the ends of these fruits of the prickly pear, slice the hide lengthwise, and scoop out the pulp. Either that, or peel them. A few species, though, are smooth, while others are covered only with bristles that can be easily scraped away as with a bunched handfull of grass. Pleasant raw, the ripe fruit can also be turned into candy or jelly.

The dried seeds are sometimes ground into flour or used to thicken soups. The newer, tenderer pads in particular are sweetly edible once they have been despined when necessary. Sliced, boiled, or roasted, and seasoned, they have proved to be valuable greens in lean times. Although this can be further cooked until it is a rich, dark, highly nutritious paste, some say it is at its best while still a sauce if first allowed to ferment slightly. They also make an interesting pickle.

A bitterish and somewhat sticky juice can be pressed or sucked from the insides of these prickly pear stems and used as emergency water." (Angier 178)

Recipe 1: Grilled Nopale Salsa

(To harvest the fruit or pad, use a sharp knife and make a clean slice about 1" above where it attached to the pad below. Carefully peel the outer layer off the fleshy interior by making one cut down the length and then removing strips of skin with a sharp knife. It is advisable to wear thick protective gloves. To harvest the pads you must remove the small spines, or glochids. The skin can be stripped or left on. Spines can also be scrubbed off with a stiff brush, burned off, or rolled in sand to remove.)

"Remove prickly skins as directed above. Lightly coat inner flesh with oil. Grill gently until just browned. Remove from heat and dice. Combine with equal parts diced, raw tomatoes. Add chopped onion, chopped garlic, and plenty of fresh-squeezed lime juice. Salt and pepper to taste. Serve with grilled chicken or organic corn chips." (Morgan 135)

Recipe 2: Tuna Fruit Salad (the fruit are sometimes called tuna)

"Prepare fruit by stripping the skin as described above. Cut into quarters or, if very large fruits, bite-size pieces. Prepare 2 cups of the cactus fruit. Prepare 1 cup sliced bananas. Squeeze fresh lime juice over the bananas, and toss together gently. Slice enough peaches to make 1 cup. Combine all fruit, and toss gently. Top with pine nuts; serve at room temperature." (Morgan 135)

Recipe 3: Prickly Pear Juice

"Harvest several fruits. Slice them in half. Using a spoon, remove the seeds and then scoop out the fleshy centers. Place 2 cups fruit in a blender with 1 cup water. Blend on medium speed until pulverized. Enjoy as is, or combine with sparkling water to make a spritzer" (Morgan 136)


"The peeled mucilaginous stems were used for dressing wounds or were mashed and placed on aching backs. Stems were also boiled to make a medicinal drink for relieving diarrhea and lung problems and for treating people who could not urinate.

Split stems were placed in containers of muddy water, where they exuded large amounts of mucilage, which cleared the water and made it drinkable.

Freshly peeled stems were sometimes rubbed over painted hides to fix the colors." (Kershaw 142-3)

Other Uses:

"--- at Zuni (Pueblo) the prickly pear fruit may be dried, ground, and dissolved in water with a chunk of dried beeplant to make dye. The mixture creates a reddish shoe polishlike substance that has been used on moccasins. This same prickly pear beeplant combination has also been used to dye thread or weaving fiber." (Dunmire and Tierney 190)

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